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The Estonian cultural festival showcasing free speech theatre

A performance of 'Choose a Better Version' by Natalka Blok being performed at the Freedom Festival, August 2023.
A performance of 'Choose a Better Version' by Natalka Blok being performed at the Freedom Festival, August 2023. Copyright Euronews
Copyright Euronews
By Euronews
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A theatre festival in the Estonian border city of Narva is showcasing the contemporary issue of free speech with participating countries from Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Ukraine.

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If you're going to organise a cultural festival on the theme of free speech then Narva is as good a city as any to host the event.

Narva lies on Estonia's border with Russia and is, in a sense, a frontier between two civilisations with widely differing views on just how 'free' speech should be.

There was no such freedom of expression in the former Soviet Union, which included the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, and Russia has become increasingly restrictive, especially after its illegal invasion of Ukraine. 

The Freedom Festival programme includes small theatres from countries where there are serious problems with freedom of speech and where in recent years theatre makers have been exposed to censorship that restricts creative activity.

The organisers - Vaba Lava - invited theatres from Ukraine and Central Asia that all experienced the impact of the collapsing Russian empire. The co-production of Vaba Lava (Estonia) and Theatre of Playwrights (Ukraine) premiered in Narva on 15th August.

'Choose a Better Version', a play by Natalka Blok, is one of the plays resulting from the co-production and premiered at the festival on 15 August. 

Based on true stories from herself and her friends, Blok tells about the choices people have had to make today in Ukraine.

“My main message is that this choice wouldn't have to be made if Russia did not come to kill and annihilate us," explained Natalka. "There could not be a good choice in these conditions. So what we're doing is like 'choice without choice' and each of us has to choose for ourselves."

The actors and production team are all still living in Ukraine,  where Latvian director Valters Silins had to travel during rehearsals.

 “We had to interrupt the rehearsal because of rocket attacks and go to shelter," said Natalka. "It was important for the director to understand the whole context.”

Being in Narva is a strange experience for Natalka. She hasn’t been so close to Russia for two years.

“I don’t even understand why there is a bridge," she said, "there are no tanks driving on the bridge.”

Euronews
Narva is on the Estonian-Russian border and has two castles - one on each side of the frontier, which is marked by the Narva RiverEuronews

 “Narva is on the border," explained Allan Kaldoja of the organisers Vaba Laba. "The two castles are here not by accident. It’s not a fairytale. The two castles show that two powers meet here. If we are not here, then the other power is - that is the Russian empire.”

Through the festival, Vaba Lava is offering theatres from regions of authoritarian rule a chance to experience freedom and the audiences in the West a peek into the theatre world hidden behind the effective 'iron curtain' of more controlled regimes. 

During the five-day event, underground theatres from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan will perform in Narva.

 “Central Asia, Ukraine and Estonia - we are all dealing with the impact of the disintegrating Russian empire," said Allan Kaldoja.

If there are brave people in these societies who dare to stand up for human rights and freedom, then Narva is exactly the right place to appreciate them,” he added. 

Natalka Blok maintains that during wartime (Ukraine) there is an even stronger need for theatre. She says that when people experience bombing and brutality in their daily lives, there is no way to process it. 

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“Theatre offers a possibility for reflection and psychotherapy, also for myself,” she explained.

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