Nova Drama (New Drama) Festival, Bratislava 12-17 May, 2014.
What’s happened to sleepy Slovakia? Here’s their Nova Drama festival, the tenth, offering work that looks at political corruption by a global company, plus post-Communist angst, the drift from country to city, religious bloodshed, lost twenty-somethings, unfaithful thirty-somethings, Nazi war crimes, the unpunished role of Slovakia’s own secret police and the wretchedness of emigration. Not a boulevard comedy in sight, but a mixed bag of scenography, plenty of assertive direction and rather a lot of microphones.
The Slovak National Theatre kicked off with Carpathian Thriller, directed by artistic director Roman Polak. Its author, Eugen Grindl, bases it loosely on his thwarted attempts in the late nineties to publicise the corrupt activities in Slovakia of the industrial giant Siemens. In his fictional version, a woman journalist turned advertising agent buckles under the might of the sinister ‘S’ when a company mole encourages her to make a TV documentary exposing them. The documentary is pulled when ‘S’ threatens to withdraw its advertising, while our heroine suffers on a personal level as her lesbian lover is beaten up. What could have been a gripping drama (or a strong TV documentary) is let down by some poor sets, perfunctory costumes and not especially distinguished acting, with ‘theatrical’ intrusions from characters such as Hamlet’s gravedigger and a Deus ex Machina that detract from the play’s gritty thesis. That Slovak politicians on both sides were complicit in a still little-explored scandal made this the most talked about play in Bratislava last year, but the talk was more about its content than its rather flimsy staging.
Aquabelles, directed by Rastislav Ballek for the Slovak Chamber Theatre in Martin, is a popular ten year old play by the Czech David Drabek, in which three dispirited thirty-somethings find solace in practicing synchronised swimming. Their separate descents into suicide, alcoholism and career self-destruction lead to surreal final scenes which abandon the text’s already tenuous grip on realism. The main attraction of Ballek’s production lies in his solution to the swimming scenes, brought off by a simple yet effective set from veteran maestro Josef Ciller.
No attempt at realism in Mikulas Hoblina Sahansky’s The Land of Unscythed Meadows, a surreal debut piece in which three downtrodden sisters explore their relationship with a man who may be their father. Deep down, the play seems to be a lament for traditional Slovak values. Lack of budget (the semi-professional company, Poton, is based in a small village) produced an imaginative solution to the work’s big scenic demands, with the players performing in front of a projected setting, duplicated on a screen beside it, where the on-stage technical team were able to add miniature snowstorms and other effects.
The State Theatre Kosice brought in Polish director Agnieszka Olsten to work on Karol Horak’s Evidence of Blood, originally a dramatic essay on the martyrdom in the city in 1619 of three Jesuit priests. Olsten let her actors loose on it, jettisoning the text in favour of a noisy and blood-soaked improvised demonstration of present day religious intolerance. It’s easy to dismiss the result as fashionable Polish overkill, but it certainly brought out the best in the local cast, aided by an excellent two-level set by Tom Ciller, son of Josef, who on this occasion can be said to have excelled his distinguished father.
A very silly, unforgiving set and some even sillier costumes let down the Presov National Theatre’s debut production of Michaela Zakutanska’s Single Radicals. Behind them one could pick out a funny, sensitive and unpretentiously direct examination of the self-indulgent, painfully empty lives of so many educated twenty-somethings, who see nothing in life beyond the clubbers’ Friday night ritual of drinking themselves into an amnesiac enough state to shag the nearest member of the opposite sex still standing.
The only ‘traditional’ production in the festival was one of the most satisfying: Astorka Korzo theatre’s mature actors had a ball with The Comet, by Justine del Corte (who happens to be Mrs Roland Schimmelpennink). The lost hopes and failed affairs that are gathering resonance in both Aquabelles andSingle Radicals reached their apogee here in a play which has to be labelled Chekhovian – insistently tragic in the events it depicts, as a young woman tries to restage her wedding reception ten years after, but constantly, irresistibly funny.
In Interior of the Interior, SkRAT theatre offered two short plays for the price of one. The first, based on seedy reconstructions and grainy archive film, looked at the morally dubious everyday life of a group of secret policemen. The second used Hamlet’s play within a play to give a metatheatrical frame to the story of an underground priest (and double agent) who is to this day alleged to have committed suicide. Grotesque figures move bloodstained trolleys about as we learn something of the threats, imprisonment and in one case probable murder which greeted those attempting to uncover the truth in post-Communist years. SkRAT’s piece forcefully exposed the country’s continuing silence and lack of action against a group who were revealed in Carpathian Thriller as a major player in the Slovak economy today, but it did so without much dramatic excitement.
In the third of the festival’s documentaries, Nostalgia, author Iveta Horvathova used interviews across several generations to address the theme of emigration, forced and voluntary, which has affected so many Slovak families. Pavel Andrasko’s attractive minimalist set made the transitions between scenes and periods easy, yet the production, directed by Marian Pecko with a hardworking cast of (live) actors from the Puppet Theatre on the Crossroads, Banska Bystrica, seemed to have too many awkward fits and starts for its own good.
The stand-out production of this Slovak festival was a German play, superbly directed and designed by a Czech, but delivered with great elegance by the company of the Slovak National Theatre: Elfriede Jelinek’s Rechnitz – The Exterminating Angel. To quote from the international jury’s citation:
‘We give the Grand Prix to a production which satisfied us completely on a remarkable number of levels: it gave visual pleasure through its elegant scenography and creative use of a conventional space; it featured mature and sensitive acting from a well organised company; it was directed with a skill and attention to the text that not only faithfully brought out the author’s original intentions but also added a coherent style and an extra richness of its own … It took a text which does not name those who are delivering it, and gave each of the anonymous speakers a character, with their own clear relationships. This elevated the text beyond a stark poetic reflection to create a tale told by a typical, believable European family, pointing the author’s accusing finger even more sharply towards their country’s refusal to come to terms with a deeply guilty past.
Even more significantly, in addressing in direct but utterly discreet visual images the ‘banality of evil’ of which Hannah Arendt has written so eloquently, the production unflinchingly showed us a true historic atrocity in a manner which succeeded, without any sensationalism, in conveying a real feeling in its audience for the awfulness of both what was done and what was concealed. Disturbingly, we were made to feel our own complicity in what was shown on stage.’
 Ian Herbert is now consultant editor of Theatre Record, which he edited and published from 1981-2003. He edited the technical journal Sightline, 1984-91. He writes regularly for theatre journals worldwide, including a fortnightly column inThe Stage newspaper. President 2001-2008 of the International Association of Theatre Critics, he is now an Honorary President. A board member of the Europe Theatre Prize, he is also past Chairman of the Society for Theatre Research in London and a trustee of the Critics’ Circle. He is a visiting professor of three US universities and has lectured in many countries of the world.