The Divadlo Festival in Plzen, Czech Republic, September 2013.
Suppliers of bathroom and kitchen equipment were kept busy in Pilsen at the 20th international festival of theatre, Divadlo. I counted two saunas, two baths and two fully fitted kitchens being put to greater or lesser use by groups from Hungary, Russia and of course the Czech Republic, the host country. Blaho Uhlar from Slovakia even took us to his shower room and toilet in a curious film, Pokus (The Attempt), which justified its presence in a theatre festival by adding three live actors, sitting under a shiny duvet, who very occasionally mouthed the words being uttered by characters on screen.
Uhlar was one of the pioneers of Slovak alternative theatre with his group Stoka (The Sewer), which lost its thriving fringe theatre space in 2006 and has more or less disbanded since. In his film Uhlar comes across as an unreformed enfant terrible, even at sixty. He interviews historic figures from Slovak theatre, showing their work and his own in splendidly wooden archive newsreels; conducts a tour of lost Slovak theatre spaces (including Stoka); and moans about the current state of the arts—and more particularly arts subsidy—in his country. But most of the film shows him, usually naked, in his flat, wrestling with the techniques of film editing, showering, peeing, masturbating and worrying about the lack of spirituality in the world. Unfortunately, the net result of these musings is not the incisively political art movie that Uhlar presumably intended, but the ramblings of an embittered old wanker.
Some established Czech reputations took a battering this year, too. Last year Jan Antonin Pitinski, whom I rate as one of the country’s best directors, came up with a tiresome piece of folk theatre. This year he fared little better with a production of a children’s play, Prince Bhadra and Princess Vasantasena, adapted from an Indian tale and energetically performed by the company of Pilsen’s thriving children’s theatre, Theatre Alfa. Presumably it was the director’s decision that the story should appear to be performed by the members of a present day basketball club, a ruse that cut off any criticism of the team’s attempts at genuine Indian movement. In fact the movement was one of the more acceptable elements of this transition–some audiences would be unhappy with the decision to make up the ‘Prince’ in blackface.
The Klipcera Theatre in Hradec Kralove is one of the country’s most successful civic theatres, with a very high number of subscribers. It was much praised for Daniel Spinar’s production of The Beggar’s Opera, for reasons I fail to understand. This is neither John Gay’s louche original, nor Bertolt Brecht’s cynical remake, but a version by Vaclav Havel that was first performed clandestinely, then put away in a drawer–for good reason, I would suggest. It has none of the panache of its predecessors, substituting a few desultory standard songs and some interminable moral dialogues for their music-fuelled action. It’s possible that the production suffered from not being able to reproduce its original staging: in Pilsen it all took place on an elegant nightclub set (featuring a fishtank the size of a bathtub) that gave little context to the many scenes set elsewhere. Some competent performances from its large cast could not avert boredom, nor hide the curious holes in Havel’s plot.
The musical component of two other shows was at least original: composer Milos Orson Stedron accompanied his Gocar Theatre at the piano, with help from sax and percussion. His actors portrayed the friendly rivalry between three leading Czech architects of the early twentieth century (including the eponymous Gocar), with a female singer to add variety. Their work was shown by a few cardboard models, and it’s quite possible that their discussion of them was a significant contribution to Czech architectural history. What the uninitiated spectator got was some friendly but not very interesting interplay between the architects, backed by a series of amiable enough songs, casually delivered in a sloppy cabaret-style production with little sense of structure or direction.
A similar lack of direction was evident, though less of a burden, in the other musical, Cabaret Shakespeare, coincidentally the work of the same director, Jan Nebesky. Nebesky was behind no fewer than three of the shows in this year’s festival, but would probably want to be judged on the most ambitious of them, Little Eyolf, produced by the usually reliable Theatre on Dlouha of Prague. He was also responsible for the set, with Jana Prekova, who did the costumes. Like everything about this production, they were wildly over the top. The glass-enclosed set featured a working sauna/bathroom, together with a fully functioning kitchen beside a chic modern living area. Around this, enough decking to cater for the play’s outdoor scenes.
In this exaggerated bubble of a living space the unfortunate Allmers family live their lives in a constant state of high hysteria, in which incidental events like the death of little Eyolf hardly break the already turbulent surface. Riita Allmers, in a succession of ridiculous wigs and unbecoming costumes, chops vegetables with passionate fury and scant regard for where they land. Husband Alfred shouts most of the time, whether regretting the lack of passion in his marriage or rekindling the incestuous past he shared with half-sister Asta, an obsessive who can do little more than sweep up the family mess, literally rather than figuratively. The Rat Wife plays the saxophone and falls out of an exotic dress of feathers–at least she carries a charming, well-schooled dog. And the unfortunate engineer, Borgheim, wanders bemused through the wreckage of this oh-so-dysfunctional family. Nebesky has apparently directed some valuable Ibsen revivals in the past, but here he just seems to be showing off under the perverse influence of Thomas Ostermeier. His trendy interpretation certainly brings out some of the erotic and emotional undertones that Ibsen preferred to keep as subtle, guilty hints. This may help the less sophisticated theatregoer, but for anyone of average intelligence it is somewhat insulting.
It so happens that an actual Ostermeier take on Nordic angst was the closing event of this year’s festival–his fashionably ‘contemporary’ Miss Julie, produced for the State Theatre of Nations in Moscow in an adaptation by Mikhail Durnenkov. In yet another display of working kitchen equipment, we quickly realise that Kristina is a far better cook than Riita Allmers, as she methodically goes about preparing a chicken stew. It’s not difficult, either, to see this Jan as a good chauffeur who cares more than anything about his vehicle, and this Julie as a spoilt Moscow airhead in the obligatory fuck-me shoes. This makes for a fair commentary on the class divisions of today’s Russia, but when it comes to Strindberg’s other theme, the power of animal passion, these actors, reputedly among Moscow’s finest, remain stubbornly earthbound. Admittedly there are some powerful moments of violence, such as when Jan shuts Julie in the kitchen deep-freeze. The equivalent of the canary-strangling in the original is also a moment of genuine horror. But the ebb and flow of power in Strindberg’s short, sharp Midsummer Eve, here transposed to New Year’s Eve to allow for a kitschy continuous snowfall, is simply not there. Protracted sequences of cooking, heightened by on-screen close-ups of the work surface, are as clever and as meaningless as the steady rotation of the stage, and the noisy, over-long incursion of the revellers only prompts questions like ‘Who invited them?’ ‘How will they get home?’ and above all ‘Are Jan and Julie really at it upstairs while all this racket is going on?’. It doesn’t really show in their body language when they return.
It’s sad to see good Czech directors succumbing, with little success, to the influence of their fashionable European colleagues. Last year we had Jan Mikulasek, of the Reduta in Brno, trying to do a Marthaler with a messy sequence of random acts in Europeana. This year, nothing daunted, he has done the same again in Bourgeoisie, a Reduta creation which he has revived with some of the same cast to celebrate his move to run the celebrated Divadlo na Zabradli, Prague’s Theatre on the Balustrade. Very loosely based on Bunuel’s film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, it’s the same recipe again: a bunch of well-dressed actors indulging in a disconnected series of mildly comic, often highly offensive actions. A fiancé pours his girlfriend a glass of wine before producing the ring, then forces the rest of the bottle down her protesting throat; a group of waiters preparing a banquet turn it into a manic food fight; the guests find and consume some unlikely delicacies, from shoes and clothing to bodily waste of all kinds. Yes, the bourgeoisie can be disgusting, and yes, the bourgeois audience in Pilsen lapped up this crap without complaint. How much more acute is the criticism in Jacques Brel’s song ‘Les Bourgeois’, which Mikulasek had the temerity to include in his soundtrack to this farrago. He is capable of far better than this, and I still look forward to seeing what he can do to revive the fortunes of Na Zabradli.
A highlight of the festival was the visit of leading Polish director Jan Klata, with his production for Wroclaw’s Theatre Polski, A Piece on Mother and the Fatherland, which I had seen and admired previously in Warsaw. Springing from a memoir by a holocaust survivor, in Klata’s hands it becomes a freewheeling examination of mother-daughter relationships sung, danced and acted out brilliantly by a cast of five actresses and one man in drag.
The Czechs and Slovaks have an ongoing thread in their current theatre in which they examine some of the painful events of their past, first under Nazi occupation and subsequently under the Stalinist heel. Arena Theatre from Bratislava brought Holocaust, based on the memoirs of a kindertransport survivor, while the Czech contribution was from another Arena Theatre, that in Ostrava. With or Without Hope is a strongly felt play by Tomas Vujtek based on another memoir, that of the widow of Rudolf Slansky, communist party general secretary and the victim of a 1950s show trial. Director Ivan Krejki chose to stage it as a kind of grand guignol, with Alena Sasinova-Polarczik giving a fine and contrasting performance as the still centre of this grisly charade, Josefa Slanska. It is poignant, and perhaps disturbing to present-day Czechs, to hear this stubborn woman still proclaiming her allegiance to Communism after suffering some of its worst horrors.
No Divadlo festival would be complete without a bunch of Czech actors getting their teeth into a saga of peasant life, often with a healthy sprinkling of irony. The Pilsen theatre’s new young artistic director, Natalia Deakova, chose to play it straight with an adaptation of a popular film, Sekal Must Die. Though it is set in the time of the Nazi occupation, we never see the oppressors, only their representative, the village blackmailer Sekal. It’s a strong story, which gives a good opportunity for the senior members of the Pilsen acting company to strut their stuff, but its transition from screen to stage is not really a very comfortable one, in spite of Ms Deakova’s use of many ruses to enliven it. The constant rearrangement of an armada of chairs on the theatre’s revolving stage hardly helped to put some pace into a desperately slow-moving production, which nonetheless succeeded in creating the atmosphere of a community, powerless in the face of brutal menace, that pervades the story.
A much more imaginative study of rural life came in Alvis Hermanis’s delightful concoction for his New Riga Theatre, Black Milk. One wouldn’t normally expect to derive much pleasure from a serious study of the decline of the Latvian dairy industry, but Hermanis, as he has shown in pieces like Long Life, can extract real theatrical excitement from the most banal of situations. Here he has five actresses in floral print dresses, with unfeasibly large padded breasts, portraying the cows that are the livelihood for Latvia’s small farmers, a livelihood increasingly threatened by the purchasing dominance of big store chains and the flight from the land that is characteristic not only of Latvia, but also of many European countries rich and poor.
The ‘cows’ are a delight as they nuzzle the farmer (the show’s one male actor), compete for the bull’s favours, run off into the forest or wait patiently for the inseminator. Just as in War Horse we quickly accept the puppet convention, here it takes only a few minutes to establish complete belief in these young women. Where Sekal demanded a plethora of props, Black Milk uses minimal resources–a few planks, a bucket or two, the odd chair–to produce its magic.
The Hungarian writer-director Bela Pinter has also explored country life to great effect in productions such as The Peasants’ Opera, but he has a darker side, previously evident in Queen of the Cookies, a harrowing study of child abuse. His offering for Pilsen this year, The 42nd Week, falls somewhere between these extremes–so full of incident is it that it would easily make a great TV series. He too uses minimal props, apart from a large sauna, to keep up the swift flow of his many scenes, recounting the rollercoaster emotional journey of an obstetrician (beautifully played by a great Hungarian actress, Eszter Csakanyi) through the 42 weeks of the title, the period from conception to birth. During that time she loses her husband, finds an energetic new lover and oversees the pregnancies of two very different clients. Pinter (who puts in an awkward cameo appearance himself) veers constantly between laughter and tears in a piece that cannot fail to move.
This rapid overview may seem hard on the Czech companies described so far. There were, however, three local performances deserving special praise, all of them from small groups, two of them featuring bathtubs.
Stepan Pacl’s production of Calderon’s The Constant Prince for his young company Masopust (Shrovetide) is one of those rare and wonderful events when a cast communicates directly with its audience. There were no surtitles for this show, yet without knowing Czech I found I understood completely what was going on throughout. Stripped down to a cast of seven and played on a bare plywood platform against a backdrop of plywood doors, the staging conveyed all of Calderon’s passion, violence and intrigue with the most minimal resources: the bath in front of the platform could be the invading fleet, or the scene for episodes of the very real torture undergone by some of the play’s participants. The big battle scenes were enacted by the opposing forces (a handful of actors) throwing themselves in turn against the plywood back wall. The result was stunning.
The other bathtub is used at the beginning of The Day of the Oprichnik, a chilling staging of Vladimir Sorokin’s novel that describes a Russia governed in the not too distant future by a ‘benevolent’ dictator whose will is imposed by his brutal Praetorian Guard, the Oprichniks. We witness a physical and vocal tour de force by Karel Dobry in the leading role, as he goes through his day, from a leisurely bath to a final deadly relaxation back in the same tub. Director Kamila Polivkova contributed the costumes to last year’s stand-out Divadlo production, an adaptation of Fassbinder’s Garbage, the City and Death. Here she supplies the set—that bathtub—and rather more crucially the masterly direction for Dobry’s performance. He occupies the stage alone, making regular incursions into the audience from whence he drags his victims: a young dissident made literally to eat his words; a woman brutalised and raped in that ever-present bathtub. Dobry’s enthusiastic delivery of Sorokin’s account of the Oprichniks in their pomp, intimately joined together in one huge sodomitic daisy chain, would not go down at all well with Russia’s present homophobic leader.
Czech audiences are notoriously kind. They will applaud the poorest of performances long and loud, and this generous trait was much in evidence in this year’s festival. On only one occasion did they rise to their feet for a spontaneous standing ovation, in which I was more than happy to join. This was for the two actors from Prague’s Ungelt Theatre, a commercial house, who performed Keith Huff’s A Steady Rain. The play was a success on Broadway when performed by Hugh Jackman and Daniel (James Bond) Craig, but I cannot imagine those fine actors giving better performances than those of Richard Krajko and David Svehlik, playing on an empty stage with only a couple of chairs and a revolver for props.
At first glance this is a run-of-the mill buddy show, with two Chicago cops getting their man in time-honoured TV fashion. Huff’s clever script makes it much more that: harsh reality in the mean streets and sleazy tenements of Chicago is created by the two protagonists slipping seamlessly in and out of character in what always and intentionally remains a piece of bare-boards theatre. Krajko’s motormouth Denny bounces off his calmer sidekick Joey, and Janusz Klimsa’s sure-footed direction brings out the gradual transference of power between the two men as we watch something that is much more than a cops-and-robbers story unfold to its bitter climax.
These three small-scale shows are an indicator of a change in Czech theatre which this Divadlo festival brought out well. While the larger houses seem to be in something of a limbo, searching for affirmation and identity (it may be significant that there was no production selected here from Prague’s National Theatre), there is a creative energy in smaller theatres and emerging companies that bodes well for the future. A problem that still needs to be addressed is the apparent absence of any strong voice among the republic’s playwrights. When a good new writer does arrive, there should be no shortage of good young directors to stage their work.
 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.