Ian Herbert*

Divadlo Festival, Pilsen, September 2017

It is five years since I last visited the Divadlo festival in Pilsen (https://www.critical-stages.org/9/everything-and-the-kitchen-sink/), in which time the city—and the festival—has seen some big changes. As one of Europe’s capitals of culture in 2015, it was able to realize a number of ambitious projects, including the opening of a brand new city theatre and the development of the arts space Depot15 from the city’s old tramshed. Both of these, along with the young people’s Theatre Alfa and the grand J K Tyl opera house, were in full use during the five principal days of this year’s festival, with the theatres’ support teams working their usual wonders to deliver some technically very complicated shows. The only sad loss is the old Chamber Theatre, which, with its two performing spaces and—crucially—large subsidized bar for performers and festival guests, had been Divadlo’s focal point.

In its twenty-fifth anniversary year, the festival’s other focal point remained, in the shape of Jan Burian, no longer director of the city’s theatres but still in charge of the festival, alongside his role as Director of the National Theatre in Prague. Together with festival producer Zdenek Panek and a lively, long-serving board, Burian put together yet another fascinating collection of productions, combining the best of recent Czech theatre with a selection of shows from the other Visegrad countries (Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) that ranged from the brilliant to the bloody awful.

Tamás Keresztes as Gogol’s madman in the versatile set designed by the actor himself. Photo by Attila Takács

It was Hungary, or at least the Hungarian language, that supplied two festival highlights, beginning with the Katona Jozsef theatre’s Diary of a Madman, Gogol’s searing account of one man’s descent into delirium. As the play’s single character, Tamas Keresztes gives what can only be described as a total tour de force. As important to the production as his acting is the set, also credited to Keresztes, which develops a claustrophobic character of its own as it moves in different dimensions and supplies the ideal, detailed visual background to the poor creature who inhabits it. Keresztes is famed for his performance in the Kafka adaptation Rattled and Disappeared, and it is its outstanding director, Viktor Bodo, who has worked with him again to produce another masterpiece.

The aspiring writer (Barna Bányai Kelemen) of Tranquility saved Eszter (Bora Kiss) before she jumped from a bridge. The writer’s mother (Erzsébet B. Fülop) haunts their relationship just as she haunts her apartment. Photo by Zoltan Rab

The second, performed in Hungarian but originating with the National Theatre in the Romanian city of Targu Mures, was Radu Afrim’s three-hour, interval-free adaptation of Attila Bartis’s novel Klid (Tranquility). Afrim’s freewheeling, musically talented company made the most of its opportunities to create the world of the play’s central, possibly autobiographical figure, as he struggles with a series of relationships while caring for his increasingly demented mother, formerly a leading actress (a richly detailed rendering by Erszebet B. Fülop). They do so with the aid of a fine set by Adrian Damian, which excavates a water-surrounded island of relative calm (tranquility?) in the centre of the chaotic apartment in which most of the action takes place.

Katarzyna Kalwat’s cast play fruitlessly with the life and work of Tomasz Sikorski in
TR Warszawa’s Holzwege. Photo by Anna Tomzynska

Two Polish contributions, much admired in their country of origin, could not stand comparison with these world-class performances. Holzwege (“Blind Alley”) is a work by the Polish minimalist composer Tomasz Sikorski, and also the title of the first, an investigation of his life, and more closely his death, by four performers directed by Katarzyna Kalwat for Grzegorz Jarzyna’s TR Warszawa. It could charitably be described as a work in progress, for its long and shapeless meanderings consist of three actors hypothesizing endlessly about Sikorski’s passing, before digressing into their own ideas of what art is all about. They are accompanied by his composer friend, Zygmund Krause, a bewildered spectator who occasionally helps the woolly narrative with evidence from Sikorski’s life as he knew it. He finally sits down to play one of Sikorski’s compositions in a cathartic ending which is in no way justified by the farrago that has preceded it.

Dorota Nawrot’s set contributes little to All About My Mother—the cast struggle with a piece
of directorial self-indulgence. Photo by Klaudyna Schubert

All About My Mother, the second, came from the Laznia Nova company of Cracow. In truth, it is not all about mothers. It is all about the director, the promising Michal Borzchuch, and his leading actor, Krzysztof Zarzecki, both of whom happen to have lost their mothers to cancer. And it is so messy, so self-indulgent, so unfocused that it does no favors to the pair or their unfortunate mothers.

The best-selling author (Ivan Trojan, seen in the portrait on the back wall) only overcomes his writer’s block by writing on the body of his editor (Martha Issová), which forces the director of the publishing house (Václav Neužil) into some close reading in Resurrection. Photo by Milan Chrdle

It is a relief to turn to the Czech productions, all interesting and some of them first class, in which category we can certainly place the Slovak director Michal Vajdicka’s staging of Resurrection, devised by the actors of the Dejvice Theatre. Pavil Andrasko’s book-lined set doubles as a New York publisher’s office and a psychiatrist’s consulting room, where a spiraling series of farcical events keeps the audience laughing almost continuously, while allowing them time to contemplate the existence of God and the workings of chance through coincidence.

In The Wild Duck, a confrontation between father Werle (Kostas Zerdaloglu, left) and his son Gregers (Michael Čapka, right) has driven both the Ekdal family and their downstairs neighbours to the balcony. Photo by Roman Polášek

Two views of Ibsen also made us think. In David Siktanc’s production of The Wild Duck for Arena Theatre, Ostrava, it was a question of whether this was the abject amateur show that it appeared to be, or a clever postmodern deconstruction. Its set, straight from Ikea and still sporting the price tags, together with much of the acting and some dodgy wigs, suggested the former, yet the endearing honesty of Zuzana Truplova as the unfortunate young Hedwig might lead one to think otherwise. No such doubts about the intentions of Jan Nebesky’s Nora, a version of Doll’s House for the Pod Palmovkou theatre, Prague. I have hated previous, over-the-top Ibsen stagings by this director, but, in this, present-day adaptation, he shows a discipline and a love for the play that quite won me over, due, in large part, to the stunning, layered performance of Tereza Dockalova in the title role. Even such Nebesky-esque moments as the return of Dr Rank from the party on a tightrope, or the final minutes, in which Nora and Torvald resort to grand opera to declaim their feelings, could not dispel a warm sense of fulfillment about the production in toto.

Nora’s (Tereza Dočkalová) shopping bags do not impress Kristine, while Torvald (Jan Teplý) gets dressed
in the background after his workout with Rank. Photo by Martin Špelda

Space does not allow me to do more than mention other Czech contributions, such as the charming table-top ingenuity of the Naive Theatre of Liberec in There Are Places the Dark Likes, Where Never and Nothing Hide on Islands Remote—a long title for a simple and direct experience. Olga, Horror Stories from Hradecek, presented by the independent Leti Theatre from Prague, was not the gorefest its title implies but a subtle, gentle portrait of Olga Havlova, first wife of the country’s playwright President. Pavlina Storkova plays her as the still centre of a patchwork of scenes from her life, real and imagined. Prague’s Theatre in Dlouha brought Refugee Conversations, Brecht’s picture of two elderly gents in discussion, interrupted, for no obvious reason, by half a dozen actors and a five-piece band giving us the Tiger Lillies’ back catalogue. I could happily have made do with the Tiger Lillies.

Olga Havlová (Pavlina Štorková) looks on as her husband Václav and their friends promote the dissident cause in
Olga, Horror Stories from Hrádaček. Photo by Alexandr Hudeček

The grand finale of Divadlo saw the Belgian company Das Fraulein in Tristesse, a hit in Avignon. This technically brilliant but morally unfathomable piece about the impact of right-wing populism on a small Danish island community, which saw almost all the participants shoot one another in a bloody finale, won respect for its clever integration of live and filmed action, but not complete acclaim.

The film star Lida Baarová (Alžbeta Bartošová) and the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Petr Jeništa) sing about mutual love in Liduschka the musical. Photo by Pavel Křivánek

I hope there is room to salute a production by the resident Pilsen company, presented outside the festival but well worthy of inclusion. Liduschka (Baarova) is the true story of a Czech actress who went to Hitler’s Berlin to find film fame, became the mistress of Goebbels and returned after the war to opprobrium and prison at home. It is but one of a number of recent Czech productions which have examined, usually painfully, the country’s role under first Nazism, then Communism. The difference here is that Liduschka is an all-out musical, which not only shows off the possibilities of the new Pilsen theatre’s stage, one of the most sophisticated in Europe, but demands attention both as a fine example of the genre (music by Ales Brezina, book by Karel Steigerwald) and as a serious contribution to historical debate. (Not all serious—the song in which Goebbels describes in far too much sexual detail his relationship with Lidushka is a filthy delight.) Apart from some of the worst Springtime for Hitler costumes one could bear to see, the show is a success at every level.

*Ian Herbert is now consultant editor of Theatre Record, which he edited and published from 1981 to 2003. He edited the technical journal Sideline, 1984-91. He writes regularly for theatre journals worldwide, including a fortnightly column in The Stage newspaper. President 2001-2008 of IATC, 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 in the Critics’ Circle. He is a visiting professor of three US universities and has lectured in many countries of the world.

Copyright © 2017 Ian Herbert
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Czech Theatre Holds Up Well Against Some Mixed International Competition
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