Men Punish Women in Pilsen

Matti Linnavuori*

Divadlo international theatre festival in Pilsen, Czech Republic, September 2019.

A significant part of the world lives in the age of #metoo, but this year’s Divadlo Festival in Pilsen seemed to dwell in a different era. Could it be that Divadlo is one lap ahead, or does the festival lag behind? No one interested in safeguarding their credibility would dare go against equality and diversity, so is the selection perhaps the blackest of jokes in an area where comedy is a rare guest? What is the soft underbelly of #metoo that Divadlo sees but I fail to perceive, even after watching these shows? I find it hard to believe that old plays about women being forced into marrying brutal men were emancipatory revelations to contemporary spectators. But perhaps they are: the selection came from Russia, Hungary, Poland and the host country, Czech Republic, all notorious lately for their mistrust of so-called European values.

Without a Dowry: The merchants look like caricatures of the bourgeoisie in the old Soviet press, with their overlong fur coats, limps, etc. Photo: Jaroslav Prokop

Or perhaps theatre’s cultural undercurrents do not travel all that well. I watched the first half of Dmitri Krymov’s staging of Without a Dowry, a Russian classic by Alexandr Ostrovsky (1878), and found the characters multi-dimensional if odd. For the second half, I resorted to the simultaneous English translation and thought the characters flat and their concerns trivial. In no way was this the fault of the interpreter; rather, it was a consequence of the different mind-sets of languages.

Krymov’s production came from Moscow as a joint project of the School of Dramatic Art and producer Leonid Roberman.

In Ostrovsky’s play, a young woman (Marija Smolnikova) is in love with a man who chooses a rich wife instead. The local rich merchants then toss a coin to decide which of them will get to enjoy the young woman. She dies. Delightfully, there are at least two characters who never utter a line, but hang around as human backdrops, parts of the social scenery. Less interestingly, characters often walk out of the back door only to continue their walk in a video projection on the back wall.

Cross by the Stream: Trapped in marriage. Actress Pavla Gajdošíková, set by Eva Jiřikovská. Photo: Dita Hromádková

Karolina Světlá’s 1868 classic Czech novel The Cross by the Stream was presented by the Slovácke Theatre from the town of Uherské Hradiště, in the Czech Republic. It is the story of Eva, who decides to marry into the Potocký family. Although the Potocký men are known for their maltreatment of women, Eva believes that her true love will overturn fate, and—lo and behold!—she gets to suffer accordingly. Martin Františák’s production presents the characters as archetypes. Pavla Gajdošiková is radiant as Eva, particularly considering that she rehearsed the part for Divadlo as a stand-in for its original performer, Klára Vojtková. The latter was nominated for the award of best actress of the year as Eva, whereas Ms Gajdošiková’s nomination came for her role in Maryša.

Maryša (Pavla Gajdošiková) is being dressed for her wedding. The dark figures of village women loom over her future. Photo: Anna Ritterová

Maryša, staged by the Petr Berzruč Theatre from the town of Ostrava, in the Czech Republic, was also shown at Divadlo. The play by Alois Mrštik is a Czech classic from 1894 and a steady favourite with audiences as well as festival juries.

Janka Ryšánek Schmiedtová’s production portrays a responsible and intelligent young woman, Maryša, who succumbs to pressure from her parents and from the community: her marriage to the miller is a mere business transaction as far as her father is concerned. But Maryša remains loyal to herself in rejecting offers of an escape, either with her true love or back to her parental home. When, in the end, Maryša takes control of not only her present but of her future—by poisoning her brute of a husband—the village women show anything but female solidarity: they silently condemn her, and here the story rises above sheer psychodrama.

Julie (Sára Venclovská) under the scrutiny of her husband Fernando Krapp. Moving chairs into different configurations on the tiny stage was the action part of the production. Photo: Jaroslav Prokop

Klicpera Theatre from the Czech town of Hradec Králové presented a play of German origin, Tankred Dorst’s Fernando Krapp Wrote Me This Letter. His 1992 play is based on a Spanish story from 1916. The Czech version was directed by Jan Holec. This is getting repetitive, but—the rich man buys the daughter of an impoverished man as his wife, only to endlessly torment her.

Sternenhoch: Helga (Vanda Šípová) gets whipped by Sternenhoch (Sergej Kostov). The opera is sung in Esperanto. Photo: Yuliya Herhalava

If this year’s Divadlo was a triumph for Pavla Gajdošiková, the same can be said for Ivan Acher, whose music was heard in many theatrical productions; for example, Angels in America and, most notably, in the opera Sternenhoch. It is based on a 1928 novel by the Czech author Ladislav Klíma. This time, the woman fights back. The eccentric nobleman Sternenhoch (Sergej Kostov) marries Helga (Vanda Šípová) and then proceeds to kill her, but she keeps resurrecting to launch demonic attempts on poor Sternenhoch’s life. Michal Dočekal’s direction for the Prague National Theatre employs and enjoys the grotesque to the fullest. The seven dancers, choreographed by Lenka Vagnerová, are a considerable asset in depicting all the twists.

Hard to Be a God: He (Roland Rába) marries the madam (Annamaría Láng) in the middle of a video shoot, where he has accidentally killed one of her prostitutes. Photo: Jaroslav Prokop

Narrative or poetic expressions aside, the Hungarian Proton Theatre’s Hard to Be a God is a full-frontal attack. The setting consists of two real trucks. In one, a madam (Annamária Láng) keeps her women. In the second, the women are being used for a porno video and another video meant to expose the wrongdoings of a politician. Commercial or idealistic purposes lead to the same result: the male video makers seriously damage the women’s health by, for instance, burying one alive or skinning one’s back and then pouring boiling water over it. This is shown on video on the side of the truck.

The show premiered in 2010, and I first saw it shortly afterwards. It was a disturbing experience then, and is even more so now, partly because of the documentary-type human trafficking storyline, but also because the production appears to handle its young actresses no differently. There is a frame story, where a god is told by his superior not to interfere in what men do, but, after witnessing atrocities for 90 minutes, the lesser god kills the men, and, for this, he evaporates in smoke; via video, the superior god is then seen silently drifting alone in a boat amongst reeds. I wonder if this is enough of a philosophy. The show strikes me now as both topical and outdated at the same time. However, I do not wish to contest the accuracy of the world view in Kornél Mundruczó’s production: evil is routinely being done to women. The production showed me that my avowed humanism is no more than a fig leaf, under which evil can go on with my passive consent.

Krystyna Janda and Janusz Bogacki’s band perform Notes from Exile. Photo: Katarzyna Kural-Sadowska

The Polish production Notes from Exile proves that my experiencing shock in theatre comes from contemplation, from inside, not from any smutty symbolism. And, this time, it is an entire state that persecutes, not a mere individual of no matter how satanic proportions. Sabina Baral was one of the 9,500 Jews expelled from communist Poland in 1968; her memoir was published in 2015. Magda Umer has directed the stage version, in which the actress Krystyna Janda calmly delivers the story of Ms Baral and her family. Ms Janda looms on the dimly-lit stage, but an extreme close-up of her face—as befits a renowned film actress—is superimposed on the transparent curtain. Every movement—a slight smile, one or two tears, a tiny trace of contempt toward the authorities—is fully visible. Anything more would be vulgar. Janda possesses a captivating stage authority. There can be no escape to sentimentality, not even during the poems she sings to the accompaniment of Janusz Bogacki’s small band, while archive photos of the expulsion and contemporary footage of far-right demonstrations are shown on the curtain.

Personas: The actresses of Na Zábradlí look teasingly like those of the 1966 Ingmar Bergman film. Alma (Jana Plodková) and Elisabeth Vogler (Magdaléna Sidonová). Photo: Anna Ritterová

Apart from Sternenhoch, the stylish relief was provided by Personas. Na Zábradlí Theatre’s production is based on four of Ingmar Bergman’s most anguish-filled films. Dora Viceníková’s dramaturgy and Jan Mikulášek’s direction is a balance act, where the absurd and the ordinary co-habit. The ensemble steps light-footedly through painful betrayals, divorces and separations—and that, of course, serves to emphasize life’s disasters.

More on Mundruczó

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*Matti Linnavuori wrote theatre criticism between 1978 and 2013 for various newspapers and weeklies in his native Finland. In 1985, he worked for the BBC World Service in London. Since 1998, he has presented papers at numerous IATC events. In the 2000s, he wrote for Teatra Vestnesis in Latvia. Since 1992, he has written and directed several radio plays for YLE the Finnish Broadcasting Company. In March 2016, his play Ta mig till er ledare (Take Me to Your Leader) premiered at Lilla Teatern in Helsinki.

Copyright © 2019 Matti Linnavuori
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