Slovakia reaches out to the Universe

Matti Linnavuori*

New Drama, Nová drama, online from Slovakia, Oct 11–24, 2021

Most of the nine productions of Slovakia’s New Drama event had premiered before the pandemic. For me, however, watching them online meant a return to the theatre after a long hiatus. A distance has grown between theatre and my tentative attempts to grasp it.

When based on just one festival, generalisations about a country’s theatre and, indeed, about its cultural climate, are embarrassing and yet tempting. Operating on such a meagre context is irresponsible, particularly when the critic originates from an equally small country, in full knowledge of how much small nations wish to be perceived as independent cultural agents and not as vehicles for a single idea.

In The Grimless Reaper, the universe hangs over a statuesque vortex-embrace, which conceals Death

New Slovak stage texts and performances boldly reach out to the universe. This applies to set design as well as language with its almost endless cascades of philosophical imagery. Slovak viewers must be able to take in broad brushfuls of colourful metaphors; my intellectual fuel barely took me to the edge of their galaxies.

The other side of being universe-friendly is a lack of nationalism, so popular throughout the world in the last ten years. The shows do discuss issues which are of utmost concern to Slovakia and to Central Europe, but simultaneously they acknowledge a higher consciousness, which—even though taking place in Slovakia—does not exclude her fellow humans.

Stanislava Vlčeková whirls to her own choreography on the stage of Wow, designed by Ján Ptačin, amid a video by Alex Zelina, in a costume by Katarina Holková

This is particularly true of Green Drama, a special project of the New Drama. The festival invited Slovak playwrights to tackle environmental issues. Fifteen ambitious texts were printed both in Slovak and in English. The anthology was published during the pandemic. In order not to let the book be forgotten, the festival presented readings of extracts from these mainly dystopian and atmospheric texts. My favourite is Peter Janků’s Gold Rush, a piece of investigative journalism which asks Slovak politicians and industrialists why environmentally hazardous methods of gold mining are allowed in the country, when they are illegal in the neighbouring Czech Republic. Gabriela Alexová’s Nothing Against Bipeds is a comedy, in which a role reversal makes trees the responsible masterminds of the universe and humans their cute but reckless protégées.

Philosophical though they are, Slovak performances are in constant motion. Inventive physical activity fills the stage, and not only in dance pieces.

In her Masterpiece, Sláva Daubnerová addresses her lookalike-head at a Hamletian crossroads created by Milan Slama’s lighting design. Photo: Collavino

Sláva Daubnerová’s Masterpiece is her ninth and final solo performance. She now continues her art as director of opera and theatre as well as playwright, abroad and in Slovakia.

Daubnerová’s excellent homepage says that her earlier work showed female artists fulfilling their calling. Masterpiece is even more uncompromising, because Daubnerová does not employ a historic front but presents her true self, if you pardon my cliché. In Masterpiece, the female artist continues to wander in a maze of cultural-mythical references. It is a struggle to be able to communicate (to) oneself. The labyrinth is both visible and audible; visible in the lighting design of Milan Slama and audible in the voice-over (Michaela Vrábová), which quotes Marina Abramović and Michel Houellebecq, among others, on the harsh cost to personal life if an artist really commits herself to art. “The universe cries; the artist is universe.” Written down, this may call forth unintentionally comical connotations, but the seriousness of Daubnerová’s movements dismisses any such foolishness. The humour is more subtle, it is a balancing act between self-assertion and self-doubt. And in no way does it prepare me for what happens ten minutes before the end of the show: Daubnerová lip-syncs Madonna and confides in the audience that actually she is looking for a sophisticated non-smoking man in her life. Ironic perhaps, startlingly vulnerable definitely, but even more a testimony to her range as a performer, and to Masterpiece’s grip on what it means to co-exist with the universe.

Annemária Janeková climbs on to the stage murmuring Elfriede Jelinek’s words about Schubert’s Winterreise. Lighting design by Ján Ptačin. Photo: Radovan Dranga

Peter Mazalán’s production of Winterreise combines Franz Schubert’s song cycle (to Wilhelm Müller’s poems) with Elfriede Jelinek’s play of the same title (2011) in a concise dramatization by Miro Dacho.

At first, the director Mazalán sings the Schubert as if this were a recital. Well into the songs, two dedicated spectators push closer to the stage, where they soon climb on. The mother (Jana Ol’hová) tries to soothe and restrain her daughter (Annamária Janeková), who caresses the grand piano and whispers words like Schubert, piano, Winterreise as magical empowerment to herself. This happens under heavy stage smoke, which allows Ján Ptačin’s lighting design to make the situation truly magical for us spectators if not for the characters.

According to the Nová Dráma jury the daughter is autistic, but illness does not have to be the sole interpretation of her behaviour. She, like the speaker in Wilhelm Müller’s poems, is captive of an indefinite longing, anguishing over the lack of understanding which she feels toward herself and which the world shows toward her. Under this double burden, she has chosen music as her means of escape or solace. Annamária Janeková portrays all this delicately and intimately. Alas, the daughter cannot merge with music, but at least she is able to sweep the surface of the piano with her hand. She crawls to shelter under the piano, while the mother thinks aloud, in a calm voice, that it were best to confine the daughter to an institution rather than allow her stay at home behaving unpredictably.

A see-through tunnel/coffin, used here by Katarína Caková in The Emperor of America, is a recurrent feature in New Drama’s set designs. The characters are literally ploughing their way to their destinations. Photo: Radovan Dranga

The Emperor of America is a dramatization from the Austrian writer Martin Pollack’s account of how tens of thousands of Galicians emigrated to the United States in late nineteenth century (Kaiser von Amerika, 2010). It was dramatized by Marek Godović and directed by Iveta Ditte Jurčová as a co-production for Studio 12 and Pôtoň Theatre.

Poverty and antisemitism were reasons to leave. The topicality of the refugee theme is, of course, a constant undercurrent of the production. The story follows a brother and his sister on their separate voyages across the Atlantic, but the roles are not fixed to any one actor. I believe this indicates how refugees are perceived as non-individuals when they are so numerous.

Bitter experience teaches these illiterates that the world is a cruel place. This lesson is less exciting than the way it is presented. The set, by Katarína Caková, is an elongated sandbox where the actors roll an empty bottle with their foreheads—that is how arduous it is to earn one’s wages. The production, with its miniature cemetery and puppets, looks perfect in close-up, but did I, even once, get a view of the whole stage?

Tape recorders and cabbages frame Moral Insanity. Visual concept by director Júlia Rázusová, set and costume by Diana Strauszová. The monologue is performed by Peter Brajerčik

Moral Insanity, loosely based on Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery (2010), written and performed by Peter Brajerčik, shares the starting thought of The Emperor of America. The actor declares his hatred toward Jews, even though he has never met one. Many more nationalities and minorities get a verbal thrashing while the character appears increasingly helpless and unhappy with himself.

This connects Moral Insanity to Slovak green dramas: the universe is cold, also when you stand in an earthy cabbage patch. A Slovak dystopia is a many-dimensional thing, not just the customary silver-coloured space oddity from sci-fi. 

*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 1993, he has written and directed several radio plays for YLE the Finnish Broadcasting Company. His latest stage play, Ta mig till er ledare (Take Me to Your Leader, 2016), ran at Lilla teatern in Helsinki.

Copyright © 2021 Matti Linnavuori
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