The Golden Age Of Czech Theatre?

Karel Král
THE GOLDEN AGE OF CZECH THEATRE?
2015/16, 2016/17 and 2017/18 seasons

History has shown that the golden ages of art develop in times that are both dramatic and free. Thus, perhaps we are living in a golden age without noticing it. It is hard to notice something when there is so much of everything. Even theatre. In the Czech Republic, with 10.5 million inhabitants, there are more than a thousand performances being staged every year. At least one third of them are produced by the 120 companies based in Prague, a city of 1.3 million inhabitants. There is no exact data; statisticians have to rely on what they are provided. Critics, who manage to see only a fraction of the productions on offer, have to hope they have not missed anything essential. As the number of companies grows, so does the feeling that this hope is in vain. The following report on Czech theatre will be subjective and fragmentary as I am intentionally focussing on productions that might be interesting for international audiences.

Dramatic theatre makes up the largest percentage of the Czech performing arts and I will discuss three productions that I consider personal highlights. In choosing these, I set to one side highly regarded productions by directors including Hana Burešová (The Lantern, V Dlouhé Theatre), Michal Dočekal (The Dynasty, Goose on the String Theatre), Jan Frič (Silence of the Woodchucks, Divadlo pod Palmovkou), David Jařab (Macbeth – Too Much Blood, Theatre on the Balustrade), Jan Klata (Measure for Measure, Divadlo pod Palmovkou), Jan Nebeský (The Thief’s Journal, Masopust Theatre), Martina Schlegelová (Olga, Letí Theatre) and Michal Vajdička (Resurrection, Dejvice Theatre). Coincidentally, my personal TOP 3 include only works, which – with a bit of courage – could be considered documentary theatre. In the production AnderSen (sen is dream in Czech), with the subtitle Imagination Drove Me Crazy, director Jan Mikulášek combines the famous Dane’s fairy tales with the actors’ personal experiences of trauma, phobias and fantasies related to these states of mind. Actors are simultaneously half themselves and half some of Hans Christian Andersen’s characters and toys brought to life. A similar duality is depicted in The Murder of Gonzago. It is a seemingly “disparate link” between the psychodrama of the Dejvice Theatre’s actors (real life merges with roles for them, for example in Hamlet) and a reconstruction of the story of the poisoned Alexander Litvinenko, who helps to reveal his murderers even as he is dying. Jiří Havelka, who directed The Murder of Gonzago, also co-authored Vosto5 company’s The Fellowship of Homeowners. The documentary feature lies in the feeling that it is a perfect reproduction of reality. The group depicted in this example of a housing association meeting would elicit dismay, if it were not presented with such liberating comical zest.

I round up this consideration of dramatic theatre by recommending a couple of Czech dramas. Apart from Petr Zelenka, who is acknowledged internationally, and his recent The Elegance of a Molecule, which tells the story of Czech chemist Antonín Holý, the discoverer of the molecule the later became the most successful medicine to treat AIDS, I would like to mention the playwright S.D.Ch.: his The Last Goose Supper chronicles the grotesque training of a politician, who talks about being in people’s good graces, despite eating them out of house and home.

While the budgets of Czech opera productions cannot match those in Vienna and Berlin, outstanding work is still produced, sometimes involving the participation of prominent artists. Such works include new versions of international productions, as is the case of the National Theatre in Brno’s recent production of Janáček’s Katya Kabanova (director Robert Carsen) and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle merged with Schönberg’s Expectation (director David Radok). The National Theatre in Prague boasts two original productions. Billy Budd is a great modern classic, directed by Daniel Špinar as a clash of suppressed romantic feelings and duties. The star of the performance is the famous Štefan Margita (Captain Vere). His performance is also impressive due to the fact that Britten’s colossal opera combines adequate scenic dimensions with delicacy. I also consider Sternenhoch at the National Theatre in Prague to be truly exceptional. It is an adaptation of Ladislav Klíma’s grotesque mystery novel and the opera debut of composer Ivan Acher. The solipsistic and egoistic Klíma was persona non grata in Czech philosophy and literature in the early 20th century. Sternenhoch is written as a creepy and pornographic murder mystery. Characteristic features include its oscillation between a subtle, literary tone and serious philosophy. Acher employed an appropriate language for the libretto (the picturesque Esperanto), as well as a musical language in which live performance and singing are combined with recordings and natural sound merges with distortion (via sampling and looping). The resulting music is simultaneously slow and fast, deadly lethargic and fiercely frightening, comic as well as scary. With Petr Kofroň as music supervisor and Michal Dočekal as director, exceptional singing and acting performances are notable (Sergey Kostov, Vanda Šípová and Tereza Marečková).

Dance is an international art form and the Czech Republic boasts works of export quality, thanks to outstanding artists like Viliam Dočolomanský, the only Czech winner of the European Prize for New Theatrical Realities, who found a home for his company Farm in the Cave at the private gallery DOX Centre for Contemporary Art. There is perhaps more to this pairing than meets the eye, because contemporary dance is close to the visual arts. Dočolomanský stages a new production every year, such as Together Forever!, in which senior amateur actors perform with young dancers to explore the fear of aging. Lenka Vagnerová & Company maintains a high quality as well, and her productions range from a whirlwind of dance in Gossip to the tender but darkly lyrical The Lešany Crib, both accompanied by Ivan Acher’s music. The presence of interesting composers in the Czech Republic is demonstrated by Constellations I and II, performed by Spitfire Company (both directed by Petr Boháč), which I would definitely recommend. Constellations I, with the subtitle Before I Say Yes, combines dance, an art exhibition and a concert by the Berg ensemble specialising in contemporary classical music. The rock-infused composition was written by Michal Nejtek and its vigour harmonises with unrestrained and animalistic dance. It is authentic, often ecstatic, and departs from aesthetic conventions. In its directness, it speaks volumes about the chosen theme of various forms of desire (erotic desire, the desire for death) without relying on the audience’s rational interpretation. In Constellations II, with the subtitle Time for Sharing, created with the participation of Martin Tvrdý, the music is less striking and – like the dance – more abstract. Three dancer/choreographers (Cecile da Costa, Kristina Šajtošová and Markéta Vacovská) use movement to express a range of seemingly unrestrained “summer” emotions, which are, however, bound by the cold accuracy of invisible, yet audible, time. Everything is tender and prickly, like the landscape where everything takes place: a circle of what appear to be blades of grass, but are actually arrows stuck into the ground.

The ballet piece I would recommend overlaps with productions for children and youth. It is The Little Mermaid staged by the dramaturgical and directing duo SKUTR (Martin Kukučka and Lukáš Trpišovský) and choreographer Jan Kodet at the National Theatre in Prague. Even this familiar story is impressive with Zbyněk Matějů’s unconventional music: it combines acoustic sound and electronic manipulation, or recordings and live orchestra. The music is as colourful and magical (without any Disney-like kitsch) as the performance: there is no reliance on miming or gestures, a traditional ailment of ballet, which aims at telling a story through movement.

High-quality and exportable productions for children and youth are also to be found in puppet theatre. These are produced – apart from at the Drak and Alfa theatres – at the Naïve Theatre. It is a happy coincidence that it has two very successful and – considering the fact that we are landsmen – attractive “sea” productions in the repertoire. Bohemia Lies by the Sea, inspired by Radek Malý’s poems, was directed by Michaela Homolová. The performance submerges us in a dreamy sea with awkwardly shaped “lanterns”. Filip Homola’s music plays an essential role in a piece with the complicated name There Are Places Favoured by Darkness Where Never and Nothing on Remote Islands Is Hidden. At first, the duo Kora et le Mechanix (Homola and Michal Kořán), who focus on experimental ambient music, recorded a series of compositions inspired by Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands. The theatre performance was born only after that and is as special and minimalist as the music. The audience sits around a table representing a land on which the stories of many small islands take place. The performance is primarily designed for teenagers, like Goon: Bloody Revenge! by Dan Kranich, Antonín Týmal and Jan Strýček. The strength of this brutal puppet performance, inspired by Eric Powell’s comic book, lies in its politically incorrect and liberating humour and its “rubbish aesthetics”. This term was introduced to the Czech Republic by the Buchty a loutky (Cake and Puppets) company: old and often ugly puppets and other objects become powerful and beautiful art thanks to the actors’ wit and quickness of mind.

As the borders between artistic disciplines and genres become blurred, there are more and more productions that are hard to define. The category of miscellaneous contains a lot of them. A fusion of poetics and music is presented in The Infinity of Lists from director Jiří Adámek and Boca Loca Lab. The source of inspiration is Umberto Eco’s eponymous book, which contains a number of lists (of abbreviations, animals, etc.). With group recitation and Martin Smolka’s music, it is a perfectionist yet funny and exportable production. Black Black Woods, performed by contemporary circus company La Putyka, oscillates between the terrains of work, dance, visual installation and family psychodrama. Directed and choreographed by Jozef Fruček and Linda Kapetanea, we witness the long, physically demanding, and thus fascinating, activity of Rosťa Novák, the head of the company. His father observes him and “ruins” the performance. In their production Deadtown, The Forman Brothers’ Theatre combines Old West-style cabaret (with songs, dances and circus performance) with a surreal and grotesque laterna magika that also includes puppets. Although the domain of Spitfire Company is dance, it crosses the borders of forms and genres regularly. The stories recorded by Svetlana Alexievich inspired directors Miřenka Čechová and Petr Boháč to produce the scenically diverse The End --- of Man, a fusion of drama, dance, pantomime and political meeting with an impressive musical score composed by Jan Kučera. Whereas the book is a concentration of despair, the production focuses on disappointment, anger and fear.

My flight over Czech theatre concludes with A Bouquet, inspired by Czech classical romantic ballet. The actors and directors Jan Potměšil and Jakub Špalek get by with just a few toys. Their performance represents yet another example of the “tremendous trifles” that abound in the Czech environment. It convincingly proves Chesterton’s thesis that art lies in restriction, not expansion.

AUTHOR:

Karel Král (1953): the editor-in-chief of World and Theatre magazine, the head of the Czech Centre of AICT/IACT, the laureate of the Knight’s Cross – the Order of Hungary, occasional director and author of rhymes.

PHOTOGRAPHS:

1-AnderSen-photo by KIVA
AnderSen or Imagination Drove Me Crazy, director Jan Mikulášek, Theatre on the Balustrade, 2017. Jana Plodková, Anežka Kubátová, Magdaléna Sidonová, Jiří Černý, Ivan Lupták, Dita Kaplanová and Miloslav König
PHOTO BY KIVA

2-Sternenhoch_photo by PATRIK BORECKÝ
Ivan Acher: Sternenhoch, conductor Petr Kofroň, director Michal Dočekal, National Theatre Opera, 2018. Vanda Šípová (Helga) and Sergey Kostov (Sternenhoch)
PHOTO BY PATRIK BORECKÝ

3-Constellations II_photo by VOJTĚCH BRTNICKÝ
Spitfire Company: Constellations II. (Time for Sharing), author of the concept and director Petr Boháč, choreographers Cecile da Costa, Kristina Šajtošová and Markéta Vacovská, Spitfire Company, 2017.
PHOTO BY VOJTĚCH BRTNICKÝ

4-Goon - Bloody Revenge – photo by the theatre archive
Eric Powell: Goon: Bloody Revenge, production team Dan Kranich, Antonín Týmal and Jan Strýček, IDDQD, 2017.
PHOTO BY THE THEATRE ARCHIVE

5-Deadtown_photo by IRENA VODÁKOVÁ
Deadtown (Forman Brothers’ Wild West Show), original idea and screenplay by Ivan Arsenjev and Petr Forman, Forman Brothers’ Theatre, 2017. Marek Zelinka
PHOTO BY IRENA VODÁKOVÁ

Translation Eliška Hulcová, Becka McFadden