Two Experiments in One Season

Pavlína Hořejšová



The latest season at Dejvické Theatre has not been typical. The director Miroslav Krobot and the ringmaster of Cirk La Putyka Rosťa Novák have attempted to bring together two theatrical groups which use very different means of artistic expression. Their cooperation has resulted in a romantic production called Honey, which is staged in the Jatka78 artistic space. The remainder of the Dejvice ensemble also set out on an experimental quest. Their production, called The Murder of King Gonzago, honours the 25th anniversary of Dejvické Theatre and its creators. Led by the director Jiří Havelka, the production poses many “existentially theatrical” questions. In contrast to the romantic Honey, The Murder of King Gonzago confronts us with a far-reaching political story. Thus Dejvické Theatre has enriched its repertoire by adding two new experimental productions inspired by real events.

■ Miroslav Krobot co-wrote Honey with the psychologist Lubomír Smékal, with whom he has cooperated already on two film scripts. The story of the main female character in Honey is inspired by the real experiences of one of Smékal’s former clients. The writers claim to have chosen this specific narrative for its multi-layered qualities and it seems that the fact of its being based on real events led them conclude it would come out less pathetic.

The main protagonist is a girl in love with her pimp. She wants to help him cover his debts and so she agrees to become an escort in an erotic club, as well as agreeing to leave home to work for his new escort service, eventually ending up in an Asian prison. One would not expect this woman to have much brains, or any strong family ties. However, the theatrical Honey is intelligent, she has a great relationship with her parents and she takes pleasure in performing classical music. To make it easier to express the inner conflict between her naive and silly actions and the things she thinks about, the writers have split the main role between two actresses. They do not take turns, as we might expect, instead they are both on stage all the time: Honey and her alter ego, who comments on the action and constantly debates what to do next. The character is played by Jenovéfa Boková; a film actress and violinist; and Anna Schmidtmajerová, a member of the circus group La Putyka. It is a confirmation of the talent of both these women (and the director and choreographer’s skills) that they are able to switch the two roles, Boková even mastering the physically demanding scenes, for example maintaining her balance in a three-story pyramid.

Krobot has sweetened the unsympathetic character of the pimp by casting the popular actor Václav Neužil to play the role. However, the casting of the actor and acrobat Jiří Kohout, who alternates with Neužil (similar to the alternating of Boková and Schmidtmajerová), proves that one does not have to be a heartthrob to play the role well. This self-pitying lover is persuasive only when the actor captures the hyperbole of a large male ego alongside a total determination to unscrupulously pursue his own goals, without thinking of anything else.

Honey experiences a whole range of clashes and encounters, all of these depicted in circus-poetic style, with the down-to-earth self-ironic commentary of the heroine’s alter ego, so that the production reminds one of the sweet-and-sour troubles of Bridget Jones, whose numerous fans also need to ask: “How can someone so clever be such a bimbo?” With Honey it is a similar story. For example in the scene, where the two main characters are to have brutal sex. This masochistic scene does not provoke disgust or fear, even though the heroine is suspended on ropes and three men are tossing her to and fro in the air. Krobot and Novák manage to create perhaps the most original love scene in current Czech theatre. And that’s not all. When Honey saves her pimp from committing suicide, she promises to support his new business plan and leaves her family and her country. Plush panda costumes symbolize the orgies and exotic nature of the trip she takes. After she reaches a fixed destination, she receives a panda costume and the stage is gradually filled with a whole crowd of pandas; the result being an orgy which slightly parodies a scene from Eyes Wide Shut, the film by Stanley Kubrick. The costumes made up of giant heads and a low centre of gravity, resulting in a charming swaying of the hips (reminding one of Disney characters), are in striking contrast to the content and meaning of the scene. The bizarreness and horror of the situation, in which the heroine finds herself, is clearly felt; however the whole thing is neither vulgar nor tasteless.

The sense of theatrical metaphor and the overall delicacy are probably the most sympathetic aspects of Honey. The performance is not aggressive towards the audience; it does not offend or hurt anybody. Thus in this sense Honey is closer to a romantic comedy, which does not disturb the spectator in any way. However the comic aspect and charming stylization are in great contrast to the contents of the narrative. The panda scene has a terrible ending: the immobile Honey (still in the panda costume) is dragged by her legs to prison and her pimp runs away. Even the prison scene is more of a visually interesting image than anything else (the imprisoned women are hung in the air on benches). When the alter ego of the heroine describes the heat with an unchanging, indifferently melancholic voice, it does not seem that the situation is really unpleasant.

The first real emotion is aroused paradoxically by the final scene, in which the heroine meets with her parents again and starts to work as a cleaner. The father (Pavel Šimčík) and mother (Lenka Krobotová) watch their daughter learn to operate a huge cleaning machine. In the end, accompanied by the emotional gaze of her parents, she manages to master the machine and thus accepts her new job. This purely dramatic scene is a good example of something that Honey lacks up to this point: the use of the theatrical and circus methods to tell a story, not merely to illustrate the plot. Instead of telling a story, Krobot and Novák most often decorate the plot with demonstrations of the poetics of both these theatre styles. This especially harms the new circus style in the physical theatre scenes, in which the members of La Putyka star, as they are often there just “for effect”; they do not move the story ahead, they only prolong it. One example of a scene, in which both genres do complement each other, is the main character’s poetic contemplation by the lake. This is however interrupted by a quite dispensable image of dinosaurs running around the place very long ago. The heroine fights a velociraptor, played by Vladimír Polívka, then a whole herd of reptiles run across the stage, last but not least the comically slow-footed Šimčík. Another “gag” which could well have been left out is a dramatic one: where one of the prisoners (Jana Holcová) is on the phone with her partner who wants to break up with her. At first she tries to dissuade him, then she threatens him and finally she jerks the phone cable furiously and the wall disintegrates. Behind it we find the boyfriend on the other end of the line, and the ferocious prisoner then starts to chase him. However, from another point of view we have to admit that some of the scenes deepen our knowledge of the main character: fighting the dinosaur proves that Honey is not a delicate flower, with whom anyone can do as he pleases. Moreover, there are sixteen actors in the production and the creators probably wanted to give each one at least some stage time.

Honey charms its audience primarily with the poetic images it creates. The stage designer Jakub Kopecký has designed a simple stage set, dominated by a steel and glass construction, which represents several different things. At first it’s a cold room, used in cryotherapy (the display shows -130 degrees), which suggests a framing of the plot: the heroine recalling her experience in the therapeutic process. This interpretation is supported by the fact that her alter ego watches the action from the cold room during the brutal sex scene. However, when a neon sign for the well-known White Swan shopping centre in Prague lights up on top of the construction, it becomes the roof of a house, from which the pimp (now portrayed by the stunt man Daniel Komarov) jumps down. All of the surreal images, which permeate the plot, have been created by the actors; who are supported by a conspicuous lighting design and excellent music composed and played live by Jan Balcar. All of the protagonists sing well and Boková and Schmidtmajerová prove that they are good musicians in their violin and cello duet.

Krobot, Novák and the members of both theatre groups not only prove that dramatic theatre and new circus can cooperate on one stage, but also at times that both genres really do complement and reinforce each other. However, the plot remains quite banal and it disintegrates into a succession of unconnected fragments.

■ In The Murder of King Gonzago the director Jiří Havelka has returned to his experiments with political theatre. Havelka has already used this method in two of his authorial documentary productions with the students of the Department of Alternative and Puppet Theatre at the Theatrical Academy (DAMU) in Prague: Me, the Hero (2011) and The Regulation of Intimacy (2014). The former was a reconstruction of events connected with the activities of an anti-communist resistance group led by the Mašín brothers; and the latter production worked with authentic confessions and testimonies by the actors and actresses involved.

In this production at Dejvické theatre the actors are all on stage most of the time, sitting in a row of chairs. One stands up, moves forward and begins to act, usually in a completely normal, even understated manner. Ivan Trojan, Klára Melíšková, Martin Myšička, Simona Babčáková, Zdeňka Žádníková and Tomáš Jeřábek alias Tomina are dressed in ordinary clothes, their only prop being a black cloth (in the end of the first part supplemented by a skull). Probably the most interesting aspect of this first part is watching and comparing the individual actors and their performances, assuming the initial assignment was the same for all of them – to be completely authentic and speak about one’s own self and about acting. Babčáková presents herself as a social activist, bringing up environmental issues. Žádníková imitates various characters and the way they would deliver the phrase “Truth and love shall win out over lies and hatred”, working her way from Donald Trump, to a prisoner waiting for execution. The individual “stand-ups” are seasoned by quotes from characters, which the actors themselves have played in productions of classical Russian plays. Later we find out that the references to Russia have a more important function than it seems at first. However, the soulful declamations appear quite exaggerated alongside the understated acting. Even though there are exceptions: Klára Melíšková begins her speech with Arkadinova’s self-admiring monologue and she is so persuasive that the audience are quite confused.

It is evident that Havelka let the actors construct their monologues themselves. Myšička, Melíšková and Jeřábek are quite confident in their speeches, they know how to deliver punchlines. Babčáková is much more stylized; her monologue is a comic number, in the stand-up comedy style. Ivan Trojan is probably the only one of the whole cast able to perform the trick Havelka seems to be aiming for. He is as normal and “authentic” as can be and perfectly mystifies the audience with his personal, almost psychological speech. In the end he very fluently proceeds from Gogol’s “What are you afraid of?” to criticism of the Czech hysteria concerning the immigrant crisis and their indifference to the fact that the Prime Minister Andrej Babiš was an informer. In contrast, Zdeňka Žádníková is so uneasy stepping out of a role that in the given circumstances she in fact seems the most credible.

After all the actors finish their personal monologues, there is a clear turning point. We watch the actors perform a scene from Hamlet, the one in which an acting troupe arrives at Elsinor castle and upon the prince’s request quickly rehearse a play, which is expected to persuade the murderer to confess. The actors receive scripts and upon Hamlet’s instruction they perform a play about the poisoning of a king. After this they repeat the pantomime once more, this time with a slight change – two of the actors agree on pouring the poison into the king’s drink. This time it is not a scene from Hamlet – now it is a new story. Then Trojan takes the skull and using the black cloth creates a puppet. The first half thus ends with Death looking the audience straight in the eye.

The second half, after the break, is a reconstruction of a real event. While in the production of Me, the hero, Havelka and his team aimed at achieving a neutral attitude, capturing all the possible points of view, this documentary depiction of the poisoning of the former Russian secret service agent Alexander Litvinenko does not pretend to be so objective. It rather endeavours to further consider the themes of acting and authenticity, suggested in the first half of the production. It is not only a documentary reconstruction of events leading to the revelation of the cause of Litvinenko’s death (the fact that he was poisoned by polonium would probably never be uncovered had Litvinenko not lived so unexpectedly long), but it is also a demonstration of the theatrical nature of all the information that we are exposed to nowadays. The dying Litvinenko forced himself to work on accusing Vladimir Putin, so that the whole world would hear about this premeditated murder.

The second half is set up as a stage reading, the actors again playing their parts in a very un-staged manner. In their ordinary clothes they sit on chairs or stand with the scripts in their hands. The change of position is a change of character, whose words they are reading out loud (or pretending to do so). The only actor, playing a single character is Myšička as Litvinenko. However, his wife – to give one example – is played both by Melíšková and Žádníková, who switch roles as need be. The story is told chronologically, with acting that is strikingly accurate. The actors sometimes switch roles after no more than one exchange, managing to endow each character with his or her individual means of expression and characteristics. From time to time the stage reading is moderately coloured by illustrating gestures (the pointers of a beeping hospital machine), yet everything is kept as simple as possible. All the actors involved exhibit an extraordinary talent for narrating the story with a minimum of props.

Havelka is a master of the documentary technique. All the necessary information is chronologically presented and becomes part of the dialogue of the doctors, activists, friends and other people, who came into contact with Litvinenko in the month after his poisoning. Strict medical dialogues and political statements periodically interrupt the dialogue with his wife and close friends, all of which is on the personal level. Even though most of the spectators know how the story ends, there is a clearly a felt tension: will the experts be able to discover the cause of the illness? In this way, the story of the dying agent has an almost detective-like quality and an excellent tempo.

The performance ends with a strong anti-Putin statement. When Litvinenko dies, the others cover Myšička’s head with a black cloth. He then rises and with this cadaverous veil stands on the bare stage and reads out the letter, in which Litvinenko addressed Putin and accused him of having no respect for life, freedom and civilized values. In the end, Litvinenko expresses his belief that Putin can silence one man but that a wave of protests against him will follow and will not end until his death.

Even though it may seem that Havelka has joined together two seemingly unrelated pieces, it gradually becomes clear that the first part was a preparation for the second one, and was important for the level of mystification it introduced: the actors are as authentic as can be in pretending they that they are not acting, while constantly reminding us that they are on stage and thus the spectator should regard everything that is happening critically. The creators ask whether it is possible to portray the truth on stage, when everything that is staged is in one way or the other an interpretation of reality. The whole story could have been told by the late hero, more deliberately to achieve a certain effect. The personal monologues from the first half are thus referred to in the second half, so that we are reminded that we are still watching actors from Dejvice interpreting Litvinenko’s story. For example, Žádníková in her monologue talks about meeting a woman on the street, who approached her not to praise her acting but rather to praise a dress that she wore in a TV series. The same joke appears in the second half, when one of the characters in a very inappropriate situation asks another one where she bought her dress.

The Murder of King Gonzago is a great contribution to documentary theatre, as well as an asset for the ensemble, whose members get an opportunity to look for new possibilities of dramatic expression.

Miroslav Krobot, Lubomír Smékal: Honey, directed by M.Krobot, co-director and instructor of physical theatre Rostislav Novák ml., stage design Jakub Kopecký, costumes and make-up Kristina Záveská, music Jan Balcar, choreography Thomas Steyaert, Cirk La Putyka & Dejvické divadlo, premiere November 12, 2017 at Jatka78

Jiří Havelka, DD: The Murder of King Gonzago, directed by J.Havelka, co-scriptwriter and assistant director Petr Erbes, stage design Dáda Němeček, costumes Adriana Černá, physical theatre instructor Tomáš Legierski, Dejvické divadlo, premiere December 19, 2017

published in Svět a divadlo, issue 2, volume 2018

translated by Ester Žantovská