Between Theatre and Themselves (Spitfire Company Plays about Beer and Prawns)
Spitfire Company’s production Prawns á la Indigo begins even before the actual theatre performance starts. While the audience are sitting down in their seats, on stage there are technicians and actors in costumes crossing the acting area, smoking, re-arranging small bits and pieces of the scenery, trying to strike a pose, greeting their friends among the audience, some of them even walk down from the stage to the still lit-up auditorium. As part of this unsettling game, the actors bring two spectators on stage – without explaining the reason why. There is also a recorded sound of a busy restaurant played from the loudspeakers. The atmosphere is emphasized also by the fact that Robert Janč, the central character and the organizer of the so far unclear action, is dressed partly as a cook and partly as a waiter in a respectable restaurant. Dark trousers, white shirt with narrow black tie, and white apron. Even at the very beginning Janč creates the basic features of a character he acts in different variations throughout the entire evening: a professionally obliging, sometimes a little confused, other times arrogant, restaurant chef.
In the production that I saw, the prologue ended with Janč walking centre stage, starring intently at two spectators, who were quietly whispering to each other, and politely asking with unsettling irony: “So, can we proceed?” In the following scene, the first part of the “real” theatre performance, the motif of “a woman á la prawn” was energetically introduced. The mixture of seriousness, grotesque exaggeration and ironic derogation is typical for the Spitfire Company; not just in this production. The audience could hear somebody singing backstage and Janč then brought out a busty singer dressed in a low-cut silver shiny dress on a silver tray and placed her along with the tray on a stool in the forestage. Then he took out two knives and, with a poker face, he began to sharpen them in a manner usually seen in fairytales about highwaymen or in pirate adventure stories for children. In the meantime, “the prawn” managed to escape while still singing. At first, she tried to steal away slowly and stealthily. Later she was visibly horrified. However, the waiter kept on sending his scared victim back. At first, he casually brought her back, but when she got too far, he caught her foot and mercilessly dragged her back across half the stage. Instead of an anticipated drastic ending, rather he placed on the singer’s head a hat with an attached model of a giant prawn, and the singer strutted with affected mondaine elegance to a microphone at the back of the stage (where she remained until the end of the production.)
Only after this prologue, the main protagonists appear). The light technician directs the lights onto Jindřiška Křivánková, who had been sitting inconspicuously in the darkness at a café table, and she utters the first “real” line of the whole production: “I am sad and no one can do anything about it.” (Another significant line, “I am a prawn, merely left in the wake of leather boot footprints,” is heard at the end of the same monologue.) Křivánková walks slowly to the front, followed by the light technician, who impressively illuminates her by a reflector, which is shining through the bottom of an open umbrella. Anti-illusionism is another characteristic of the production; the light technician in his regular clothes enters the acting area very naturally. The lighting and sound desk is placed visibly at the side of the stage, just opposite the referenced pair of the mysterious spectators. The introduction, however, also reveals the most significant weakness of the production – the actresses are not as strong in the spoken passages as in the movement scenes, and the text very often seems very declamatory. At its worst, the spoken passages are not far from affected recitation of common clichés about “women’s suffering in the men’s world.”
After this scene, tango music, which is the main music style of the whole production, begins to play and Markéta Vacovská and Tereza Havlíčková appear on stage next to Křivánková. Here, a credit must be paid to the costume designer. Petra Vlachynská works with simple, but effective variations (for example, each time the dress has a differently low-cut neckline.)The dresses in their softly grey discreetness are simultaneously humble, uniform, and alluring. Moreover, the dresses clearly characterize the women on stage. When Patricie Poláková, who is in contrast to her counterparts more dynamic and active, enters the stage in the middle of the production, her emancipated energy and sensuous sex appeal are emphasized by another variation of the soft greyness: she is wearing a grey overall outfit with provocatively naked back. The change of costumes also highlights the final liberation of the prawns, metaphorically symbolized by the change from the uniform grey into shiny bright colours.
you speak too much… The production consists of a series of scenes, in which all three ladies either dance or utter fragmented confessions about their frustrating life experiences and feelings. Repeatedly, they compare themselves to prawns and their “female fate”, i.e. they are destined to be caught, thrown into boiling water, poked out of their protective shells, and eaten. The waiter, on the other hand, speaks about the prawns in a culinary/scientific, matter-of-fact manner, which should obviously evoke the insensitive approach of men, as the following line aptly illustrates: “Prawns do not feel pain because they do not have brains.” These scenes are accompanied by a passionate tango by the singer Cécile Da Costa and the harmonica player Mathieu Gautron).
The main plotline, if such term can be used given the intentional fragmentariness of the production, focuses on the story of a girl called Deren, who is haunted, depressed, and deprived of her personality by a repeated good advice: “You speak too much, Deren, no one will listen to you.” Markéta Vacovská confesses, with growing despair, about her own experiences, in which she appears as a mere decorative locket or an erotic object without any power. The most important scenes, however, are those when all three girls are present together. Havlíčková, Křivánková, and Vacovská perform an array of impressive numbers, in which they effectively join erotic sauciness with irony. A typical example might be the scene in which the actresses “dance” while seated on chairs and display their long exposed legs to the rhythm of tango. They accompany their dance by lines, such as “I hate my long legs, but I really crave for their attention,” while the technician keeps pushing the microphones very close to their faces. At the same time, Janč is standing near the wall in a sharply framed rectangle of light, and with a bottle of wine in his hand, he falteringly recites hygienic and social principles that a good waiter should follow. On the top of everything, the girls begin to belch drunkenly, while he is saying his monologue.
The rhythm of the production is naturally created not only by the songs, but also by solo numbers. These are not necessarily only dance numbers. The waiter’s solo scene is characterized by its ambivalent atmosphere. In the spotlight, there is Janč peeling off pieces of lettuce (all the sounds are artificially amplified by a microphone) and the girls, who are sitting on the opposite side of the stage, let out erotic sighs. Images of various body parts are projected onto the waiter’s white apron, including a close-up of a blinking eye, which is projected vertically and therefore it strongly resembles a vagina. After a while, this passage is followed by a number, in which Vacovská sits in a glass bowl with the lettuce leftovers and lets herself be pampered by the waiter. At the same time, Havlíčková and Křivánková dance in an illuminated window with coffee cups in their hands and order freedom with foam”, “freedom laté”, “Algerian freedom”, “North Korean freedom”… The third girl, however, constantly refuses with a line “No, thank you. I won’t have anything.” After that a melancholic song is played, the girls dance in slow-motion with the cups, and Deren tells her drastic story about her dominant lover, who was drowning her while they were having sex in a garden swimming pool.
we will win, we will win… Approximately in the middle of the production the atmosphere changes significantly with the forceful entry of Patricie Poráková as Joyce. The showiness of her sensuous energy sometimes becomes almost unintentionally ridiculous. The music becomes much more aggressive, the dance is less decent and the waiter very quickly loses his previous authority; in one of his scenes he is being tormented by Joyce, who grabs his tie and drags him around the stage. The previously passive women-prawns begin their fight for freedom. The more chaotic and anarchic atmosphere is emphasized by an ironic extra number, in which Jindřiška Křivánková drunkenly shouts out fragmented sentences about her happiness, her love of the whole world, and the beauty of everything around her – and then all three actresses descend from the stage into the auditorium and walk through the aisles and eagerly kiss randomly chosen spectators.
Nevertheless, after this wild all-out effort comes a hangover. In a few, scantily lit, quieter, but very effective scenes (the protagonists “dance” while lying on the stage) they present ambiguous fragments of their nightmares. The most powerful narrative is Joyce’s dream about “the ruins of wild nights”, in which she finds bits and pieces of her lover’s and her own bodies and hides them in the garden. This passage is one of the moments when the word and the action become truly united: Poráková, in her monologue, literally rolls along the edge of the stage, with her head helplessly hanging in the emptiness below.
The final scene of the production results in a surprisingly optimistic, yet still intentionally ambiguous ending, in which the grotesque, ironic, undertone escalates even more. In front of the back wall, which is vertically divided by a projection into four colourful stripes, the actresses put on masks a la Pussy Riot, and then silently collapse, one by one, onto the stage. The waiter is trying in vain to catch them. After that the protagonists dance together – without music – and speak about what annoys them and what they would wish (in this scene the actresses are on stage as themselves, not as the characters). Then they leave into the backstage and an intermezzo begins, in which the sadly resigned waiter in high-heel shoes tells intentionally bad jokes in the front stage, such as “Do you know what the difference is between a duck?” In the final scene all the women, including the singer, return together in shiny colourful dresses and finish the performance by dancing together merrily to tritely cheerful music. The prawns are finally free – if this is their final victory, however, it is not really clear.
be careful, there will be booze. The unexpected combination of the Spitfire Company and Václav Havel has come about thanks to a commission the company received from America. Their unique variation on Havel’s Audience was originally supposed to be only a small project, but against all expectations it became a great success and thus it has become part of the Spitfire Company repertoire). The discrepancy between the poetics of physical theatre and a dramatist, whose plays are based on a precise work with words, in the production becomes part of a conspiratorial game, as the title Antiwords illustrates.
The production begins in a slow, almost ceremonial tempo: two actresses dressed in tank tops, grey trousers, and with trainers on their feet, walk slowly across the stage, the sound of heavy breathing is played from the loudspeakers. Miřenka Čechová and Jindřiška Křivánková hold in their hands net bags with a bottle of beer and a beer mug; and under their arms they carry huge head masks of vaguely bronze colour, with facial expressions resembling political functionaries). This scene is followed by a comedy clown number, in which the frist two beers are drunk: the actresses with an explicitly phallic gesture place the bottle between their legs, open them with an opener, hanging on strings around their necks, and pour the contents into the beer mugs and then drink the beers up in a few gulps. Havel’s Audience characterized by typical combination of machismo, beer drinking, and urinating, is captured here in a dynamic, ironic and eloquent condensation.
Equally important is the level, which is added to Havel’s play by the Spitfire Company. The actresses look very depressed and disgusted; they literally shiver with repulsion. Beer is definitely not presented as an ironic symbol of jovial silly drinking. On the contrary, it is the disgust from forced consummation that is symbolic. Antiwords, even more strongly than Havel’s play, stand in opposition against “beer” social morass, illustrated by clichéd phrases such as “let bygones be bygones”, which the Brewmaster euphemistically calls “our tradition.” The disgust from the communist era – vague, but intense and almost tangible – thus becomes a totally personal issue for the performers.
After this prologue, Čechová and Křivánková dress in grey jackets, put on the massive male heads and sit at the table. Given the fact that the masks and the costumes of both actresses are identical, the two characters very soon merge into one. It is a very important point: the removal of the differences between morally and intellectually opposite characters changes the situation completely. Moreover, the characters in Antiwords are not socially or historically distinct: as a result, instead of a nervous encounter of a cautious dissident with an involuntary and a little bit ridiculous servant of the political power, we witness a power struggle between two, de-facto, interchangeable, representatives of the same kind. The larger-than-life heads further disrupt the “normal” human scale; behind the table there sit two strange, goblin-like, creatures, partly grotesque, partly threatening.
The connection to a specific historical period is emphasized by the characteristic voice of Pavel Landovský, who performed in the legendary, samizdat, recording of the Audience, which is played from the loud speakers. His question, “Would you like a beer?” opens another round of an almost classic clown sketch. The Brewmaster opens a bottle of beer and throws the cap away in a spectacular arch, bows towards Vaněk and forces him to have another beer. Vaněk acts out with an exaggerated horror his refusal. He does not want anything and is actually horrified by the beer. He squirms in refusal, turns his head away, pats the chair headrest with embarrassment, carefully wipes with a cloth both the table and Brewmaster’s beer mug. Landovský’s line is heard repeatedly in the style of music remix, and the actresses accompany it with similar movements and gestures (this repeats more times also with other lines.) The result is an almost puppet slapstick: the characters are alive, but their faces are frozen into monstrous, impersonal grimaces. Křivánková and Čechová master the performance excellently. They act out the changing relationship between the characters with their whole bodies, with a hunched or boorish wide stance, they are good at using details, such as nuanced constant nodding of their heads, which both characters use to overcome embarrassment. All this is very entertaining. The Spitfire Company also playfully parody Václav Havel, who was well known for his decent, gentlemanly manners and compulsive perfectionalism.
Very soon, however, comes a moment, which adds to Havel’s clownish slapstick a contrasting, realistic level: while Vaněk pours with a splash his beer into a bucket, the Brewmaster lifts up his mask and drinks up the real beer, thus reminding the audience that the beer is drunk by the actress Jindřiška Křivánková. The spectators are suddenly placed outside the world of theatrical fiction: they simultaneously watch the real fight of Jindřiška Křivánková (and later also Miřenka Čechová) with alcohol. It is clear to everyone that it is really uncomfortable for both protagonists to drink so much beer during the performance. They are in danger of getting really drunk and losing control over their action.
After a while of forcing, drinking and spilling of beer, the Brewmaster gets up, apologizes and walks unsteadily to backstage, “to go to the toilet.” When he leaves, Vaněk as a neat-freak begins to wipe the wet table, after a while he sits down on the other chair and adopts the Brewmaster’s typical sitting posture. When the Brewmaster appears again in the door on stage, another shift happens, which emphasizes the interchangibility of the two characters. Immediately after the Brewmaster sees that his chair is occupied, he changes into the gentlemanly Vaněk. This brisk change is based on purely slapstick logic as there is no psychological or other explanation given. This sequence repeats several times (the actresses thus take turn in beer drinking). The Brewmaster gets more and more drunk, his attacks are more and more ruthless, he spills the beer more and more not only on the table, but also on his subordinate. Isolated lines by Landovský are played from time to time. The drunken excesses escalate and the speed with which the individual replicas are repeated also increases, this means that the actresses must perform the physical action in more and more frenzied tempo.
there used to be so much fun… Although the production runs very smoothly, it gradually turns out that this production model has its limits. As the original text is almost entirely absent, all the nuances disappear; and not only that, the Brewmaster’s suggestion that Vaněk should write the reports about himself, which is the main reason for their meeting, is also missing. Instead of the original sophisticated, multilayered play, Antiwords offer a clownish commentary on the constantly repeating situation, in which “the senior forces his subordinate to drink beer.” The fight of the actresses with alcohol continues, but it is only an addition, not the basis for the whole production. After twenty minutes it seems that everything has been said.
The Spitfire Company therefore leave the minimalist approach and try to add a new impulse from the outside. The production is then enriched by two songs by Karel Gott. It is a very catchy scene for the audience since the songs are accompanied by movement variations, which are much wilder than everything before. During the first song the Brewmaster presents a great solo dance number (while Vaněk is suffering silently in his chair), whose climax is a dance on the table and clownish (or drunken) descending back down in the style of a dangerous mountain climbing. Jindřiška Křivánková is brilliant at physical parody and her number is thus the most attractive moment for the audience, who applauded excitingly after her performance. Yet, in contrast to the austere and effective first part, this scene seems to shallow, too showy. Plus, using Karel Gott as a symbol of the normalization era has become a little bit of an annoying cliché.
The second scene with Gott’s song is less spectacular, but it carries much more important message. After returning back to the beer drinking, and several repetitions of the line “there used to be so much fun…,” and mainly after the crucial tirade “And what about me?”) the Brewmaster moves drunkenly around the sober and detached Vaněk to the song When I was a little boy for so long till he “crushes” him and they begin to dance together. The merging of the two characters is finally complete – and it could be interpreted on a symbolic level also as merging with the times. Vaněk’s final replica, ”Everything is fucked up” sounds even more desperate than in Havel’s play.
The final dance to Gott’s song offers a strong point, but it is not the end of the production, since the “personal level” must be played to the end as well. The actresses take down their masks and jackets (similarly to Prawns á la Indigo they leave their characters) and sit at the table as themselves, to the sound of cacophonic music. They behave almost too naturally. They change serious facial expressions with giggling, sip beer from time to time, jokingly, and they act that they are not sober. After a few minutes, the lights go down, Křivánková collects all the props into her net bag and staggers away into the backstage.
it was me who got drunk The final scene differs from the rest both by its tempo and atmosphere (and, to be honest, it is a little bit annoying for the audience), it emphasizes, again, very strongly, the “personal level.” It has its pluses and minuses. The readers of Erika Fischer-Lichte definitely appreciate a practical example of a production, which intentionally makes the audience doubt whether they watch theatre characters or the actresses, who are on stage as themselves. In any case, it is difficult not to watch the production as a kind of sport event, an adventure, or a mean joke of the director at the expense of the actresses. It is emphasized by the introductory speech, in which Boháč speaks about “a production in which there is booze.”
The problem is that alcohol is not so easy to deal with, not so clear-cut as when Marina Abramovich cuts herself as part of her performance, or when Joseph Beyus closes himself in one room with a coyote. At the end of Antiwords truth is so ostentatiously at the centre that one cannot overcome the suspicion that the actresses are only pretending their drunkenness in order to achieve a greater effect. Thus they cheat not only the audience, but also even Erika Fischer-Lichte. What can be done? I am not so sure whether it would be better if Křivánková and Čechová dispel our doubts by, for example, throwing up at the curtain call, and then hit their heads against the wall while attempting to leave the theatre. In other words, I am afraid that the production became a prisoner of its effective idea (definitely not banal), which has not been thought out completely.
From another point of view it is clear that the “personal” detachment from the characters and also from the basic situation is very important for Antiwords. Together with the forceful abridgement of the original text and the blurring of the contrast between the two protagonists, it contributes to the fact that we do not watch the characters of Vaněk/Havel in a specific historical situation; but more as a demonstration of disgust, which the theatre makers feel about the era when the Audience took place. With a little bit of fantasy it could be imagined that in the final scene, the actresses present a hangover from the past era, which is still latently present. In this case, however, the production is not entirely “self-supporting.” It is crucial that the audience know in advance something about the play and its historical context – otherwise it remains only a beer clown slapstick. The treacherous advantage of Antiwords is that it can very well work also in this way.
Spitfire Company: Prawns á la indigo, script Petr Boháč, directed by Miřenka Čechová, choreography Sharna Fabiano and company, set Barbara Wojtowiak, costumes Petra Vlachynská, music Cécile Da Costa and Mathieu Gautron, light design Martin Špetlík, animation Miřenka Čechová and Jiří Matoušek, Spitfire Company, premiere May 12, 2013 at Akropolis Palace
Spitfire Company and Sivan Eldar: Antiwords, concept Miřenka Čechová and Petr Boháč, directed by Petr Boháč, music Sivan Eldar, light design Martin Špatlík and Robert Janč, masks Paulina Skavova, Spitfire Company, premiere November 5, 2013 at Akropolis Palace
published in Svět a divadlo, issue 1, volume 2014
translated by Hana Pavelková
) The names loosely refer to four artist of the surrealist movement in Paris between the wars and in the United States after Second World War: Filmmaker and dancer Maya Deren, painter Toyen, model and photographer Elizabeth Lee Miller, and poet Joyce Mansour.
) These two French musicians live permanently in Prague; Cécile Da Costa cooperates not only with the Spitfire Company, but also with the theatre company Farm in the Cave.
) It is quite telling that the official premiere in November 2013 followed after thirteen “previews”.
) These masks were originally used in another production, Case 1014817830, they were worn by the judges in the show trial with Milada Horáková, which was manipulated by the Communists in the 1950s . For those, who saw the production, other meaning was thus added.
) Brewmaster: You will always have a chance – but what chance do I have? You... you will come back to your actresses – you will be bragging that you used to push the beer barrels – you will be a hero, but what about me? Where can I return? Who will notice me? Havel, Václav: Audience. In Plays, Prague, 1992, pages 228 – 229.