WAT > eWAT > eWAT I. (December 2012) > Czech Cardboard Heroes
Martin Porubjak

Czech Cardboard Heroes


photo by Irena Vodáková
It is the year 2006 and the votes in Italy are still being counted. Has either Prodi or Berlusconi gained a narrow majority? Which of them will govern? Or will they govern together in great coalition? “Professor and Clown. What a government!” announces a newspaper headline. We are immediately in the theatre. In Italy this couple - Professor Prodi and Clown Berlusconi – is very traditional, they are two commedia dell’arte characters, Dottore and Arlecchino. In 2006 a parallel existed in the Czech Republic: President Václav Klaus and Prime Minister Jiří Paroubek.

Similar parallels could be found in Iva Klestilová(Volánková)’s political persiflage(?), satire(?), panopticon(?), thriller(?), grotesque documentary(?); which was in repertoire at Dlouhá Theatre under the title Standa Has a Problem etc... Rokoko Theatre staged a complete version of this play under the remarkable title My Country. The main difference between these two productions, however, is not their length, but something more fundamental. In Dlouhá Theatre the play is performed by flat “lifeless” puppets, which are simply cut out of cardboard and animated on sticks from below by a puppeteer, who could often be seen. In Rokoko Theatre they use live actors. Thus in one city there exists side by side two productions of the same text that are performed in two different theatre “languages”.

What kind of text is it?

Klestilová deals with current standards in the political scene, which have sunk to the level of mere political scandals and affairs. Her story features the figure of Stanislav Gross, the young star and leader of the Social Democrats who was not able to submit a reasonable explanation as to the origin of the money he paid for his luxury flat. The affair brought an end to his political career and is similar to many others covered by the media and bitched about over pints in pubs. Klestilová’s commentary is present in the stage directions, which in both productions are heard, but also hidden in the subtly stylized political jargon of the protagonists: the texts are more or less authentic, but the dramatist inconspicuously, yet clearly emphasises their stupidity.

An example par excellence is a monologue by ‘schizoid’ Miroslav Kalousek (the top politician since 2006), in which he leads a dialogue with himself, while shifting from the first person to the third person. At first, he identifies with his own self and the next moment he also distances himself. Kalousek is as if following Stanislavski and Brechtian methods simultaneously, he is constantly entering and distancing from his persona... furthermore, when using the third person, Kalousek evaluates and comments on both the ‘Stanislavski’ and ‘Brechtian’ selves.

This form of text significantly influences, even determines its stage production, being more suitable for seemingly ‘dead’ puppets than live actors. A cardboard puppet is a sign (despite being “obviously illustrative” as each puppet has a photographic portrait of the politician it “represents” glued to its head). It is easy for the puppet to perform the schizoid polemics between Kalousek and Kalousek in a simple, clear and funny way. It is enough for the puppet with Kalousek no. 1 to face the audience with its forward-facing side in one replica and Kalousek no.2 with its reverse side in the following one. In the first case we see the side of the puppet with the photograph of Kalousek, in the second we see just the back of the dirty cardboard. This demonstration of the double nature and schizoid personality is almost childishly simple and naive, yet it is theatrically effective and meaningful. The beauty and wit lie in simplicity.

The live actors, on the other hand, try to portray the characters (even if they are real and well-known politicians) as realistically as possible and they also try to parody them. The only ingenious exception is Bohumil Klepl, who ‘acts’ Jiří Paroubek, but also his two preceding socialist PMs and Party Chairmen Vladimír Špidla and Miloš Zeman. Klepl managed to “find” a telling detail for each of them, which he sometimes, but really only rarely, precisely and distinctively “acts out”, while still remaining and being Bohumil Klepl, who comments tongue-in-cheek on the replicas of the character he is presenting. Klepl succeeded in discovering the style and a hidden humour in Klestilová’s text.

The contemporary political panopticon is definitely present in the play, yet to really enjoy the performance, we must be aware of the background. The audience must know the context and the absurdly grotesque political reality in the Czech Republic. A foreigner, even if they could understand Czech, would feel disoriented, be it by the puppets or actors. Although the text is based on documentary material, neither of the productions are documentary theatre. Foreign audience would probably think them fictitious, yet the Czech audience knows that they are not.

Iva Volánková: Standa Has a Problem etc., directed by Karel Král, stage design and puppets Zuzana Petráková, Dlouhá Theatre, Prague, premiere 12 January 2006.

Iva Klestilová: My Country, directed by Thomas Zilienski and Tomáš Svoboda, stage design Jaroslav Bönish, dramaturgy Valeria Schulzová and Vladimír Čepek, Rokoko Theatre, Prague, premiere 4 February 2006.

english version of the article from Svět a divadlo magazine, issue 3, volume 2006

translated by Hana Pavelková