|photo by Jan Dvořák|
A clearly presented point-of-view and a radical, almost ‘brutal’, naturalistic staging, which incorporates violence, are typical of Bambušek's projects. In his production of ‘The Czech War’, these expectations are fulfilled. The opposing parties (the Communists versus members of The Third Resistance) get to play with only black and white cards. From the beginning of the production (actually even before that) it is clear that the Communists are bad and The Third Resistance group members are good. There are no shades in-between.
People who were communists during the 1940s and at the beginning of 1950s receive zero tolerance from Bambušek. And in his play he completely omits the silent, maybe non-communist majority of the nation at the time. His essential message is that one has to make the right decision at the right moment. And he makes it clear that the right decision means the right action.
This might seem - especially after last 60 years - as too radical an ‘assessment’ of the nation, but artistic license permits a lot, and with this kind of approach the resulting form is usually more appealing. And above all this is not a documentary, it is a theatre play and production... Apart from a few exceptions the characters in the story are not two-dimensional though, they are not superheroes. Their most crucial decisions are sometimes accompanied by hesitation, and their past acts of resistance weren’t always acts of heroism. Anger, revenge and even the desire to kill surface among them.
According to Bambušek, ‘mad’ times call for strong (vulgar) expression and an abundance of violence, which might not be admired by every audience member. However, the most fundamental drawbacks I found in the play were excessive pathos and the use of near-clichés in certain parts.
The director David Czesany managed however to animate the whole stage and also the auditorium. It has to be said that this wasn't an easy task, especially since the text, written in such a radical way, could easily have turned into theatre propaganda, which might have failed to make the audience's blood run cold from terror but rather from shame.
In addition the director skilfully handled the fragmented collage-form of the text. He used movie-like cutting, which was helped a lot by emotional music, as well as by actors who continued to prove that the ‘Theatre on the Balustrade’ has one of the best ensembles in Prague.
The more incisive, violent parts aren’t softened much. For example, when the gun of the young resistance fighter Radek fails, he clubs the victim (his uncle) to death; and although the act takes place behind a white cube marked ‘native heath’, the young man appears with a bloody face shortly afterwards. The torture of the pastor is intentionally shown to the audience as ‘naturalistically ‘as possible - including moments of water-pouring, kicking, and baton-beating. On the other hand, the director tried to lighten the production with more metaphorical images, though in the end these seemed more monstrous than the naturalistic ones.
This was true especially of the character called XY who chanted pro-communist slogans (Magdaléna Sidonová). Her Folk entourage (Lucie Ferenzová and Tomáš Jandáč), were a couple whose different time periods were illustrated by changes in their costumes. At first they wear folk costumes (and they don't yet pay attention to the agitators); then they become Young Pioneers (here they can already be considered collaborators); and afterwards dressed in army uniforms they clear away sacks from the barricade built by the rebellious villagers, and in the last scene they are "disco-maniacs" who celebrate victory when the last of the resistant fighters are gone.
The couple are dressed then in a 1970s' style, which is not illogical since it implies that these Communists stayed in power for that much longer. The costumes of ‘XY’ also underscore these scenes - at first she is a hardworking shop-worker in overalls and a headscarf, then she turns into an austere clerk tight-laced in her dark suit, and in the end she looks like a freakishly padded monster with a huge dove of peace on her head.
During the Prologue the characters talk mostly about their lives up to that point. After the Prologue, there is a meaning-carrying and mood-creating change of atmosphere, which seems to be a very successful stage idea.
It all starts with an idyllic village scene: a grandmother, her hair tied up in a white bun, sitting on a bench. There is a huge sheet of paper behind her (covering the whole back part of the stage) with a naively painted landscape on it.
Zdena (Zdena Hadrbolcová) talks about her family, thus explaining the origins of the different world-views of her two sons: "In the 1930's Joseph started his studies at the Military Academy... Ferdinand took care of the farm... and then the occupation came... Joseph escaped to England and joined the RAF Special Forces... Ferdinand took part in the local resistance... after the assassination of Heydrich he escaped to the East... and in Buzuluk he joined the 1st Czechoslovak Independent Brigade Group formed under the command of General Heliodor Píka..." Yes, it starts almost like a fairy tale. Two brothers - the Communist official Ferdinand (Igor Chmela) and the opponent of Communism Joseph (Jiří Ornest) have different views, but otherwise it all looks idyllic. After all, the war is over and peace is more important now... But it's not a fairy tale; both of them will be killed.
The painting of the landscape is ripped up, revealing a grey six-storey building behind it. This serves as a variety of spaces for all the other scenes describing the rise (and abolition) of a rebellious group in a Czech village.
The whole action is triggered by the pastor Ladislav Hlad (Leoš Noha) reading "The Pastoral", prohibited by the Communists. When the secret police led by Major (Petr Čtvrtníček) arrive to arrest him, the villagers make a stand. Then the men escape into the woods and form the Resistance unit.
To add some romance to the story, there are a pair of lovers, Marie (Natália Drabiščáková) and Radek (Ladislav Hampl). Through them the moments of decision and hesitation are played out; in the case of Marie there is even a kind of "misstep". When Radek leaves, she succumbs out of despair to the organist (Miloslav Mejzlík), who is full of complexes and misuses her. When Radek's returns, Marie is disappointed by the change in him: he is no longer the sensitive young man she used to love, but a killer who wants - as stated in the play - "the meat". The times have changed him and even Marie eventually accepts this. She also decides to fight.
As stated before, the play's structure resembles a collage. After the intermission, the collage is amplified by an intermezzo during which different opinions on the anti-communist resistance are read: "As the Cold War wasn't really a war, the Third Resistance wasn't really a resistance. /…/ It is justified to use any means to defy enslavement. /…/ The Third Resistance means nothing to me. Those people, who are viewed as heroes today, took their actions at a time of solid peace and while Czechoslovakia was a valid member of the United Nations. /…/ If the violent killing of committed collaborators and tools of the communist system is viewed by some people as murderous, then even those fighting the Nazis must be murderers..."
These are some of the opinions we encounter today. Of course, the creators of this play stand up for the Third Resistance, but they don't idealize it. For them, those men made decisions for different reasons, and they took their anti-communist activities to the extreme. Yet for many audience members the resistance fighters were heroes.
Miroslav Bambušek: The Czech War, directed by David Czesany, dramaturgy Lucie Ferenzová and Ivana Slámová, set design by Tomáš Bambušek, costumes by Zuzana Krejzková, music by Roman Zach, Theatre on the Balustrade, press night 20. 5. 2011