|Confessions of a Masochist, photo by Ivana Tkačíková|
The play is, strictly speaking, a series of episodes, introduced by a commentary or in other words the title of each scene with an ironic touch (“And happy days of prosperity began in the company” or “Mr. M. meets the authority he has dreamt of and experiences ecstasy”.) In the following monologue Mr. M. reminisces on the given life episode that is then usually demonstrated on stage by an acted sketch.
In the first part of the play Mr. M. presents his difficulties inside a quite meek BDSM community. The sadist Robert wants to show Mr. M. the pictures of his kids instead of whipping him and his mantra is “the safe word”. The dominatrix Laura also fails to demonstrate anything wild. Instead she starts a long bureaucratic litany on putting down the contractual terms of a SM relationship, and on everything that is not possible and for which the client has to pay extra.
Bureaucracy that kills spontaneity and the possibility of excitement even in the least probable places is one of the really successful jokes offered by the fusion of erotic as one topic and the socio-political situation as the other. Everything is trade and commerce. However, Mr. M. stays dissatisfied even after he leaves the institutionalized erotic and tries to find more luck in the streets – the police action in the tram is “skilly” (Mr. M. dresses as a homeless person), “the leftists are boring” (Mr. M. is not able to experience any violence during the International Monetary Fund Congress in Prague) and “the Nazis are piece of shit” (Mr. M. paints his face brown and attends a skinhead concert, and once again nothing happens).
The imaginary half of the play is constituted by a dream, in which Mr. M. is confronted by an anthropomorphic horse that exposes him to the magnificently satisfactory and freedom guaranteeing possibilities offered by the physical form and destiny of a horse. It is here that the whole play really starts to have an openly political stance – the author transfers Mr. M. from the BDSM community to being an employee. The horse shape materializes in the subordination of the ‘ponyboy’ to his master (in his dreams), as well as in the well known Czech phrase ‘to toil like a horse’. Masochism does not limit itself to one’s free time anymore, it becomes whole life priority. One does not need to make it a hobby after work in some club – humiliation and pain can be experienced from dawn till dusk. It is a pity that one is always in danger of being accidentally successful.
The production stage directed by Martina Schlegelova helps to construct a world that is in reality one big BDSM club. Its manifestations are manifold – be it an advertising agency or the Kaufland supermarket chain. In the production the manager of Kaufland is played by Richard Fiala, who in a white butcher’s coat takes the image of a sadistic superior ad absurdum, unreasonably and at all times shouting at the top of his voice, cracking a whip and demanding that employees lick his boots. For Mr. M. the utmost bliss. Tomáš Kobr successfully underlines the primary inconspicuousness of the main character and keeps him on the level of an eager, convinced and therefore perverse excitement for his cause. Mr. M. is not satisfied with only Kaufland, and keeps taking on other jobs, all in the anticipation of meeting with Mirek (Kalousek, the Czech Chancellor of the Exchequer), ‘the dream authority’, impressively whipping and ‘cutting’ with his pen.
Politics seem to be the incubator of the toughest authorities/sadists. Thus even Mr. M. has to take interest in it. Sikora’s thesis is clear: there is no greater pleasure for a masochist than to become the voter of a right-wing party. In the production Mirek wears a huge paper mask (Sikora even names the character A man with the mask of Kalousek, not simply Kalousek) with the upper segment of the politician’s face. Mirek leaves the greatest impression when he crosses the stage on a cart, stylized into a Hellenic monarch. The directorial idea stems primarily from a line from the text (“we are approaching Greece”), and the whole ‘sketch’ is a good example of the not very sophisticated humour of the play as well as the production.
Sikora’s text, the half of which is formally narrative monologue, does not leave the director with much space for creativity or experimentation. However, Schlegelova is great in guiding the cast to be quite precise in their acting, especially in the natural way of working with stylized language.
I find the use of language in the play as well as the actors’ and director’s approach to it the most interesting aspect of Confessions of a Masochist. Sikora resists banality by using stylized language, or to be concrete disjointed syntax. He reverses word order, divides sentences into short, barking parts separated by full stops. Thus one gathers information gradually. For example, the union leader talks to Mr. M. in Kaufland: “And so good. It is good. That you join. Happy I am. That you join. People we need. Smart ones as well. Educated. And you A levels. Even A levels you have.” The language constantly draws attention to itself, it stumbles; we do not get to hear a fluent complex sentence. The spectator thus cannot distance himself from what is being said, and the actors cannot act ‘naturally’. All four actors are at home with stylized acting, they excel in putting pauses - indicated by full stops in the text - in the right places and the result is a peculiar sort of word play and language humour. Phrases and too frequently used terms are exposed, such as “the mean, mean, mean crisis”, the idea of which for Mr. M. coincides with the dominatrix Laura (Zuzana Onufrakova, playing all the female characters, appears on stage whenever the phrase is used, and utters part of her bored bureaucratic speech). Kobr repeats the crisis phrase ever more rapidly, as if by the way, monotonously, and empties it of meaning even more. It is telling that normal syntax is used only in Mr. M’s dream/vision, where everything works as it should - liberated from reason that dominates us completely in a world governed by contracts.
The language level then works on a socio-critical level itself as a quite stimulating element of political satire. The elementary idea of the text – the story of a masochist, who is finally happy (and then again sad) in contemporary Czech society – is also a potent satirical shortcut. It can be developed seemingly ad absurdum – working for corporations, primitive slaveholder bosses of big concerns and the awful working conditions in them, budget cuts in social welfare, tough rightist politics, and one can even incorporate a reality show looking for the best human resource on the planet that rounds off the grand finale. Sikora uses great hyperbole in this part, and creates a parallel between sado-masochistic relationships and the functioning of society, the climax of this being the truly inhumane tasks and conditions at the Olympics of human resources (mining five tons of coal, the liquidation of toxic material without any equipment, the sewing of pockets 23 hours a day).
However, Mr. M. is a rarity with his desire for humiliation and hardships, and so he has to try and convert the rest of society to his ‘religion’. At the same time he is not that unique. Apart from other things the point is that his whole odyssey is in fact kind of ‘as if from everyday life reality’ that happens to every other person, and that every other person bears it as normal – whether we are talking about being bossed around by a screaming primitive or being ruled by socially heartless rightists, who easily dupe their voters. However, Mr. M. refuses to be duped by luxury that he in the end unintentionally gains as the winner of the Olympics, and therefore he returns to the beginning. One could say that as a masochist he is in an even worse position than in the times when BDSM clubs did not satisfy him. Now he is rich, protected, he does not have to do anything, he has everything and everyone shields him. The society seized him, and according to his criteria totally rid him of his freedom – freedom to suffer, toil, experience pain, become somebody’s draft horse.
Nevertheless, Sikora does not write about some general global vacuum. The Czech nationality plays a crucial role here – that a Czech man is the best in the world in adamant humiliation is Sikora’s metaphor of the national character. Let’s face it – Mr. M. is not that perverse (in terms of different than the others) after all…
We inhabit a distinctly Czech landscape here, and the text is larded with allusions to concrete political and media cases. However, Sikora does not stop at general criticism of contemporary Czech rightist ethics, the title of the most efficient sadist falls upon Miroslav Kalousek alias Sikora’s Mirek, who reproduces the authentic speeches of the real politician. Mr. M. also mentions Péťa (meaning the Prime Minister Petr Nečas: in the production he also appears riding the cart in a mask), who works towards the same goal as Mirek but lacks his authority. Moreover, he constantly looks as if he “smelt something niffy”.
To me it does not seem that the naming of concrete people is necessarily banal, it can be, and often is, a legitimate part of local political satire (Anglophone texts are full of Bushes, Blairs, Obamas and others). In Sikora’s text, Mirek and Péťa are the logical peaks of the capitalist pyramid that the author builds right in front of our eyes. It is given by the local historical development that art engaged in this manner often leads critics and spectators to be wary of leftist ideology. From the ‘Western’ point of view this objection is a bit ridiculous – and in the case of Confessions of a Masochist absolutely so. Engaged art does not necessarily equal agitational. Sikora does not promote some concrete ideology - he simply protests just like his Mr. M.
Confessions of a Masochist is not leftist propaganda, and it is rather amusing and funny. The problem lies more in the often very superficial nature of the humour applied, in the lack of a sharp satirical edge. It is not even really politically incorrect (if we do not perceive the members of the BDSM community with a bit of exaggeration as a ‘minority’ of sorts). Even the neo-Nazis are funny guys here - they cannot beat a gypsy properly anymore - in the logic of a discontented masochist, and in the framework of the satirically comic approach, it definitely makes sense, nonetheless, on stage the sketch resembles an acted out pub joke. One can hardly talk about some socio-critical commentary. The second half is full of variations on the theme of “being an employee is modern day slavery”. However, it is the finale that is most successful in terms of a wittily staged social critique. The “human resources Olympics” achieves to combine the awful working conditions with national stereotypes and the phenomenon of reality show, downgraded itself, but working well in this combination. To watch somebody’s ‘live’ slavish work is a nice satirical condensation of reality.
If we from time to time want to encounter plays not only about politics but plays that are truly politically engaged we have to accept that they are going to be ideologically loaded, thus for some less digestible and possibly controversial. But that is what they are supposed to be. I think that Confessions of a Masochist is rather the opposite case – the spectators attending the production of Theatre Letí will probably resonate with Sikora’s play. Then there is always the danger that the ‘message’ will be overlooked as something that is self-evident or possibly something to pleasantly laugh at…
|Blonde She-Beast II.|
The stage director Tomáš Svoboda, three actors and one musician worked with a recording, which was obtained secretly during a meeting on April 9, 2011, when Kočí met with the member of the Frýdek-Místek local organization of the party, Lukáš Vích, and the party secretary, Markéta Dobešová. Kočí declares that the funding/corruption affair of the Věci veřejné party was part of a long-term project, in which politicians of the Czech biggest right-wing party ODS also took part. To be concrete, Petr Tluchoř (after the recording was made public, Kočí stated that she lied and speculated on purpose because she supposedly knew about being recorded).
Director Svoboda reacted instantly, and the first stage reading took place in Rubín on April 17. The media ballyhoo popularized the cabaret in due manner, and it became a sort of sensation.
Svoboda divided the reading into two parts preceded by the informal entrée of actor Ondřej Pavelka, who introduces the whole project by exaggeration, explaining how the theatre came across Kočí’s story. They needed a sure hit, and they overheard about this very skilful author, and even though Hollywood was also interested, they managed to stage it in Rubín first – with piety to the living author they have not crossed out a single word! Even the director appears on stage with a short introduction, and Pavelka reminds us that he will reappear in the role of a mute waiter. The introduction itself reveals much about the ‘staging’ approach – we are not to expect realistic illusion or a compact piece of art. Instead one can enjoy parody, stepping out of roles and the magic of happening.
In the first part called Vítek we watch Lukáš Příkazký in the role of the gray eminence of the party, Vít Bárta, who delivers a fiery speech to his colleagues (the audience) – “money produces power and power produces money”. However, the straightforward caricature of the politician – a several times smarmed quiff or the Napoleonic physique - seems more what the artists are after than the content of the speech.
The second part – Kristýna – clearly shows the party´s true boss and mover. Barbora Poláková, her physical appearance stylized into that of the media image of Kočí, begins by talking about her unsuccessful acting studies, and only then we are presented with the acted out recording. The ‘actress’ Kočí enters the café (acting in a totally exaggerated manner, posing as if she was in front of a camera) with a huge tape recorder and headphones (“we are all issued with these”). Her party colleagues Vích and Dobešová are also equipped with recorders. They all prepare their equipment and openly comment in front of one another on what they are doing. Everything is taken ad absurdum including the bumpkin behaviour of Lukáš Vích (Pavelka), who keeps leaning on a pitchfork while sitting at the café table, or the wig and ultra short miniskirt of the disgustingly gulping Dobešová (Příkazký). The meeting is interrupted and again ironized by music – a Czech folk piano motif or the repeated ditty that the journalist Kmenta is paid by ODS party that keeps returning as refrain, and during which everyone always stands up. The final bonus ‘pop-hit’ makes for a separate sketch. Its central slogan reads “I am innocent, it was a wilful lie”. Barbora Poláková as Kočí delivers it with real bravado and feeling.
Svoboda’s cabaret is built on exaggeration and permanent use of irony, and Poláková is a real professional in this respect. She is the star of the production, and it is predominantly owing to her that one laughs heartily. She delivers certain phrases in a notably pathetic manner, as for example “we are to do with high politics” (again everyone stands up) or “Havel is ready to stand up for me” (tinged with the Czech national anthem). When she has a phone call from the ‘godfather’ of ODS (that is the businessman funding the party) she acts completely unprofessionally as a minikin, cooing and giggling. Moreover, she asks her colleagues to pull out the tape out of the recorder when it is full, and record on the other side – she simply stages herself. Which is probably the most significant added value/point of the whole stage reading.
That is if we are talking simply about its content, about the stage adaptation. In this case the political act is inherent in the snap reaction of the artists. From time to time it is more valuable than refined art that attempts at some deeper interpretations. Nevertheless, it is interesting to observe the sociological dimension of such an act, the events and phenomena that it incidentally provokes, and the way, in which it lives its own life, comments on things it did not plan to, and creates further topics for discussion.
As the most evident example we can state the reaction of Kristýna Kočí, who after seeing the production declared that she will sue the artists because she has copyright on the text of the recording (!). Such a reaction is of course great PR for the production as well as for the theatre.
|Marina´s Thirtieth Love, photo by Jiří N. Jelínek|
Similarly to Confessions of a Masochist erotic and politics connect in this piece. The pianist Marina lives in the totalitarian Soviet Union, in Moscow at the end of the 1980’s, and stumbles between an enthusiastic admiration for the dissent, and depression from the awful times. In the meantime she is looking for true love and passion – however, though she is sexually liberated and constantly in some man´s bed she cannot find what she is looking for until she meets the president of a communist party organization, Rumjancev, who introduces her to orgasm as well as an engineering manufactory...
The creators describe the production as a scenic fresco. It is made up of a succession of non-homogenous scenes from Marina´s life, which combine elements of classical as well as physical theatre, ‘mob’ scenes, video projections, music (even live produced) and even some acrobatics. Nudity also plays a crucial role here. Sadly, the combination of all of the above mentioned does not guarantee the monumental effect one would suppose. Despite of the use of all available theatrical means the spectator does not experience shock nor shuddering, which would be the logical expectation from a production about a human being crushed by a totalitarian regime.
The problem lies in the directorial and dramaturgical concept: the production is neither sufficiently journalistic/documentary to pose new questions on the topic of “an individual´s life in totality”, nor does it succeed in reaching our emotions. The result then reminds one of a poster-like agitprop – though of the opposite character than the one that is especially in the finale ironically acted out on stage.
Similarly to Mr. M., Marina´s life can also be divided in two halves – the one before the ‘revelation’, and the one after. The search for this turning point is the substance of Marina´s fate, and so the imaginary first half takes up the majority of the two-hour length of the play. Marina (Jana Pidrmanová) enters as a sensual beauty in a white mini-dress with a contemptuous hard look on her face. She is not really there for her lovers as is apparent right from the first scene with the genius pianist Valentin. The naked Vladimír Marek talks to (and eventually has sex with) Marina, who is not physically present, we can just hear her reproduced voice. Marina appears only after the sex, the lovers talk for awhile, and then they both play Chopin on the piano – as pantomime. Marina moves to the music excessively but ‘plays’ only ordinarily - it is jingle jangle student music (Miloslav König plays right on stage); when Valentin plays he does not move at all – in fact he collapses on the imaginary piano in the end. The first scene still seems to promise an interesting theatrical piece even though minor disrupting ‘shortcomings’ do appear. During Valentin´s piano recital a man and a half-naked girl (Jindřiška Křivánková) dance on stage, squirming and twisting onto his deeply felt interpretation of Chopin – a redundant element evoking attempts at ‘alternative’ art at high school academies.
Sensuality and nakedness are an issue itself. The adaptation of Sorokin´s novel would surely bear a bit of explicitness maybe it even needs it. However, in the production of Studio Továrna naked bodies and erotic as such are rid of all mystery, of anything close to sexy or exciting. Bodies are stripped without second thought but in this way they are also somewhat reduced to ‘flesh’. That goes for the lesbian sex scene of Marina and young Sasha, and especially for the crazy alcoholic woman with a more than imperfect body, who appears on stage at the same moment. Marina experiences a transforming revelation (“Marina, you must love”), and sex without love start to disgust her. It is understandable as a symbol or compression, however, it is too literal and too redundant – as a member of the audience I felt embarrassed and the well known truth is that awkwardness should not leave the stage and enter the auditorium.
Unfortunately, this feeling returns several times during the production, for example, during the meeting of Marina and an American friend in Metropolitan hotel - the caricatured imitation of the American accent is not funny or original. It is very artificial and derived - both the director and the actor are at fault here - that it is hard to believe that this man is able to enrage Marina with his phrases about how fantastic American democracy is. The drunken vulgar gush of words stands as an apparent peak of Marina´s despair but even if she added another (superfluous) chain of vulgarities it would probably not make one any more emotionally involved. This was apparently not due to the actress´s shortcomings – the actors in general had trouble with the interpretation of their characters in the fragmented piece as well as with the quite schematic dialogues.
This is the case also in the scene with dissident Míťa, whom Miloslav König had to (willingly or unwillingly) interpret as a superficially outraged and pathetic archetype of an intellectual fighter for freedom. Marina goes to visit him after his (already second one) comeback from prison, and brings his wife a package full of food that she obtained in the preceding scene thanks to favouritism from one of the members of the central committee of the communist party with whom she clearly had an affair. While Míťa forces the indifferent Marina to quick sex his wife walks around with the package reciting its content excitedly – stewed ham, red caviar... The compression is so evident that more than anything else one perceives the directorial construct. The following conversation includes dialogues of the type: “Don´t worry, Russia won´t perish, not ever. – But we shall perish.”
Marina goes around saying “Why do we have to live in such awful times”. The production itself does not show us much of it, though. Except for the long queue for groceries, and a history textbook conversation with the dissident the director serves us only an attempt at a sort of a mob inferno symbolized predominantly by the crazy alcoholic woman, who barks into the howling music that “Hell is here, the devil is sitting on a tree”.
The crucial moment of the production – and not only narrative-wise – comes when Marina meets comrade Rumjancev (Jiří Štrébl). He brings new energy on stage. There is not a hint of cynicism or depression in his behaviour or the pointless dragging or roaming around that was typical for all the other characters surrounding Marina including her own self. He is full of invincible optimism and enthusiasm; he declares with sincere gusto how he loves Russia, and how it is necessary to trust the common folk because they are never wrong. Marina is clearly impressed especially by Rumjancev´s words, yet, she experiences her first orgasm with him. Efficiency simply rules – Marina falls for the magnificently structured work in Rumjancev´s engineering factory, and then it is only a step to becoming a Stakhanovite.
The stage representation of the operation of a factory as a mechanism of live bodies in red leggings and white shirts is overall spectacular even though the movement is not perfect. The once sensual Marina enters dressed dully in shapeless grey and with a plain hairdo. She does not stick out of the mass at all. After an awkward moment she enthusiastically accepts work at a cutting tool, becoming part of the collective and sealing her fate. It is quite obvious what the artists want to communicate – thus, the whole finale that suffers from the repetition of stereotypes so often used in artistic portrayals of totality is somewhat redundant. We witness a meeting where employees and their bosses offer absurd contributions on the improvement of productivity, and subsequently a report on the same topic. Marina´s conversion culminates with an outburst of anger by the common folk – the factory employees fanatically chant anti-Israeli slogans, and Marina eventually joins in. Here the production once again gets very close to cliché – the creators cannot have really hoped to arouse an emotional reaction – whether disgust or fear – in this way.
Similar to Divadelní Studio Továrna, the ‘authorial’ theatre Feste also has a very specific, thematic dramaturgy. Where Továrna declares interest in various forms of totality and minorities, Feste from Brno focuses on more generally defined socially engaged and political topics; with the aim to “help to develop an open civic society.” The stage director Jiří Honzírek and his colleagues predominantly work with elements of documentary theatre that they perceive as means of preserving memory and exploring different forms of identity.
|She Grazed Horses on a Balcony|
The anthropologists – 228, 113 and 654 – wear unisex costumes, and remind one of the protagonists of Star-trek. There is no doubt that they are human only partially – 228 moves and talks in a strictly robotic manner, 113 keeps jumping, twisting unnaturally and performing acrobatic tricks (his speech is also quite frantic and expressive) and 654 constantly clicks on the computer mouse, to which he is connected.
The official history naturally paints a quite unflattering and stereotypical picture of the Romani people – full of kidnapped children and skirts with a sewed in pocket for a stolen hen. The documentary level provides short lectures from Romani history, interlarded with for example Romani myths or anecdotes and jokes, such as “every Romani recipe begins with the clause ´You steal three eggs...´” (which the ignorant anthropologists take as a serious source of information). The fragments of the past help the scientists to decode the woman´s personal materials (diaries etc.), and the related genocide.
By approaching the Romani people topic as sci-fi, Honzírek and his colleagues touch upon the theme of memory (the memory of language and communication as well) and the way in which a picture of the past is produced, and the manner in which we help to create future memory.
Theatre Feste chose a quite general view of history (and the present times) derived from overused stereotypes of the Romani minority, and enriched by an ethnic genocide vision. The shift in time leads the artists to a certain generality, caution and political correctness (yes, timidity seems to be a problem of all the mentioned theatrical pieces), at the same time it offers a view of the present, and an indirect metaphorical sort of engagement. In spite of interpretational laboriousness, and at times an overly didactic approach, the production creates a comprehensible vision of a world, in which racism has become a norm, a ‘natural defensiveness’.
The above mentioned theatrical productions represent a wide range of genres. They cover numerous partial themes overall with very different approaches to what we might understand as ‘political theatre’ – it would not make much sense to generalize. However, they have something in common – they all attempt to see the individual as part of a socio-political system always coming to the conclusion that he is weak, and face to face with such a mechanism quite helpless. Be it capitalism or communism, from down below or high above, the individual does not stand a chance...
Roman Sikora: Confessions of a Masochist, directed by Martina Schlegelová, stage design Jana Špalová, costumes Aneta Grňáková, dramaturgy Marie Špalová, Divadlo Letí/cycle Hyde Park in Švandovo divadlo, premiere January 26, 2011
The Blonde She-beast, directed by Tomáš Svoboda, A studio Rubín, premiere April 17, 2011 (written from the performance on May 8, 2011)
Vladimir Sorokin-Karel Steigerwald: Marina´s Thirtieth Love, translation Libor Dvořák, directed by Viktorie Čermáková, stage design and costumes Marjetka Kürner Kalous, music Petr Haas, choreography Halka Třešňákovöá, dramaturgy Matěj Samec, Divadelní studio Továrna, premiere January 26, 2011
Jiří Honzírek, Katarína Koišová, Sabina Macháčová: She Grazed Horses on a Balcony, directed by Jiří Honzírek, stage design Radomír Otýpka, costumes Žiži, music Jiří Starý, dramaturgy Katarína Koišová, Sabina Macháčová, Divadlo Feste, premiere January 29, 2011
english version of the article from Svět a divadlo magazine, issue 4, volume 2011
translated by Ester Žantovská