Politicians Need The Shock of Their Lives to Start Feeling Sorry (Documentary Theatre - The Divadelná Nitra Sample)
Let me start with a joke: Lenin shaves his face with a razor, when a child appears in front of him and greets him: Good morning, comrade Lenin. Lenin replies: Get out, you stinking bastard! This shows that Vladimir Ilyiich was a humanitarian, as he could have easily butchered the child.
Did the anecdote make you laugh? I think it works for the older generations, less for the younger ones – as they have a greater problem understanding the grotesque side of communist brutality, passed off as humanism. If they got the chance to understand it, they would recognize its features in current reincarnations too. They would see well.
Maybe the desire to see better has its share in the contemporary global popularity of documentary theatre. The 21st International Festival Divadelná Nitra – a representative one in our part of the world - offered us its sample. To rub off the following criticism a bit, I have to say that it was a peculiar sample, introducing a wide scope of performances, in which the artists took (and analyzed) various experimental paths.
In general it is the rule in theatrical works that the result is usually not descriptive – as opposed to documentary film. The theatre has the ability to transform reality into drama, and every person on stage into an actor. It naturally proceeds from an outer veracity to an inner, artistic one – thus, it really cannot „make“ a true document. Therefore, it is more evident when a theatre documentarist really has a connection to his topic. With some pessimism we can say that more often it is the opposite case.
* I am afraid that in documentary theatre the desire to obtain grant money triumphs over the desire to see well. It is easier to get to this money with a documentary piece because grant commissioners on both the European as well as national levels are more likely to support a document on a clearly defined topic acceptable for their political bosses than a work of art with a less unambiguous content.
Open for Everything
photo Ctibor Bachratý
And they are even happier when they can choose the topic and commission it themselves. As for example The Goethe Institute that commissioned Constanza Macras, an Argentinean choreographer living in Germany, with a piece on the life of the Roma people in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. The result is a product, which travels all over Europe under the English title of Open for Everything. At first glance it is a critique of the conventional white ideas about the Roma population; however, it is in fact actually based on these clichés. Every gypsy is a musician, singer and dancer. It brought to my mind a concentration camp anecdote where one evening the guards invited the Roma to have some fun. They lit fires, danced, sang…and in the morning they were gassed. I am afraid the difference between the aesthetic experience of these Nazi guards and contemporary white audiences is very little. And that the Roma also play a similar role now as they did then. They dance a little, sing a little and then they can go. They fulfilled a well-established image, put on a mask (the front of the one, on the reverse side of which is the children and hen thief), which concealed who they really are. I think the production presents only those Roma who – to fit the slogan that they are open to everything – agreed with putting on such a mask.
The production difficulties did not become part of the topic of the performance either. Macras and her colleagues – as we learned during the Nitra debate with the actors – looked for talents in the famous Košice housing estate of Luník IX but their relatives from this Roma ghetto refused to let them out into the dangerous outer world. And the theatre in Košice in return did not even invite the Luník people to come and see the performance. These mutual fears were not mentioned in the production at all. Instead, consumer society was criticized, however, quite strangely and for many spectators, unacquainted with the fashion world, this criticism was hard to notice. It took the form of a miniature commercial song, the text of which was put together from the names of global fashion labels “Dolce Gabbana Armani Versace Gucci”. (One would naively presuppose that the socially deprived part of the population would not care one bit about the world of luxury but the alleged popularity of this song among the Roma people is rather evidence of the opposite.) In the production the song was played with various music interludes but in an unchanging “riveting” rhythm, again and again, for an unbearably long time. The aim was – apart from the exhibition of dancers who triumph over one another with their solos during this part – to show how exhausting the commercial world is. However, it was the song itself that was exhausting. Some of the spectators could not bear it and left. The artists can hope that these were the offended admirers of consumerism but I think that the torture was just too much. (Interestingly, other festival productions suffered from the same lack of proportion as well.)
The positive thing is that the Roma people who took part in Macras´s production are great singers, musicians and dancers, they are good artists. And since they are “hot” – to use some jazz slang – they enrich the perfect, yet considerably colder, globalized art of the choreographer´s own international group, DorkyPark.
X milimeters out Y kilometers
photo Ctibor Bachratý
In contrast, the production X milimeters out Y kilometers, prepared by the Romanian author and director of allegedly European calibre, Gianina Cãrbunariu (and the ColectivA troupe), was quite rubbish from every perspective. I would guess that this production, which completely lacked heartfelt passion from the creators, was also commissioned, probably by the National Cultural Fund (Administraţia Fondului Culturat Naţional), which financed it. I in fact think that Cãrbunariu´s identity is not the enfant terrible of national culture, as she presents herself, but rather a state artist. However, the people who commissioned the piece can be satisfied only if they are cynics. The director pulled out a story from the archives of Securitate – Ceauşesco´s secret police – and it is a story without narrative and lacking drama. The dialogues are boring and it is staged so clumsily that it almost seemed to be hidden propaganda of the communist regime. Cãrbunariu wanted to make a production about dissidents, however, in Romania there were allegedly very few of them. And the police pampered them, as it seems from the performance. It suffered their complaints about the regime, it even helped a dissident – the writer and journalist Dorin Tudoran – to find work. He was just refused a passport. A kind of neighbourly, feeble struggle. The dialogues that Cãrbunariu assembled would not fill up more than twenty minutes, so she recycled them – they were constantly repeated, the actors randomly (?) switching roles. The director has several explanations for this – she supposedly explores the possibilities of the theatre and invites the spectators to take part in discussion. In reality she did not come up with anything new while annoying the greater part of the audience. The optimistic spectators at least hoped for a funny ending – that the last dialogue would be repeated until the last person in the audience leaves. But even this was false hope. The dialogue was just repeated tediously long.
I cannot imagine that such a production could lure other than a festival audience, which will find it interesting to see among other festival pieces (as I did), even though it will capture one (as it did me) solely by its lack of craft. A strange form of “grant art” is thus being born – productions that can only be presented on occasions financed by grants as well and for an audience, the large part of which (just as myself) watches these performances for free or is even paid to do so, sometimes again with grant money. During communism this system, used for example in agriculture, was called “self-eating”. Naturally, now as then it is not an effective scheme for the production and consummation of art, it is a symptomatic expression of the civilization as such. And maybe even a sign of its doom.
As a surprise Tim Etchell´s and Forced Entertainment´s production Tommorow´s Parties did not come up with a similar vision even though it is exactly about the conception of various notions of the future of the world and humanity. A man and a woman take turns in sharing these with the audience. The production is documentary in the sense that it provides the summary of what our imagination is able to produce when it comes to the concept of the future. At first these visions are funny – full of paradoxes and black humour: in the future there will be too many people or there will not be any, everyone will become an informer or there is going to be no police, the future will be one single war or a pill against aggression will be put into effect etc. etc. In this etc. we can look for the heart of the matter. Both actors shower the audience with one vision after another, all the time in the same manner. After a while – twenty minutes into the performance in my case, i.e. not even in one third of the production – the information started to go in at one ear and out at the other. In the end I could not care less for the visions of the future. The content was butchered by the tediousness of the unchanging, repetitive and autotelic form.
photo Ctibor Bachratý
It made me recall much more entertaining visionaries – Kurt Vonnegut (and his Kilgor Trout) and Stanisław Lem (and his Iljon Tichý). And I was wondering whether mister Etchells knows them. If he did, why would he create something so similar and much worse in quality? Could it be that what would seem as a defect is in fact clever intention? That Etchells wants to infect the audience with indifference towards the (boring, inevitably terrible...) future?
Forced Entertainment belongs among the global festival trotters. We can thus presuppose that this production is also the result of financing from several grants, an amalgam of co-producers, eight festivals and cultural institutions from various parts of Europe. The Slovakian production Poverty of the provincial Theatre Pôtoň is definitely not a global piece, nevertheless its creators successfully betted on the interest of regional grant commissioners in documentary theatre. They chose contemporary poverty as their topic and even did some basic research. The result is brutal “social drama”, a story of one family, where the father loses his job, which leads to poor times, the newborn baby is deported somewhere (we can hope it is a babybox), the mother feeds the other two kids and the father with her milk, then she leaves for Vienna to earn living as a prostitute (blackmailed by her neighbour who is officially a butcher and unofficially a bawd), the father falls for alcohol, the son rapes the daughter, and when the family reunites its members kill the neighbour and even taste some of her flesh. However, the form is not brutal at all. Naturalism is transformed into overstatement (for example the adult actors in the children roles are washed naked in a small bathtub by an actress of a similar age playing their mother), and horror takes on the face of a jolly comic strip, acted with comic gusto. Its “frames” appear behind the doors of refrigerators, which fill the whole of the back wall. The contrast of social horror and amusing entertainment would be quite effective if the author-director team, made up of husband and wife Michal Ditte and Iveta Ditte-Jurčová, did not get scared of the light-heartedness of the piece. This probably made them force some vague critique of consumer society into the production (praying to the larder, the revelation of the lost son in a TV commercial...) and to add an ending, in which the son – a disgusting angel figure and disinfection officer – expels his family and apparently other such wretches somewhere to a concentration camp with one piece of luggage of 25 kilograms maximum. All of this helped to create a web of false clues that are supposed to lead the spectators (or the grant commissioners?) to think they are watching a deeper piece than they really are.
It´s a piquant detail that the artists are not willing to show the result to those it is about. Why? It could annoy them that the truth is being told about them or that the truth is not being told? Be it as it may, the rule seems to be that people in need – not only the Roma – are a suitable topic and an unsuitable audience.
photo Ctibor Bachratý
The proportion of truth and illusion, sometimes even lies, varies from one document to another, sometimes it is quite hard to tell apart. From the Nitra program the Slovenian The more of us they are, the faster we will reach the goal was without a doubt the most truthful production of all. It documented what it was creating. On the other hand it was also most illusory as it was creating illusion. However, we could not call it documentary theatre – rather it was a screening from time to time interrupted by stage activity. We Czechs found this piece familiar as it was built on mystification: its character and content are indicated by the three listed authors who are all named Janez Janša. It is not their given name. They officially renamed themselves on purpose after the Slovenian politician who had previously also renamed himself from the - for the Slovenian people - unpleasantly sounding Ivan. The real Janša is famous for his struggle with the communist regime. From 1990 he holds high political functions and is renowned for abuse of power scandals as well as for his alleged corruption. In the present he is – for the second time in his career – the Slovenian Prime Minister. The artists who accepted his name (a process documented by the movie) wanted to deprive Janša-the politician of his identity, and experience how this transformation would change themselves.
One production succeeded in creating a balance of the outer, documentary truth and the inner, artistic truth – The Clouds of the Czech theatre group Handa Gote. The performance is a ritual during which its main author and actress, Veronika Švábová, preaches that blood is not water. She surrounds herself on stage with authentic objects – letters, photographs, even a dollhouse that her father made when she was little or a mask in which her grandfather used to frighten her. A portion of these relics – kept because the family does not throw out things – is presented to the audience. The other part stays a puzzle. Its presence on stage is important just as part of the ritual. We are watching both of these levels simultaneously. Švábová tells the life stories of four generations of her ancestors. Fate wants it that the small, personal histories meet big history: the German occupation during the war and the succeeding communist regime. The auntie was reported by her neighbour because she did not wear the Star of David, the grandfather escaped death in a concentration camp because he had black eyebrows and pretended that he was thirty-five though he was seventy, the great-grandfather was the co-founder of the Czech Communist Party, and two of his children took part in the communist rule for a while to become its victims etc. etc. etc. These histories are not told synoptically, they do not resemble a linear narrative but only its fragments. All of the on stage mentioned family “moments” are listed in the program together with family trees. Apart from helping the audience orient themselves the artists suggest that history is interesting, however, it is not altogether important. The actress uses it to meet people, with whom she is somehow connected – were they such or other. This connection is only rarely articulated. More often it is intimate, unutterable. Then it takes on the form of a dance, lively yet shot, and screened as a back projection where the lower layer is made up of the ancestors´ world, fragments from their letters and photographs. The live movement of the dancer is often stopped on the screen, the track sometimes conceals the ancestors just as the present conceals the past, at other times it enters their world as a guest from the future. Švábová´s partners, Tomáš Procházka and Jakub Hybler, play an important role in this coordination, creating the sound and image “track” right in front of the audience. The ritual, which defies description, is impressive also because it is personal, unpretentious and fragile. It shares this third characteristic with the clouds, a dessert which the actress starts to bake according to her grandmother´s recipe in the beginning of the performance and in the end she distributes it fresh among the audience.
It´s going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend
photo Ctibor Bachratý
Another form of physical documentary theatre was presented by the Belgian group Voetvolk.vzw in their production It´s going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend. Lisbeth Gruwez dances solo to the music and sound accompaniment of her composer Maarten Van Cauwenbergh. The documentary side of the project is impersonal this time: it lies in the examination of the relationship of a demagogue and the crowd. The dancing choreographer studied the gestures of famous speechmakers – Hitler, Mussolini or Obama - and her musician partner built his minimalistic composition from several sentences (by coincidence devoted to the future) of the ultraconservative preacher Jimmy Swaggart. While the composer´s approach reminded me of the album called My Life in the Bush of Ghosts from 1981, where David Byrne and Brian Eno used sound records of preachers, politicians etc. and from many fragments derived the “singing” in their compositions. The dancer herself evoked another rock star – Marilyn Manson. She presented herself on stage as a similarly ugly, only more distinguished androgynous being that jumps from gracefully feminine submissive gestures and movement to sharp male dominance. In one human being a demagogue manipulating the crowds meets someone from the crowd who succumbs to this demagogue maybe even devotes oneself to him. The performance is in fact rather cold, yet it is effective: it uses an almost abstract form to show the mechanism of domination and submission.
A similar topic was played out at the festival in dramatic theatre as well. Several times, to be precise. If Cãrbunariu had better material at her disposal or if she had more understanding, and put in more effort, she could have maybe reached a similar result to Jelena Gremina´s play Two in Your House. Gremina also showed the police in the dictatorship regime (i.e. Lukashenko´s contemporary one) as soft, neighbourly types. However, under this surface she unmasks inhuman Martians, jacks who inform on one another, and who want others to be the same as they are. The author worked with the testimonies on the house arrest of the poet and opposition candidate for president, Vladimir Neklyaev, and on the practices of the secret police collected by members of the Moscow Teatr.doc in Belarus. After that she worked as a classical poet-author who is able to pick the essence and drama from the multiple narratives. The drama of this piece seems quite funny at first glance. The comedy resides in the fact that in this house arrest the only person who acts as a tormentor is Neklyaev´s wife – simply at home here, not “in jail” as her husband and his guards. She systematically tortures the present officers, for example with loud music, and she uses all possible means to let them know that they do not belong here. The situations, in which one furious woman makes all the male “sissies” lose countenance, make the audience laugh. And laughter has the same ability as simplicity in the Handa Gote piece: it liberates from pomp and pretentiousness. The Teatr.doc production can be considered true documentary theatre, a true imprint of documented reality. Other documentary pieces make evident what I think goes for Two in Your House as well: that they are always – even unconsciously – political because they capture and comment on events in a certain place and time, on man as part of society. That is why – be they poor or opulent, serious or funny – they are usually of a local character.
Local character does not rule out wider communicativeness. The audience at the discussion after the production Anamnesis – staged by Viktor Bodó and his Sputnik group in cooperation with Katona Theatre - was thus surprised that the Hungarian artists are so well acquainted with Slovakian hospitals. Either the hospitals in both countries are so similar because they have their origin in the “socialist camp” or hospitals all over the world share the same pitch black absurd ridiculousness. In any case, there are pragmatic reasons for the choice of style – a caricaturing grotesque realism.
During this discussion the dramaturge and co-author of the production, Júlia Róbert, described the genesis of Anamnesis. The artists prepared themselves by talking to doctors, hospital staff and patients. One statement that also appears in the film, and that is screened in short segments in the performance, was especially crucial: “When a person uses humour as a technique, a surviving strategy, it helps him in the moment of death as well.” It is not only the patients´ “tactic”. Humour (often tough, cynical) is also a means for doctors and other hospital staff to cope with the tragedies they encounter. The validity of this tactic can be generalized even more: people in Hungary want to laugh at themselves as it is the only way one can stay in a good mood. Surely many Czech patients, doctors and spectators can identify with this feeling as well.
The empty contours of the performance are only slowly populated with characters and the empty space is filled only to make the situations more real. The result is almost hyperrealistic: a hospital lobby, an elevator door, a coffee machine, a phone on the wall, reception, a hatch, a door leading to the medical office and in one wall – which we notice just at the right time – we can see a door to an autopsy icebox. Doctors, nurses and patients keep passing through the lobby...
The plot is interrupted by the mentioned projections and songs borrowed (Riders on the Storm or Bye, bye, love) or original, composed to the “unsuitable” medicine texts such as the Hippocratic Oath or a death certificate. The form resembles a collage of freely assembled numbers, in which patients are revived, an unpleasant porter examines “civilians”, a giant cockroach creeps up a wall and a sewer rat runs around the floor, a pyramid of pills is brought on a tray instead of a cake. These scenes are connected through “narratives” or – to use the genre distinction listed in the program – pathogeneses of two characters whose “disease” is the hospital itself.
photo Ctibor Bachratý
The first one is a patient, the victim of complaisance. A doctor walking through the lobby in a hurry opened the door so rashly that it fell out of the hinges. A patient helped him put it back, and the door cut his finger off. The patient leaves for the surgery room with his hand wrapped in a handkerchief, and his finger in his other hand. He comes back without finding the surgery room. He takes this trip several times and always unsuccessfully. And what is worse: a cynically funny fate awaits him in the waiting room. He loses a second finger in the suddenly shut down hatch, and several others when he attempts to pull out a plastic cup from the coffee machine.
The second hero is a survivor who looks for his dead mother in the hospital. Also unsuccessfully. Just as the patient he is always kicked back into the lobby. He even finds a dissecting room here with dead bodies in drawers. They show the corpses to him “chopped” (legs, a male crotch, and a male head); however, his mother is not there. In the end, after other numbers, the door of the icebox opens again, and the vainly searching son comes out of them as a corpse himself. “He directed it well”, says the doctor at this moment, and with this phrase the performance ends.
It is not a manifestly surprising utterance. The searching son is partly (and partly is not) the alter-ego of Bodó. He is a theatre director and theatre is mentioned many times during the performance. “This is the first act...I mean, floor?” the lost director asks the porter and he replies that “this only has one act”. Three nurses are very tired so they sit down on a bench sigh “Moscow” in a Chekhovian allusion, and fall asleep – with the following commentary: “One cannot make head or tail of this scene.” The medical staff dances a cabaret dance with smiles glued to their lips. A reflector falls down right next to the doctor who does not get scared, on the contrary, he buys another coffee from the coffee machine, takes a cup...and someone stretches out his hand to him from the opening in the machine...
To make it clear that the hospital is a hospital, and a metaphor of the theatre or even culture as a whole, the lobby hosts a meeting of officials who proclaim that they could reduce money for culture (after reducing money for health services). Their answer to the objection that people cannot live without culture is performed in a chorus: “Why couldn´t they?!” Then one of them gets a heart attack, the others start kicking him, Death arrives with her scythe, and the man says that they really should have left culture in peace. The meaning is clear: the Hungarian artists are of the opinion that politicians disfavour culture and health services, and regret it only when they experience the shock of their lives (e.g. heart attack). I am afraid they are right. Even if I did not agree though, if I was offended by the caricatured image of the hospital, I would be pleased with the gusto, with which this piece is made and played. It could not be created by someone who rides the grant wave. I hope that it is real art that survives in the end.
Constanza Macras/ DorkyPark: Open for everything, director and choreography C. Macras, dramaturgy Carmen Mehnert, stage design Tal Shacham, costumes Gilvan Coêlho de Oliveira, produced by Constanza Macras/DorkyPark and Goethe-Institut (Germany), premiere May 10, 2012 at Wiener Festwochen
Gianina Cãrbunariu: X milimetres out Y kilometres, directed by G.Cãrbunariu, ColectivA (Romania), premiere November 18, 2011
Tomorrow‘s Parties, directed by Tim Etchells, stage design Richard Lowdon, light design Jim Harrison, Forced Entertainment (Great Britain), premiere June 24, 2011
Michal Ditte: Poverty, directed by Iveta Ditte Jurčová, dramaturgy Róbert Mankoveký, videoart Erik Bartoš and Peter Višňovský, stage design Zuzana Formánková, Divadlo Pôtoň (Slovakia), premiere February 24, 2012
Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša: The more of us there are, the faster we will reach the goal, script and direction by J.Janša a J.Janša, programming Luka Dekleva and Urban Potočnik, sound design Sašo Kalan, dramaturgy Tina Dobnik, Maska (Slovenia), premiere April 13, 2010
The Clouds, by Veronika Švábová, Tomáš Procházka, Jakub Habler, Robert Smolík and Jan Dörner, Handa Gote Reasearch & Development, premiere October 20, 2011
It's going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend, concept and choreography Lisbeth Gruwez, composition, sound and assistance Maarten Van Cauwenberghe, stage design Veronique Branquinho, consulting artist Bart Meuleman, light design Harry Cole, Voetvolk.vzw (Belgium), premiere September 27, 2011
Jelena Gremina: Two in Your House, research and interviews Jekatěrina Bondarenko, Talgat Batalov, Alexander Rodionov, directed by T. Batalov, choreography Alexander Andrjaškin, video Andrej Stadnikov, stage design and costumes Vladimir Bagramov, music composition Johannes Burström and Zoja Garina, Teatr.doc (Russia), premiere November 18, 2011
Júlia Róbert and Viktor Bodó: Anamnesis, directed by V.Bodó, stage design Juli Balázs, costumes Fruzsina Nagy, light design Tamás Bányai, music Klaun von Heydenaber, choirmaster Dóra Halas, dramaturgy J.Róbert, Katona József Színház and Szputnyik Hajózási Társaság (Hungary), premiere April 27, 2012
english version of the article from Svět a divadlo magazine, issue 6, volume 2012
translated by Ester Žantovská