Traditional Theatre and Experiment in Open Space
Site-specific – a term that works like a magnet. Uniqueness bound to a specific place, with part of the magic being grounded in publicity: proportionally to artistic ambitions and promotion, spectator's expectations rise. The question is what happens when this bubble bursts.
In the beginning of summer 2014, Prague witnessed the premieres of two projects with the potential to become theatrical events. Judgment Day (Soudný den) in the former Žižkov freight station and two weeks later Against progress. Against love. Against democracy. (Proti pokroku. Proti lásce. Proti demokracii.) in the vast space of DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, an important Prague art gallery. Theatre Letí participated in both of them, yet in each to a different extent. In the case of Judgment Day the theatre group only shielded the project of another theatre group, Tiger in Need (Tygr v tísni), Against... was completely their own production.
■ Tiger in Need already had a chance to work with non-theatrical space in last year's production of Golem at the Štvanice island. In Judgment Day the dilapidated villa (where the spectators had to literally search for the actors) was replaced by the industrial environment of an abandoned railway station. However, merely a small part of the station was used for the production, and hide and seek was played only before the beginning of the event – groups of people wandered through the vast functionalistic complex in an attempt to find an unmarked entrance and get into the hall where the production was supposed to take place.
Judgment Day, a play by the Austrian dramatist Ödön von Horváth, tells the story of guilt against conscience, of public opinion, which is more substantial than personal opinion, of tragedies that stem from all of this. It also warns against unmerciful and ruthless mass judgment. The plot begins when the main character, stationmaster Hudetz, and the innkeeper's young daughter, Anna, kiss and this becomes the cause of a railway disaster (their misdeed is at the end allegorically compared to that of Adam and Eve in Paradise). Hudetz, who forgets to switch the points (and denies his misdemeanor), becomes an unwanted hero in the otherwise calm rural community.
The protagonist, just like other important characters, is deliberately pictured ambiguously, so sympathies are constantly changing sides. Is he the culprit or the victim? The spectator is in fact in the same position as the village citizens – he is also supposed to have his doubts about which side to take. Matěj Nechvátal's acting did a lot to support exactly this ambiguity. In contrast with the others, he was rather indistinct, but that is exactly how his character comes out in the text. “A conscientious clerk”, as he calls himself, transforms into a hero or reprobate without really making any effort. Even the tragedy, which he caused, happened somehow without his endeavor – Anna provoked him to kiss her, and then she “of her own will” provided him with an alibi.
Anna, played by Anna Kratochvílová, was portrayed in absolute contrast to Hudetz. At first she is full of life, she does not hide in the safe everyday routine as Hudetz does. (He lives – as opposed to Anna, who's light-heartedly in love with a local butcher – in a dead relationship with an older woman, to whom he is bound only by a marriage vow and again by the safe platitude of the marriage.) As the tragedy begins to dawn on her, she gradually transforms from a frankly happy girl in a more mature character than Hudetz, who is unable to accept his own failure. She lives out the misdeed much more sensitively and her tormented conscience devastates her. The scenes involving both the characters were deliberately unbalanced in this respect – the uncertain and frightened Anna as a contrast to the pragmatic and cold Hudetz.
The ambivalence in the portrayal of other characters was less well-founded. The local gossipmonger played by Anežka Rusevová was the most questionable among all of them. In the play, the character of Mrs. Leimgruber is a deterrent example of light-hearted judgments and dangerous condemnations against which the author warns the audience; in the production this level was lost in uncomplicated comedy. Similarly, the singing scenes of gendarme Láďa (Milan Peroutka) stuck out from the rest of the action – there was little more to them than musical exhibition and immediate spectator reaction in the form of complimentary laughter. The exaggeratedly comical portrayal of the gross state attorney (Jáchym Kučera) and the criminalist (Pavel Neškudla) was also quite controversial.
However, the above mentioned stemmed more from the directorial approach than from acting itself: the question is to what extent the directorial duo Kubák-Nováková had a clear idea about the significance of individual characters in the context of the whole production or whether they left it up to the actors themselves. The same goes for whole scenes, where a lot of the less significant ones received disproportionately big space (it was most noticeable in the case of the massive celebrations of Hudetz's release from prison). Dancing on a train, drunken singing, lovers' cooing and other snapshots piled up without providing anything new. However, it could have been a purely practical solution regarding the simultaneous preparation of the exterior, where the action transfers in the second half.
The transfer of actors and audience out to the platform also signaled the beginning of the more dramatic part of the story. In the first half the audience was seated in the empty railway station hall around tables and on wooden benches: the place itself did not illustrate the environment. Only the reproduced sounds of passing trains reminded one that he is sitting at a railway station. Even in the first half the most dramatic moments symptomatically took place outside – the spectators could watch the rescuers running around during the railway disaster through an open gate.
However, the very location of the audience was quite problematic in both halves of the production. In the interior the spectators had to alternately monitor the space in front of them, behind them and at both sides, outside they often could not see the actors at all. One example for all - the dramatic scene of the last meeting of Anna and Hudetz that was situated down on the tracks. Some of the spectators could only hear what was being said and many were not even this lucky (this was the joint fault of bad acoustics and the diction of most of the actors). Regardless of this, the open space of the station – the platform, the tracks and the surrounding overcrossings – was much more interesting than the indoors. In the real scenery the action seemed more dramatic, especially the ending, in which the dead (Anna, who committed suicide and the deceased from the unhinged train) speak to Hudetz, determined to end his life. The scene took place in semi-darkness and in rain, so a mist maker was employed as well as affective lighting. Voices from “the hereafter” were intensified and distorted using microphones. Thanks to the indisputable magic of the place, where the partially ghost ending of the play fitted very well, these passages were the most site-specific. However, in general, the staging of the play at a railway station was only a literal reminder of the setting of the action: the possible naturalistic stage design was replaced by a real place, the spectators did not have to use their imagination as much. The artists did not really play with the space but rather in the space, which is in contrast to the usual aspirations of site-specific theatre. Even the artists themselves claimed that the production is primarily traditional theatre set in non-theatrical space.
■ The Against progress. Against love. Against democracy. project was way more ambitious than Judgment Day in the way it played with the space and place. Partly this was due to the fact that it was connected with accompanying events in Prague 7 public space.) However, again, the environment – that of the DOX gallery - did not play a crucial role in the production itself, it did not provide new meanings, and the audience was never reminded of the fact that theatre was being performed in a gallery.
The authors of the production chose seventeen short scenes from the original more extensive trilogy that comprises of individual parts, which are called Against progress. Against love. and Against democracy. Using this platform the creators examine the given terms in a series of short theatrical scenes, inspired by traditional French grand guignol. The author of the trilogy and the co-author of the Theatre Letí project is Esteve Soler, a contemporary Spanish playwright. Quite a number of stage directors from the young and the middle-young generation participated in the event: apart from the “domestic” Martina Schlegelová, it was Marián Amsler, Sláva Daubnerová, Natália Deáková, Daniel Špinar, Ivan Buraj or Janek Růžička (using the pseudonym JQr). A whole range of genres was employed: radio play, classical theatre, film, shadow play…
The heart of the matter was well articulated by the subtitle used in PR materials: “an interactive parlor game”. Right at the entrance each visitor received a booklet and instructions to take notice of the number written inside as they are going to be drawn – this indicated the possibility of having to abandon the role of mere spectator. The introductory playing with the audience began with an absurd scene called “What happens after the fifth round?”, in which in the middle of the night a man knocks on the door of somebody else's apartment with a strange request: he wants the owner – a woman – to tell him what comes after the number five. The question (even without a satisfying answer) pulled the spectator into the game and accompanied him on his journey further on, to the “non-existing” sixth floor.
The production was based on the principle of not being able to see all seventeen mini productions, but only those, to which each spectator had “prerequisites”. These derived from the answers, marked off in the break before each round of the game. The audience was then divided into two groups, according to whether the spectator had more A or B options. Each group then watched different scenes; thus, the individual experience may have varied a lot. The whole evening became a sort of mosaic, interrupted by collective meetings on the outdoor terrace. There the spectators filled in the answers and “bonus experience” prizes were drawn, as for example a fairy tale trip, visiting a bedroom or snack at the bar (in the form of another short scene). However, these interactive breaks designated for spectator activity became quite long-winded after a while and retarded the course of the theatrical scenes themselves.
Thanks to its clip form, the whole production at most resembled a film: the spectator moves into an empty room, where he listens to a radio play. Cut. Transfer. The spectator watches his guide sing at the terrace. Cut. Transfer. The spectator watches a car, moving on to the roof and a story of two mafiosos, longing for the establishment of a new city. And so on. The unsettling view of the “unchallenged social values” – love, progress and democracy – served as the framework of and tie among all the micronarratives, formally always supplemented with elements of horror and exaggerated comicality. Scenes from the future as well as from the present, in which the given terms assume terrifying proportions, were often taken ad absurdum.
The quite suspicious guide characters helped to strengthen the feeling that everything was the reverse of what it seemed. Their calling out of slogans reminded one that something was not right here. The guides with faces hidden behind transparent plastic masks, which deformed rather than hid the face, were only helping characters, who did not belong in any Soler play. However, their role in the production was crucial: to get the spectators where necessary and to add to the spooky atmosphere with their over-exaggerated kindness and familiarity (e.g. calling the spectators “little chicks”).
The production worked with the term “free will” quite imaginatively. Several times in the course of the evening the spectator could by way of a quiz choose from several possible answers, not knowing what he inflicts or what he is to gain. In this way the artists referred to the way people consider themselves free, given the right to choose, even though they move in predetermined corridors (which in this case kept the spectators in the places, where theatre was being played). The overall feeling offered better comprehension of the topic of challenging the values of progress, love and democracy than the individual scenes.
Most often the characters portrayed different kinds of fanaticism, brutality, inhumanity or even pure indifference. As to the actors, I found Tereza Hofová and Jan Grundman the most noticeable of all. The first one especially in the short scene called Burqa (directed by Ivan Buraj) and Grundman for example in the dark play called Newlywed apartment (directed by Martina Schlegelová).
In Burqa, which was part of the more directly engaged, less absurd part of the production, Hofová played a double role: the assiduous man, who interprets the words of his neighbor hidden in a burqa, and at the same time the woman, for whom the burqa represents a stigma. Hofová did not overact the tragic story, her civil resigned expression was quite effective.
On the contrary, Grundman's acting was very expressive – after all, he portrayed very powerful characters; for example a fanatic advocate of new religion, who kept threateningly calling out the slogan “We are individuality”. This scene began in a room with a projection screen, where one could watch a live transmission of a dialogue taking place at the lavatory. After a while the protagonists appeared in front of the spectators, who were now also being projected on the screen in the role of the audience of the religious fanatic. A female believer sat in a corner and waxed her legs with scotch tape; later she clapped her hands to the rhythm of live music. The whole scene gave the impression of a horrifying recruitment of followers of these charismatic men, who lure people more by how they speak than by what they really say.
However, in some places the action was so absurd that apart from the absurdity itself it did not offer anything else: for example, the scene with the giant apple, which suddenly appears in the house of a married couple, whose discussion of what to do with it ends with the raging husband chasing his wife with a chain saw in his hand.
Several scenes took place in one room, which constantly transformed itself by the various placement of the audience or of the acting space and by the props used (e.g. a screen, a bed, a TV). In the mini-play called Partner contract almost no props were used. This helped to create an interesting paradox: the otherwise cold empty space surrounded by bare white walls provided the radio play with an unexpectedly intimate character. The audience was not diverted by the scene or the props and was able to concentrate intensively on the subject matter.
In the end the spectators – after having watched different stories – met in a room, where the final video was screened on the ceiling. The film showed the brutal story of a liquidator of newborns, who used his golf club to hit babies' bodies, scattered around the place (the naked dolls were filled with red liquid, which gushed out of the “wound” after each strike). Simultaneously, the man explained the reasons for the necessity to reduce the number of human offspring: the human race deserves this treatment because of its adherence to rationality and conduct that causes suffering of other creatures, with which it shares this planet. The final monologue humorously revealed that the murdering creature in the hood was a seal.
The last sentence “Screening is over, liquidation begins” accompanied by the entrance of the real liquidators with golf clubs in their hands created for a finale, to which everything inconspicuously referred to from the very beginning. The climax was no big surprise – the spectators felt as if in a trap from the moment, when they willy-nilly entered “somebody else's game”.
Ödön von Horváth: Judgment Day, translation Jarmila Hrubešová, dramaturgy and directed by Ivo Kristián Kubák and Marie Nováková, music DJ Myko, stage design and costumes Dorota Březinová, Tygr v tísni and Divadlo Letí, premiere May 22, 2014 at Žižkov freight station
Esteve Soler, Martina Schlegelová, Marie Špalová: Against progress. Against love. Against democracy. directed by Marián Amsler, Natália Deáková, Martina Schlegelová, Daniel Špinar, Sláva Daubnerová, Ivan Buraj and Janek Růžička (JQr), dramaturgy Marie Špalová and Renata Venclová, basic visual concept Jordi Queralt and Jana Špalová, Divadlo Letí, Czech Radio and DOX Centre for Contemporary Art , premiere June 13, 2014 at DOX Centre for Contemporary Art
published at Svět a divadlo, issue 6, volume 2014
translated by Ester Žantovská
) This part was called Against the City and it took up the themes that appeared in the plays. Thirteen installations were located in different parts of Prague 7. According to the artists they were supposed to ironize the problems of the city (members of citizens' associations active in this district helped to name these problems).