Simulations of Reality by Anna Klimešová (From Barunka to Ruler)
„Demonstrative pronouns are used to point out something specific beyond or within the text, serving as an orientation in the discourse for participants in the subject of the communication.”
(The Czech Grammar Rules)
Take for instance the pronoun ‘this’. If you say “This is Anička…”, we understand that the name of the young lady referred to is probably Anna. If this same young lady talks about the white and furry object in her hands saying “This winter hat is grandmother Alice’s’, the item is automatically given a history and a place in the narrative. However, in both cases it is still a statement of possibility. But if the same speaker goes on to explain that this hat “is a balalaika’ it takes the discourse further/, the context becomes elaborate. We move from the realm of facts and reality into the world of fantasy, symbols, metaphors, imagination and play, to theatre.
Director Anna Klimešová (i.e. the Anna from the previous paragraph) tends to work with this moment of transition from reality to fiction, and vice versa. In her productions she doesn’t conceal the artificial nature of theatre. The English have a poignant term for it, ‘make-believe‘. However, there appears to be no suitable Czech equivalent, as dictionaries only offer translations with a rather negative connotation, such as ‘pretence‘ or ‘hypocrisy‘. But the English term is much closer to children’s’ play and the imitation of reality. In short: it is much more rooted in fantasy and imagination than in a perfectly constructed illusion and trickery.
As regards this, Anna Klimešová’s productions remind us of Jiří Havelka’s productions, and particularly the earlier ones, i.e. Drama in short. It is clearly not a coincidence, since Havelka was the head of Klimešová’s class during her studies at the Department of Alternative and Puppet theatre at Prague’s Academy of Arts (DAMU). However, compared to his scientific, often almost analytical approach, with tendencies towards repetition and variation, Klimešová’s orientations are more intuitive, playful and poetic.
Such was for instance her graduation production Barunka is Leaving in 2017. It opened in an immersive way. The audience were divided into several groups. At the entrance, one spectator from each group had to ring a bell, marked simply as ‘grandmother’.
Then, instead of a theatre host, one of the actors would appear and seat the group in the auditorium. On the way, the actor chatted to the group, offered them slippers, coffee, or a shot of rum (with a conspiratorial wink read as ‘your parents won’t hear about it’). The actors, who created a friendly, even homely, atmosphere, then entertained the audience, divided up into groups in the different sections of the auditorium.
I was somewhat sorry that this principle was not developed further in the production, which instead focused on the grandmother’s recollections. Several actors embodied her in turn, while the other actors were ‘Barunkas’, as the grandchildren were generally addressed. The play revolved around the theme of ‘staying with the grandparents’, with the phrase “I never want to forget about…“ being repeated throughout. We also witness the grandmother recalling memories from her youth, especially her meeting and courting the grandfather. The memories were brought to life in a rear section of the stage that was separated from the audience with a replica of an old-fashioned apartment (including a doily on an old-fashioned TV). While the grandmother’s apartment was decorated as if lived in, the rear of the stage remained empty, being ‘furnished’ by the performers only during the re-enacted memories. For instance, the forest into which ‘grandma and grandpa’ go for a courting trip, was evoked by throwing and jabbing fern leaves on the ground and a background noise made by the actors rubbing various twigs together while imitating different animal and bird sounds. This is a significant element of Klimešová’s directing style: the use of elements to introduce the narrative and the scenic effects in the ‘background’; it is all created in a ‘here and now’ way, reducing the sense of the unreal/fake. The spectator is to be surprised, but not in a mind blowing ‘Wow’ way; the goal is to collectively enjoy well-performed scenes.
Even in Anna Klimešová's second school production - Notes from the Free Time there is a similar atmosphere to that of Barunka is Leaving. And although the Director of the play along with the Dramaturge Klára Fleková claimed (in the programme) to have been inspired by the 10th century Japanese journal, ‘The Confidential Notes Of The Court Lady-In-Waiting’, and the 13th century writings of the Japanese hermit Kamo no Chomei’. The contents of the programme reveal much more about the production: within a yearly calendar, specific activities are assigned to selected days in the month. The performance is divided into different seasons, each of which is introduced with a short prose poem, inspired by these Japanese notes. The content of each season remains, however, purely Czech.
It starts on New Year’s Day, or rather on New Year’s Eve of the previous year. On a square platform, Martin Belianský, Kateřina Císařová and Anita Gregorec prepare their celebration in a slow, almost ceremonial manner. Belianský polishes glasses while Císařová and Gregorec set the table with fancy porcelain. But the only food served is a pink jelly with an amusing wobble. It is a prolonged act, without being tiresomely lengthy. Its precise rhythm is punctuated by the sound of the dulcimer, which sets the overall mood. The dulcimer accompanies this scene with a slow ticking sound, signaling the approaching New Year. “I am glad that we are all gathered here…“ The sentence is pronounced with warmth and no pretence. It is repeated, at the very end of the play, during the dinner on Christmas Eve. In the meantime, an entire year passes: the feeding of the birds in spring, summer swimming, the looming thunderstorms and the need to protect the bees, apple harvesting in autumn and the ritual remembrance of All Souls’ Day. In winter, there is again the festive dinner, when a white tablecloth is put on the table, fancy tableware is taken out of the cupboard, and everything is repeated, everything runs in cycles.
In addition to a practical guide of ‘what to do and what to prepare for’ each month, the old calendars would offer entertaining and enlightening information. Notes from the Free Time ‘provides’ in a similar way. I am thus somewhat surprised that the creative team refer only to being inspired by the Japanese literature, since a big part of this production is reminiscent of the old Czech calendars.
In any case, there is a clear mixture of nostalgia, whimsicality and ancestral practicality. Within the play, one encounters the sleepy atmosphere of summer sunbathing, as well as the caution often delivered in comical form, with funny gestures that resemble a stewardesses giving instructions before take off. There is also advice as to how to detect a looming thunderstorm, as well as how to react to it.
But beyond this, you will also encounter a character with a bird box in place of a head. At first she tries to peck up the grain that was previously spilled all over the stage with a watering can by one of the actors, then she plays a Japanese-like flute, and finally she feeds the grain, which is by now crammed in her pockets, to small mechanical hens. Atmosphere and mood override everything, and nothing happens in a rush, thus prolonging rather than shortening the concept of time.
Even here, Klimešová does not enclose the stage within a ‘fourth wall’, as the performance is clearly directed to her audience, bringing them into the play. Many lines are addressed to the spectators who are treated as witnesses and partners, (without being forcefully made to participate), though they do not actually impact the sequence of the play. As previously mentioned, it is an ‘open’ play, in which there is no pretence, but instead, all the cards are put on the table, revealing the hand it plays with. This is not to say that it doesn’t occasionally perform a trick here and there.
If Barunka and Notes present a more poetical and more ‘neutral’ line in Anna Klimešová’s work, her later productions Press Paradox and Ruler prove that she doesn’t necessarily keep away from politically or socially motivated subjects in her directing work, especially in tandem with the dramaturge Petr Erbes. And nor will she compromise the basic principles of her stage poetics for these.
While still at the Theatre Academy and a member of the ‘creative collective’ 8people/, Anna Klimešová directed the group production Press Paradox. The reference I make at t he beginning of this article as to how the hat becomes a balalaika, is to be found at the beginning of that play.
Press Paradox deals primarily with the Russian opposition journalist Arkady Babchenko, who in collaboration with the Ukrainian secret service faked his own death in order to reveal that there had in fact been an order to assassinate him, thus revealing the methods used by Russia against its critics. Babchenko’s death, which had initially attracted worldwide attention, before it was established as fake news, provoked a number of debates. Many feared that it would serve to prove the media as being untruthful. “How can we trust what they tell us next time?” - asks one of Babchenko’s critics at the end of the play. However, Babchenko’s life is also very colourful, so parts of the play portray his memories from the war in Chechnya, in which he participated twice as a soldier. Eventually, after his ‘case’ has been closely examined, all murdered journalists are honoured.
There is a great deal of playfulness and directness in the production. The creative team, including the director, do not behave as performing actors, but allude to a certain authenticity; this is emphasised by them using their real names, when they introduce each other at the beginning of the play as they stand in front of the closed curtains. However, the surnames aren’t mentioned and the first names are given in a diminutive form, giving the impression that this is a friendly community. In so doing, they underline another important topic in the production, which is that of credibility and manipulation: as happens with the media - we are given little choice but to believe what they tell us. The person introduced to us as ‘Anička’ should be Anna, but besides our trusting that ‘the source is credible’, there is in actual fact no real guarantee.
Regardless of the topic, and with an exception of two or three scenes, the production unfolds in a surprisingly playful spirit. A murderer wears a gorilla mask in a scene that is repeated several times. The bombardment of Grozny is reconstructed with the audience’s help in throwing plastic fruit on the stage. The performers alternate in the main role by wearing an iconic sweatshirt. When not performing, the actors sit at the side of the stage, watching the show, preparing the costumes or operating the computer. On its screen, beside the camera recording the play, there appear commentaries in text editor. Statements such as “This is a real quote“ or “This is no longer true“ aren’t surprising. But the sentence “This is simulation of reality in the reality“ is worth noting, as it summarises in short the key topic of Press Paradox, which is questioning ‘the reality’ in what is presented as reality. But it could also serve as a sub-title for most of Klimešová’s productions.
Considering that in our day there is a tendency to use hyper-realistic computer tricks on one hand, and there is an unquestionable acceptance of what is presented as documentary verity on the other, I consider it important to acknowledge the ‘simulation of reality’; even if it has been part of theatre since the beginning of time.
As observed earlier, Klimešová isn’t afraid to let some scenes resonate in full force. Thus, the spectator will still shudder when watching the scene in which Babchenko is shot in front of his apartment door. Similarly, the spectator will not fail to enjoy the Russian dance of the ‘babushkas’, emanating a certain naive poetry.
Unfortunately, there are also scenes in which, while trying to deny detachment, lose out in both playfulness and aloofness, offering unessential illustrations. This happens in scenes intended to ‘underline’ issues, as well as in the final ‘summarising’ scene. For example, such a scene is the one with the ballet for Putin, which is poorly performed and incomprehensible, where the ‘overused’ dance from The Swan Lake is performed with the dancers wearing knitted hoods, as the Pussy Riot activists did, possibly intending to portray the ghosts of murdered journalists.
As in the Press Paradox, the members of the creative team address each other by their real first names in the Ruler, also produced by Klimešová in collaboration with the dramaturge Erbes, at Prague’s Theatre Komedie. But this is where all similarity ends between the two productions. The Ruler also has games; not those of children, but rather of grown-ups - the games of power.
The Ruler may find its origins in the famous ‘textbook’ The Place Of The Tyrant by Niccoló Machiavelli. However, this work by that Renaissance politician and thinker, is actually only a source of inspiration, (from which it nonetheless borrows several quotations,) for depicting the mechanisms of gaining and maintaining power, not only within a geographical territory, but also within the hearts of the common people. The result is a collage of loosely interlinked acts, during which the five performers hand around the symbolic and the ‘real’ crown of the ruler to each other. Erbes and Klimešová more or less openly seek parallels to the present, and so even if alongside Machiavelli they quote Shakespeare, Louis XIV and Louis XVI, Louis de Saint-Just etc., the timelessness of the principles of populism and propaganda emerges as one of the show's main messages. Even if this is not directly stated in words, and nor are typical gestures used, it is not difficult to spot Trump, Babiš, Orbán or other similar types in the acting.
The opening scene is revolutionary: Vojtěch Vondráček, Cyril Dobrý, Štěpán Lustyk, Milan Vedral and Kryštof Krhovják have finally gained power over Theatre Komedie. The scene, performed in a natural manner with undimmed lights in the auditorium, reminds one of the Velvet Revolution with its festive chaos: there is a search for microphones, the persecution of a singer who had allegedly promised and failed to perform… the actors speak one after another without actually saying anything particular. They are all afraid of taking responsibility, not prepared to take on ‘a great task’. Eventually, they talk Vondráček into putting on a king's crown, found among the props. Vondráček embraces his new found power reluctantly, proclaiming: “Once we were going to shit ourselves from that democracy, all of us. You know what, I will take it - just for your sake.“ Then, in no time, in just the following scene, he becomes an exemplary tyrant. He bullies his co-performers and offends the audience… Eventually he starts to resemble Ubu Roi, he sprawls in an armchair ‘over-fed’, burping, exposing himself and scratching himself on peculiar body parts. It’s no surprise that the others decide to kill such a monster; Milan Vedral is the one who finally takes the act of regicide in his hands. The scene that follows quotes the monologue of Marcus Antonius about Brutus, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. However, the original names have been substituted by the first names of the actors: “If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Vojtěch’s, to him I say that my love to him was no less than his“, speaks Vedral/Brutus above Vondráček's ‘corpse’. Then Lustyk represents Marcus Antonius, and one of the weaker scenes follows with a rather transparent parody on the Czech prime-minister Andrej Babiš.
But such moments are rare in this production. In the majority of the scenes, Klimešová works well with hyperbole and metaphor. This is seen in the next act “The War for Territory“. Krhovják and Vedral, each carrying a large, single-coloured flag, march onto the stage, where they start to define the boundaries of their territory within an exceedingly goofy marching pace, resembling Monty Python’s. In contrast to this, Vondráček and Dobrý recite letters from two rulers, who threaten each other in an obliging and pretentious way until there is a mutual declaration of war.
I dare to guess that the main idea of Ruler came from the dramaturge Erbes, who also wrote the script. This I conclude having seen The Bartered Bride on the stage of the Provisional Theatre, Estates Theatre and National Theatre, from 1868 to 2018, which he co-created with Boris Jedinák. As with the Ruler, a series of acts are intended to demonstrate the main theme. In the case of The Bartered Bride, the main theme is the ‘political corruption’ of Czech actors, whereas in the Ruler it is the mechanisms of power and populism. But while the first one starts to feel rather tiresome and academic after a while, as the concept becomes too mechanical, the Ruler succeeds in avoiding this fate, especially in the sections where Anna Klimešová’s touch is detected.
Anna Klimešová, Boris Jedinák, Klára Fleková, Mikoláš Zika and company: Barunka is Leaving, directed by A. Klimešová, dramaturgy by B. Jedinák, set design and costumes K. Fleková a M. Zika, music by Vráfa Šrámek and company, Department of Alternative and Puppet Theatre, Academy of Performing Arts DAMU in Prague, premiere April 13, 2017 at DISK Theatre
Notes from the Free Time, directed by A. Klimešová, dramaturgy by K. Fleková, set design and costumes Vendula Bělochová, music by Matouš Hejl, Michal Cáb, Michal Gombiřík, Department of Alternative and Puppet Theatre, Academy of Performing Arts DAMU in Prague, premiere February 23, 2018 at DISK theatre
Press Paradox, 8people (Petr Erbes, Nina Jacques, B. Jedinák, A. Klimešová, Viktorie Vášová, V. Bělochová, Karolína Kotrbová, Zuzana Sceranková), music by Ian Mikyska, Department of Alternative and Puppet Theatre, Academy of Performing Arts DAMU in Prague and 8people, premiere December 14, 2018 at DISK Theatre
Ruler, based on The Prince by Niccoló Machiavelli, directed by A. Klimešová, dramaturgy by P. Erbes, set design and costumes K. Fleková, music by M. Cáb, Prague City Theatres, premiere March 16, 2019 at Theatre Komedie
published in Svět a divadlo, issue 3, volume 2019
translated by Hana Pavelková
) She plays on it with her mouth. Just as the other seven performers, after the same announcement, ‘begin to play’ for example on an iron, a pole, or a dummy AK47 machine gun.
) As per their own definition in the programme of Press Paradox, “8people is a creative artistic group founded in 2017 as an independent theatre collective. The directors, dramaturges and stage designers of the group met in 2014 while in the same class at the Department of Alternative and Puppet Theatre, and decided to continue working together. 8people deal especially with interventions into public space, reflecting topical social issues in the form oscillating between theatre and performance. One of the main topics, which 8people explore and artistically reflect, is the role of theatre in contemporary social-political context as well as looking at the possibility of theatre and audiences participating in social change”.