Úvodní stránka | WAT | eWAT | eWAT VI. (November 2022) | Oh My God, And Now What? (Vassa Zheleznova at The National Theatre)
Vladimír Mikulka

Oh My God, And Now What? (Vassa Zheleznova at The National Theatre)

Gorki’s Vassa Zheleznova, which the National Theatre in Prague quite surprisingly chose to produce even before Covid (although rehearsals took place just after the pandemic experience), is in many ways a 'Chekhovian' play. This family drama takes place in an atmosphere that hints at the disintegration of the ‘old world’, actually explicitly mentioned in several lines of the dialogue. In the story there are a number of characters of equal importance and they all have incompatible interests and completely understandable and easily defensible positions. By the end, losing characters, who are in the majority, are kicked out of the ‘game', or even worse swept away in an extremely unscrupulous or humiliating manner. The winners are only apparent after committing a series of heinous acts in a ruthless all-out brawl, then they are left alone, with bloody hands, and their prospects don’t exactly look rosy.
However, Gorky isn’t Chekhov, not even the Gorky of 1910.[1] Instead of a delicate mesh of mutual ties, motivations and quietly growing tension the characters crash into each other ruthlessly all the time, while their most distinctive feature is self-centred cruelty. And that is true also for the staging: the play offers a semi-chaotic whirl of protagonists acting ruthlessly, portrayed in crudely drawn lines, which are occasionally even blurred.
The basic situation that plays out in Vassa Zheleznova is not complicated. The husband of the title character dies and Vassa strives with all her efforts to keep the business afloat, which she and her husband established at the cost of many sacrifices. That makes the relationships among those who stake a claim to their inheritance all the more unclear (specifically they are Vassa’s husband’s brother, her daughter, her two sons and their wives). Her brother-in-law Prokhor (consistently called 'uncle') is a local crook, the older son Semyon is not very smart; the younger son is crippled and not respected by anybody. None of them hides their only goal: to take their part of the inheritance and disappear (which would destroy the family business). From Vassa’s point of view only her daughter Anna, returning ‘from the world’, seems hopeful. But her father paid her off in a not completely honest way some time ago, thus she has no claim to an inheritance, and therefore her ostensible helpfulness towards her mother looks somewhat of suspicious. Added to this, Prokhor wants to legalize one of his illegitimate children, which represents another dangerous complication for the inheritance.
However, the father hasn't died yet, in spite of being on the deathbed for several months. In the meantime, various skeletons fall out of the closet: at one time Semyon got servant Lipa pregnant, and then - together with his mother – took her away and forced her to kill the baby; Prokhor doesn’t hide his affair with Pavel’s wife Ludmilla (the caretaker Michail’s daughter), who scorns her own husband, whom she married just to cover up an affair with otherwise unidentified young man.

closely followed by leviathan Director Jan Frič together with dramaturge Marta Ljubková thoroughly avoid anything that could evoke ‘period realism’. Although there is massive wooden table and upholstered chairs on the empty stage; which could easily have embellishment a rich bourgeoisie salon at the turn of the century, the table is consciously positioned outside of any of the action. (It only comes into play in Act 3, when the whole family gathers around it after the father’s death and all their hatreds are openly vented.) All other period elements are missing. The stage most often resembles an impersonal modern office[2], and while the costumes indeed clearly refer to the characters’ personalities, otherwise they more or less represent neutral, modern outfits. If members of this family left the theatre building and walked out onto the street, they would easily merge with passersby - today or more than twenty five years ago.
But the creative team manages to turn this soulless office into a space if not magical then at least strongly suspect, or in any case uncomfortable and precarious. During the first two acts the lower part of the dying father’s body sticks out from the hole in the ceiling (and the peculiarity of this situation is never addressed); it's possible to walk through the walls formed by blinds, thus the characters can emerge or disappear with quite threatening suddenness. If, on the other hand, the blinds open, it is possible to glimpse (and then further perceive) a dark hostile world behind. When the lights cut out an intimate space at the front section of the stage for Anna and Ludmilla to have a chat, the whole horizon slowly fills with the projection of Vassa’s face, gradually turning into Anna’s portrait. At that moment the women are discussing Vassa, Ludmilla even describes her in a surprisingly positive way; nevertheless within the play’s context this represents quite an Orwellian moment - Vassa is somebody whose presence simply can’t be escaped in this house.
Additionally the audience will also recall the dream-like image from the opening scene. On a dark stage filled with artificial smoke a huge creature reminiscent of a whale emerges; around its inert body a group of people move, almost dance, accompanied by elevated movie-like music, washing or possibly cleaning the monster.[3] After several minutes, the technicians clear everything away (thus the monster becomes the part of the menacing world backstage) and the stage empties without any explanation. This kind of unexplained or interpretative openness is typical of the production, and even if the creators understate it - except for the opening scene; it manages to elevate unobtrusively but steadily the narrow-mindedness of the coldblooded family battle to a more metaphorical level.

for the sake of the children In terms of textual changes, it’s almost surprising how very few were made. Obviously there were some cuts, but nothing substantial was removed or added. Only the language changed significantly (even beyond the frame of a contemporary sounding translation), and the text was complemented with several absurd situational jokes. In terms of atmosphere, the plot can be set in the 90’s as well as in the indefinable ‘present’, but since the production so clearly gives up any effort to describe anything realistically, it makes no sense asking malicious questions, which sometimes arise around the actualizations of classics (e.g. Why are they waiting for a telegram when they could have called each other?). The imagined background of a turbulent world more or less disappears - in this version even Gorky just hints at it, after all. What matters most is the ‘little hell' created by members of the family without any outside help.

Even in this sense Frič and Ljubková offer only what's already in the text. Vassa Zheleznova, version 1910, is not an agitation play about a devilish capitalistic monster determined to murder half of her family for money. Vassa is pushed into a corner by circumstances: she desperately fights to save the business, which represents the main purpose of her life. Repeatedly motherhood and children are mentioned, however it can mean that for the protagonist the family business is the only ‘child that turned out well’. At the same time it's clear that if the brother-in-law and children take their shares of the inheritance and then leave, the company won't survive. That resonates in the scene of Vassa’s advice to her daughter, eloquently situated on the forestage. “You are a mother - remember that if it comes to the good of your children and family, nothing is shameful- don’t you forget that! Nothing is a sin! Remember that - nothing!” Which goes hand in hand with the fact that Vassa, in comparison to the rest of her family, is a true hard worker, and her repeated invocations of work sound utterly sincere. Zuzana Stivínová plays the lady of the house softly, in fact she expresses her emotions fully only in one moment, when she passionately screams at her daughter-in-law, who pleads for the fired clerk. “So work isn’t life? And what the fuck is employment then?! People come up with unbelievable things to justify their laziness.[4] It sounds quite meaningful. The trouble is that at the same time it’s possible to empathize with ‘those others’ who have had enough of drudgery in a house controlled by the dominant businesswoman, and who want to take the money and enjoy them somewhere else on their own terms. A reasonable compromise doesn’t exist; the winner has to be decided by a showdown.
The advantage of Frič's production is that it can sharpen all opposing attitudes and motivations to the point of grotesque caricature and pit their representatives against each other sharply, mercilessly and comically at the same time. Those who steadfastly follow their own interests are quite frightening in this grotesque clash (besides Vassa this includes Anna, the caretaker Mikhail and later also his daughter Ludmilla), the remaining characters are rather pitiful, ridiculous and embarrassing babblers. Which doesn’t absolve them from responsibility - and also doesn’t make their individual suffering more tolerable or less real. Banality is no excuse and doesn’t bring any relief. There are no innocent victims in Vassa Zheleznova; even the servant Lipa isn’t portrayed with much sorrow: once seduced by Semyon and then forced by him and Vassa to suffocate her newborn. And she actually commits suicide directly on the stage after her failed attempt to poison Prokhor, into which she was blackmailed by Vassa and Mikhail, who convinced her to tamper with his medication. At first, Tereza Vilišová performs Lipa like an oddly poker-faced, reserved creature, but in the end she resembles a small animal, who has let herself to be chased into a trap and then surrenders.
In the last third of the production, quite surprisingly, there are several passages in which it is precisely those tough and seemingly completely heartless people who repeatedly show their desire for harmony, understanding and love. Regardless of irony and hyperbole, their expressions aren't completely demeaned (but any glimpse of feeling is certainty made dubious by the play's context). Be it Vassa talking about motherhood and her desire to pass everything on to her children, or Ludmilla going on about her liking for Vassa, and their mutual love of the garden. Although in this case matters are even more complicated: Ludmilla’s heart-felt monologue about the garden and her respect for Vassa's achievement is modulated into ‘helium-squeaky’ would-be child’s voice. It comes across funny, although even here it's not pure parody. Regardless of the absurdity, Ludmilla’s words are half ominous and half hopeful: “Vassa, you know what’s good. But you are the only one who knows. The garden will survive us.“ The creators are not afraid to sometimes communicate serious and essential things through outwardly ridiculous or grotesque performances. This devise is incorporated several times (after all, Frič is far from using it for the first time in Vassa), which significantly contributes to the openness and ambiguity of the entire piece.
The other side of imaginary family front are granted ‘moments of reality’ significantly fewer times by the theatre makers. Perhaps the only notable exception is Pavel's desperate urging of Anna to do something about his wife, whom she loathes. “When daddy dies, I’ll give you everything! /…/ You married for love, after all - teach her to love me… teach her that! I love her terribly, terribly!“ It’s significant that this bitterly emotional outburst is mingled with aggressiveness - in contrast to his pleading, Pavel in fact brutally beats his sister (in an unspoken parallel to the recent action when he vented his rage on a ‘helpless’ boy from the office). It constitutes a vivid example of the director's prioritization of the ‘inner dynamics’ of the dialogues and scenes, to realistic representation of them.
One of few certainties in this house is the dominance of Vassa. She is an object of hate and almost pathological love at the same time. When Anna returns, Vassa introduces the other household members to her as if they were school children: they line up and when it's their turn to speak, they dutifully raise a hand. Both adult sons approach their mother in a manner of sullen children; when Pavel enters the stage, he even demands to be nursed (which Vassa accepts with flattered smile). Even coldly calculating caretaker Mikhail, who behaves and looks like an 'angel of death’ in his black leather jacket, lies down on his back like a little dog in front of Vassa. As the well-known adage goes - absolute power means absolute responsibility: although unstated, it can be hardly ignored that Vassa battles with the environment that she herself formed (and the creators deserve credit for not ’spoon-feeding’ this theme to spectators).
As for many other characters, it's difficult to guess their nature - to know when they actually speak truthfully or hypocritically - and whether they are aware of that hypocrisy. In this respect not even the original text is too easy to follow, however the production consistently works with ambiguity and intentionally escalated inner conflicts. Natalya - wife of the somehow ostentatiously dumb Semyon - can serve as an example. A pretty young woman who provocatively shows off her bosom, unpredictably alternates between being a good wife, a siren, a calculating bitch, a nitwit and an unbearably naive do-gooder - and in all these roles she always looks confident and persuasive. Even if she’s not the most important figure within the plot, Jana Pidrmanová makes her one of the most important on the stage. (Which can be perceived as evidence that in terms of acting Vassa Zheleznova is extremely well-balanced work.) Natalya has several strikingly entertaining scenes, during which she drives others crazy with her positive gibberish, then sometimes she is very pragmatic and other times says things that shouldn’t pass by unnoticed. Thus her naively delivered prophetic warning “If you keep provoking Pavel, then he is capable of anything… /…/ unhappy people are always very evil“ turns into reality in the end, even if drunk Prokhor initially brushes it off as a contemptuous joke: “Look at that. Protozoon - and thinks.“ However, all that demonstrative positivity doesn’t stop her from actively and complacently participating in the humiliation of the housekeeper Dunya, who was caught eavesdropping.  
The ambiguous song sung by Veronika Lazorčáková in the role of Pavlov's wife Ludmilla is also of a similar nature. While Gorky only mentions that the young woman has a taste for singing; in this production Lazorčáková performs a strangely broken song first with deliberate amateurism and then with overwrought feeling. She begins with lyrics “Spring is here, and I will rise, the earth is waking up /…/ give people the fruit of our work, the earth carries the spirit of friendship, there is plenty of everything, a world of abundance, a world of fertility“, then in the second part it slips into an almost apocalyptic tone with “Tears of joy freeze with frost /…/ in the house - despair, sadness, crying, nothing…“ and all that is topped with the aforementioned admiration of Vassa: „You would give anything for a smile, even your own cracked soul /…/ and then somewhere above the bushes I catch sight of her face, a kind and gentle face[5]
At this moment, there are only two women on the forestage intimately formed by light: those in whom Vassa places her hopes - and who will murder her by the end of the production in this creative interpretation.[6] Anna and Ludmilla dressed in blood-red dresses stand a secure distance from each other, and there is not even a hint of any conspiracy between them (Anna just repeats in disbelief “Kind and gentle?“), but it seems that a seed of understanding and alliance has been planted. Frič and Ljubková by and large think everything through and bring the action to the drastic conclusion only anticipated in the original text. When Vassa saved the family business in a callous and ruthless way, i.e. she gets rid of her husband’s brother and both her sons (Prokhor is dead, Pavel is forced to go to a monastery and Semyon is deceitfully disinherited), she starts to give way to sentimental feelings of reconciliation. At this moment, her 'ally' up to now displays a more assertive approach and a much larger dose of toughness. While Vassa and Mikhail made heavy weather of Prokhor’s murder and only attempted it indirectly through Lipa and Pavel[7], Anna and Ludmilla murder without circumspection and with their own hands. It is certainly no coincidence that after a series of hints, stylized fights and blows, this very act is demonstrated very vividly, essentially realistically (Ludmilla hits Vassa from behind with a bucket and then together with Anna strangles her with a microphone cable for a long time). By the way, another theme surfaces here, which runs through the whole production without overemphasis: we witness a world in which men aggressively ruffle feathers, but only women act tough and fast. It’s not very idyllic.
To reduce Vassa Zheleznova to a mere dark picture of the business world (or even the business environment of the 90’s) would be very simplifying, but in the last third of the production a figure appears on the stage, whose presence emphasizes the intersection between the recent past and ‘the present’. Formally it's a new servant who replaces the dead Lipa; a girl dressed in the latest fashion[8], acting above all like an observer from a completely different world, and who watches events around her with undisguised horror. What Ludmilla utters in a slightly different situation applies fully here: “the girl isn’t yet used to it”.
The creative team have demonstrated the ability to come up with an idea that, despite the apparent disparity, shows things from an unexpected angle and thus transforms the entire context. The girl shows up for the first time immediately after the father’s death - and at the same time as Lipa is dying (it’s telling that she is also the only one who actually notices Lipa's death). While Natalya shows her around the house - i.e. the Estates Theatre - in ‘tour-guide’ style, the stage gradually darkens and old-worldly light-hearted doo-wop music turns into aggressive electronic music. The new servant doesn’t say much. Her first words “Where is the mop?“ are rewarded with the ironic applause of the whole family; then her following sentence “So, it should be cleaned here or changed or something like that, right?“ only Dunya reacts with: “Wait, I will do it myself“. The terrified and helpless girl stares for long minutes frightened and clueless at the hustle and bustle around her. Only at the end does Ludmilla take her forward and declare that everyone is desperate since they are unable to love anything.
This eloquent meeting of the two worlds doesn’t end here, it leads to an effective ambiguous epilogue. While shortly before her death Vassa melts with emotion - hugs the girl, speaks about a better future and treats her like a grandchild (a weary line “my heart grasps“ takes an unexpected turn), when Anna with Ludmilla push the girl aside and proceed without sentiment. At the very end “the new girl” helplessly sobs over the corpses of Vassa, Prokhor and Lipa, when Dunya - poker-faced, but with an almost omnipresent grey eminence - pulls out a gun and shoots at her.[9] The girl collapses, but immediately springs up. Then Dunya in the final line of the production underlines everything by repeating the sentence she said at the very beginning: “Oh my God, and now what?“

too dum dum Looking at Vassa Zheleznova exclusively through the lenses of the “communication of meaning“ we see in this update of a half-forgotten play, its actualization implemented skilfully and with poignant openness. The production presents this bitter family war for inheritance partly in a timeless, and partly in a contemporary setting. That in itself is valuable; with subtlety and as a matter of course Frič and Ljubková have managed to open many self-evident themes of importance, and they do this without oversimplifying, using ideology, or unnecessary pressure. There are not many such productions in the contemporary Czech theatre. That is still only one side of the coin, though. You see, Vassa is a production, which goes beyond the domestic even with its purely theatrical qualities (which I write with full awareness of how artificial such a division is).
From the very beginning Frič creates a coldly unpleasant, vaguely sinister or at least uneasy atmosphere; and also a deadly inert one - as if time were caught up in a strange loop. This especially applies to the first act.[10] The production opens with Zuzana Stivínová in the role of Vassa standing on the forestage, facing the audience; incoming family members and employees are pushed around or nagged in an unemotional, pragmatic tone, without even turning towards them. Just her “Dunya, bring me some coffee!“ repeated over and over (but not followed by action) sounds like chorus. In the original text the realistically described family meeting materializes on the stage as a series of ‘outbursts’, obstinately revolving around the three important motifs: the father is dying, Ludmilla has spent the night at the uncle's, the business is in danger. All is repeated over and over in an accelerating rhythm, and on top of that all of them speak through wireless microphones. This trendy, overused (and usually quite annoying) principle makes sense in this case: it reinforces the coldness and detachment. And finally, the dark ambient music by Jakub Kudláč plays an important role. Nothing revelatory or original in principle, but it works excellently: thanks to the music, the slow and almost mechanically performed actions gain urgency and menace.
 Throughout the production the direction avoids the traditional way of working with dialogues (although not completely), but plays very carefully with the configurations in which the performers appear on the stage. The characters - discreetly but quite regularly - gather according to their sexual attraction; this happens even in the case of very unexpected ‘couples’, for example Pavel and Natalya. Semyon’s wife almost stalks her brother-in-law on the stage, so when in the end she tries (unsuccessfully) to form some kind of ‘alliance of the overlooked’ with him, it doesn’t come as surprise. Also the moments of sudden disunity in the whole family are important; they usually occur when it comes time to accuse someone. Thus Anna (as the one who comes from outside world) and especially Pavel and Lipa stand against a uniformly hostile group. Pavel and Lipa are the first forced to murder and then they are ‘pushed out of the circle’. The most significant collective act takes place directly under the dying father's body. Pavel begins singing in karaoke style “too dum dum“, then the otherwise reserved Vassa announces in an optimistic, presenter-like tone “It seems that the owner of the business is dying“ and the whole company starts dancing happily. Cruel irony runs through the whole production and reaches a deadly peak here: Vassa and Mikhail hope that - besides the father – that Prokhor will also die, since they know that under their pressure Lipa has switched his medication.
Frič repeatedly works with striking contrast between what’s said versus the overall atmosphere of the dialogue. But it’s significant that it’s not a purposeless game to show off: usually it just reveals what’s hidden within the words. The contrasts between the scenes are important, too. For example, immediately after the dancing scene ‘the new girl’ arrives, and her presence slightly changes the perspective of the whole story. Frequently the dialogue is delivered without emotions, in a detached manner, very often without any eye contact. The ‘fight’ between Uncle Prokhor and Pavel serves as an eloquent example. Both men slowly walk in circles, making careful fight gestures, but they consistently keep a safe distance. The others admonish them, hesitantly, without urgency. As a result, the scene has an ambiguous but suggestive atmosphere; partly grotesque, partly awkward and partly menacing (not to say that men are presented as wimps).
That brings out the fact that Frič isn’t afraid to interlace utterly serious actions with drastic, absurd, sometimes even infantile gags. Even this slightly risky approach works very well in Vassa; especially thanks to the ensemble's great sense of timing and accurate intensity of expression. Individual gags, often quite cynical, unexpectedly emerge, and before the audience fully perceives them (and stop laughing), the gags are gone and everything is back to depressive darkness. When Vassa learns that her brother-in-law has decided to legalize his illegitimate son (thus adding another inheritor), she proclaims desperately “So… that’s the end“, to which everyone on the stage reacts with confused looks and an amateurish bow towards the audience. Just after which another coldblooded family brawl follows, airing more dirty laundry. Pavel, whom Ludmilla accuses of poisoning her cat, during this cold and hateful dialogue; says in accordance with the original text: „She scratched me. And I haven’t poisoned her. She ate too much…“ And then he finishes with a word added by the creative team: “…poison“. It's the only moment in the entire performance when both spouses laugh in understanding. However, the cruel joke also says something more general: we are watching a society whose only common denominator is evil cynicism.

to perform for the benefit of the whole If not for excellent and convincing acting, none of the aforementioned could have full impact in Vassa Zheleznova. And that’s also why the opening night at the National Theatre was a very pleasant surprise. In Vassa, the acting isn’t psychological and performers don’t find themselves in commonly perceived situations – with a few exceptions. All the more clearly they have to capture (or to put it more precisely - ‘demonstrate') something like the ’character’ of their characters and their mutual relations.

Above all, they all perform a ‘type’, not fully formed characters, which - somehow paradoxically - is the least obvious in the case of the title role. At first, the coldly detached performance of Zuzana Stivínová may come across as an almost a traditional approach (if we skip several “strange moments“, e.g. breastfeeding an adult son or the aforementioned dance). But it can be viewed also from a different angle. Vassa is characterized by a combination of ruthless rationality and sentimental self-absorption, and Stivínová manages to offer this incongruous mixture almost like the goods in supermarket: all is comfortably and easily available, have your pick. It seems almost scary - but if we wanted to find out what's really hidden behind the kind mask of the ruler and the protector of the house, we will get nowhere with psychology.
The deformed reflection of the dominant mother is represented by two young women, who murder her in the end: her daughter Anna and Ludmilla, in fact Vassa’s protégée.[11] Anna returns home ‘from the world’, and played by Pavla Beretová, she seems to be the most civilized and restrained of all of them, the natural ally and successor to her mother (significantly she sometimes positions herself in the same spot and in the same pose as her mother). Beretová is consistently chillingly correct; what can be seen as the expression of some feeling usually proves to be just a hint of astonishment. Ludmilla is completely the opposite. There are plenty of exalted passionate outbursts (including her whole musical act), but Veronika Lazorčáková manages to interlace this self-pity with glimpses of Vassa-like heartlessness.
What matters most is that acting style of all the women on the stage keeps us alert, regardless of its economy in terms of theatre expressiveness. Something is always left unpronounced. And it slowly comes to light that for Anna and Ludmilla this ‘unpronounced’ something is probably a dangerous feature inherited from Vassa: the capacity to let nothing stand in one's way while following one's goal. Thanks to this, the drastic finale of the production doesn’t come across as showy arbitrariness.
Around these ambiguous hard-to-grasp female characters (including Natalya, Dunya and Lipa), move a 
‘flock’ of men, portrayed in much more straightforward contours. These include pragmatic and grumpy-looking caretaker Mikhail (Pavel Batěk), and in contrast to him dopey Semyon, played by Šimon Krupa amusingly like an idiot, who is always ready to utter something stupid and then spinelessly back out.[12] The crippled Pavel and his uncle Prokhor form a curiously complementary duo. In comparison to the rest of ensemble, Robert Mikluš moves around the stage (and the auditorium) slightly more “freely“, he speaks in a wearily deep, self-confident voice, and serves his arrogant, contemptuous or scornful sentences quickly, with the routine and self-confidence of a self-appointed local alpha-male and with the intellectual domination of self-assigned 'clever dick' (“I oversee everything around here“, “All of them are thieves and idiots“). Mikluš is unfailingly funny in moments, where it's required by the original (which is not as obvious as one would expect), but he can turn even the lines of a seemingly innocent conversation into poisonous jokes. In his interpretation Prokhor emanates certain menace, but when he is provoked “to act“ by the infantile Pavel, he ends up poorly and spinelessly like the rest of men on the stage. And finally, Petr Vančura in the role of the crippled Pavel is the most stylized figure in the production. He doesn’t play out any physical restrictions, on the contrary he is the most animated one - like quicksilver - he doesn’t stay still, runs and jumps, circling around others, resembling an annoying insect - and most of them treat him as such. Pavel is the complete opposite of Prokhor, he looks weak and vulnerable, but when it comes to it, he acts like a real brute, both verbally and physically.
 Vassa Zheleznova cannot be viewed as a showcase of acting in the common meaning of the word, since first and foremost each performer plays a part in a cleverly composed form. But they all have exceptional ability to fit into that form, to serve the whole, and not to usurp the audience’s attention to themselves, while still maintaining their individuality. Something like this equals a small miracle in Czech theatre; such exact and eloquent acting, witnessed in Vassa, has so far been only the object of envious admiration in the great productions from the German-speaking theatre companies, at least when compared in the context of similarly large-scale shows.

and now what? For many years Jan Frič has belonged to theatre makers whose work is worth following. Although he has been linked especially with small stages for a long time, during his four years at the National Theatre he has become a director who can masterfully tackle large proscenium spaces - which is a pleasant surprise. In this sense even his previous productions at the Estates Theatre were impressive, though this latest premiere represents another step forward; in comparison to a somehow more diffuse Oedipus or Misanthrope, Vassa Zheleznova comes across as substantial, concise and subtle - and thus more convincing both in content and theatre form. I dare to say that this production represents for the National Theatre of the 2020’s a great achievement comparable with the adaptation of the 19th century classical drama, Krobot’s A Year in the Village, produced in the 1990’s; on top of which it's also a production for which the National Theatre waited two decades. Less uplifting is that Frič comes with his best production so far during the theatre season in which - together with the Artistic Management of Drama - he is leaving the National Theatre.

Maxim Gorky: Vassa Zheleznova, adapted by Marta Ljubková and Jan Frič based on a translation by Alena Machoninová, directed by J. Frič, dramaturgy M. Ljubková, stage design by Dragan Stojčevski, costumes by Marek Cpin, music by Jakub Kudláč, The National Theatre in Prague, premiered 27.10.2021 at the Estates Theatre.

published in Svět a divadlo, issue 5, volume 2022
translated by Blanka K


[1]) In 1910 the first version of Vassa Zheleznova was written. During the 30’s the author re-wrote this version substantially to meet the requirements of socialist realism. Here, in the Estates Theatre this older, less well-known version (and also less accessible), is performed in a new translation by Alena Machoninová.

[2] ) The members of the creative team specifically mentioned that they wanted to evoke the atmosphere of a company business in the 90s’, however there are no really distinctive elements of that time found on the stage. I think that not even cream-white vertical blinds or fake brickwork can be considered as such.

[3] ) My impression directly there and then was really ‘a whale washed up on some beach and somebody is trying to keep it alive’. That would correspond quite well with the topic of the play. Only later I learned from the program that the creative team meant Leviathan – a sea monster symbolizing chaos. However, I don’t think that they themselves expected the audience to understand it that way. The legs sticking from the ceiling are kind of a similar case. It is difficult to avoid Faustian connotations, but I guess I wasn’t the only one who thought of notable performance at the Theatre on the Balustrade, played directly under the hanging body of its artistic director Petr Lébl. His suicide in December 1999 is often viewed as symbolic end of the 90’s in Czech theatre.

[4]) It’s also the only moment when Vassa talks without a wireless microphone, and similar moments of ‘sincerity without mikes’ are granted to all the characters.

[5]) Some lyrics were inspired by the lines spoken by Ludmilla in the play; but most verses were newly written.

[6]) Here Frič and Ljubková substantially depart from the original. In 1910’s version isn’t even clear whether Vassa actually dies (although it is suggested). In 1935’s version Vassa dies due to an unidentified disease.

[7]) After the murder, Mikhail appears with bloody hands, but that’s just a symbol, not evidence of ‘direct action’.

[8]) In this case the time period of the costume design is clear.

[9]) If we wanted to be particular, it’s possible to see Dunya as the opposite of „the girl from the present“, therefore „the woman from the past“.

[10]) The play has three acts; the first two are not separated in any obvious way, the last one takes place after a forty-day break, which - besides several direct notes - is demonstrated also by the change of scenery and the removal of the deceased father’s body.

[11] ) Ludmilla is the daughter of Vassa’s closest ally - caretaker Mikhail. There is no mention about her mother - which is both significant and suspicious.

[12]) Semyon is the only one with the explicitly „contemporary“ line, which comes across as slightly ironic nudge. He fantasizes about buying a scooter, becoming a vegetarian and smoking electronic cigarettes after he inherits some money.





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Analytické cookies

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