The Attempt (to find spirituality)
photo Ctibor Bachratý
Director Blaho Uhlár has managed to become a legend (or enfant terrible) of contemporary Slovak theatre already during his lifetime – predominantly thanks to Theatre Stoka, which he founded in 1991 with the visual artist Miloš Karásek. Stoka was an authorial theatre, which intentionally broke theatrical traditions and experimented with form in its productions. However, content – from the start, decidedly socio-critical – was just as important. This, together with Uhlár´s difficult and conflicting character - had probably caused the authorities and officials to begin disfavouring Stoka, at first by reducing financial support and later by completely stopping it. These existential problems naturally provoked a crisis inside the company. The final blow came in 2006, when the theatre was evicted from its traditional building. Uhlár then founded the “free association” of S.T.O.K.A. and now occasionally works with the Trnava amateur company Disk. All Uhlár´s projects, including the several groups that continue with Stoka poetics, are at least worthy of attention and always guarantee an non-traditional experience. The production that I saw during the Nová Dráma 2012 Festival in Bratislava exceeded these expectations and was rightly granted the title of best production in the festival.
The Attempt (to find spirituality) premiered on November 27, 2011 in Bratislava’s Gallerie Cvernovka, an alternative space in a disused factory, which is open to all kinds of artists until developers arrive. Blaho Uhlár lives there himself – in a one-room apartment built from the former theatre auditorium of Stoka.
One could hardly have expected a standard production from Uhlár, however, such an intensely radical work was a surprise for many. Uhlár himself describes the production as a “video-theatrical installation”. Even this is really only a euphemism. The core of The Attempt is an approximately seventy-minute documentary, filmed and actually screened on the spot by the director himself. Apart from this the stage is bare – except for three students of acting wearing black, who half sit, half lie in one corner, “sunk” up to their waists in an amorphous heap of tinfoil. They only speak twice during the performance and both times it is an incomprehensible “shadowing” of dialogue in the film. At the end they clap - very slowly and in a very stylized manner, simultaneously with the audience of an Opening performance at the Prešov theatre, which we see in a film newsreel from 1944. Regarding pure theatre that is all.
The video starts with a sequence on the topic of the end of the world: according to the Mayan prophecy a polarity inversion of the Earth will take place and it will have unforeseeable catastrophic consequences. The illustrative shots on the screen are accompanied by Uhlár´s excessively dramatic commentary. This sequence is followed by a scene from a Bratislava café, where the philosopher and theologist Josef Pavlovič is sitting at a table. Blaho Uhlár, who is evidently holding the camera, confesses to this man that he is afraid of the end of the world. “Well yeah...you´re getting old,” is the laconic answer. The next scene takes place at Uhlár´s home, where we join him in watching a newsreel from 1974, which captures his graduate production. The director is not mentioned even once. Next comes an opinion poll – the director asks students of acting, why they decided to pursue a career in the theatre. The answers are presumably superficial and naive and Uhlár reacts with sarcastic comments as well as his personal maxims: theatre is a temple, theatre is sacrifice, etc. The aspirants of the art are replaced by its legends: Uhlár´s mother Gabriela recalls the founding of the Prešov theatre – the second professional Slovak theatre to be established (in 1944) – and the now legendary theatre makers that she met there: Andrej Bagar, Ján Borodáč, Mikuláš Huba... Uhlár, inspired by these big names, ventilates his hatred of the Slovak National Theatre and its overly expensive mode of operation. According to the director, a solid network of alternative theatres could easily be established from the one-year budget of the SNT. Finally, Uhlár standing in his underwear next to his kitchen unit briefs us on the benefits of drinking a glass of pure lemon juice every morning. It helps healthy excretion. The thematic scope is evident from the aforementioned: the end of the world/looking for spirituality, theatre/acting/memory and the commercial world/alternatives. Uhlár combines these in the documentary and finds many points of intersection between them, while further bringing in partial themes as for example: the presumed mourning for Stoka; memories of his own career; or pondering on the role of sexuality in art, creation, philosophy and ordinary life.
At first sight, it certainly looks a bit sentimental, self-important or simply not very critical. However, it is not so. Uhlár plays a game with the audience, of which he invents and breaks the rules as he pleases. One of these games is the “truth game”. We see the above-mentioned student opinion poll and watch a number of scenes from Uhlár´s private and everyday life. It looks sincere. However... However, the students from the opinion poll are the same people we see live on stage during the whole of the screening. Are they answering as themselves or are they only playing a role? Uhlár provides a clue maybe when he – during a cigarette break on a balcony - persuades some young filmmakers, who are perhaps shooting some commentary for another documentary with him, to condemn the gluttonous professional theatre for his film. First attempt, second attempt, then the third – finally, the “documentarist” is satisfied. The young man sounds really convincing and enthusiastic. But is it the truth or just stylization? The same goes for the scenes from “everyday life”. Uhlár has a hard time with the connection of an external microphone to his video camera. Again, we watch several attempts until he is finally successful – which he acknowledges with the recording of his own farting. Is it reality show or a carefully made-up gag? We will never know for sure. Technology “misbehaves” only when it suits Uhlár´s purposes. At other times he uses Google Earth to let the building of the old Stoka theatre vanish in front of our eyes or he has the robotic voice of an internet translator recite classic Slovak poetry by Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav.
The Attempt (to find spirituality)
photo Ctibor Bachratý
According to Pavlovič, art and spirituality are connected to sexuality. Moreover, nudity sells well, as Uhlár demonstrates in the example of a newspaper article about the actor Ján Koleník. Why shouldn´t one join the club, right? Here Uhlár probably wanders farthest beyond the imaginary boundaries of general taste. For the first time we see him naked on the screen after he has lengthily and suitably-proudly explained the uniqueness of the lighting and the suspension systems in Trnava Theatre Disk, which he co-founded and where he returned many years later. To demonstrate what the miniature auditorium can do, he goes behind a curtain and then reappears completely naked with a clown’s nose. He performs two or three pantomime-movements towards the camera and then bows a little. Several times – as a sort of intermezzo – we watch a detail of a penis (most probably the author´s) softly patted by a female hand. Slowly erection comes. In contrast to the other “sequences”, this one goes without commentary. For many spectators, the giant detail of a penis is itself just too much. However, Uhlár takes it even further. Several times - during internet browsing or video streaming - his computer reveals a pornographic photograph or video, hard to say whether intentionally or not. Cheap provocation or an unnecessary joke? Not at all. Uhlár is not afraid to develop the motif. Thus, in the end we see him (to be honest, from the back and in a dusky unlit room) masturbating to one of the videos. Even this is not enough, so we are served a giant detail of sperm on coloured paper. This time with commentary. “Jackson Pollock,” claims this winner of the Dosky Prize, a prestigious Slovak “Critics” Award for Best Director for the year 1998 (incidentally, Uhlár uses the prize as a coatrack) and according to many the most important Slovak theatre maker of the post-November era.
Masturbation. Sure, The Attempt contains a considerable portion of self-glorifying self-abuse. But isn´t this literal masturbation proof of the fact that he is very well aware of it? And that he still has enough sense of humour to laugh at himself by showing some real jerking off? The preponderance of playfulness and humour – from mini-gags, word play and self-irony, to sarcasm and pitch-black humour – almost threaten to obscure the dark undercurrents of Uhlár´s documentary. That he no longer has someone to perform with, somewhere to realize his work. That he is going to have to move again (we see the project of the rebuilding of the Cvernovka space into a shopping centre). That he is really desperately alone. What other purpose could the detailed shots of his everyday domestic rituals have than to demonstrate that he is only surviving (not taking into account that they are usually structured as great clown sketches)? And that he will probably end up the same as most of those legends whom his mother attempts to recognize in the photographs and in the scenes from the Prešov theatre: as a barely recognizable figure on a dusty photograph, to which only a theatre critic will be able to assign the correct name.
S.T.O.K.A.: The Attempt (to find spirituality), Video-sequence and Direction by Blaho Uhlár, Stage Design concept by Miriam Struhárová, S.T.O.K.A., Premiere November 30, 2011 in Gallerie Cvernovka, Bratislava
english Version of the article from Svět a divadlo magazine, issue 4, volume 2012
translated by Ester Žantovská