Elswhere is Elswhere
The thirty-ninth title of the Stoka series is Post-Factotum. As in the case of Wellness the script came to existence “through the method of collective creation”, the cast is also similar and the mosaic structure revolving around a hardly definable mood rather than a theme is also analogous. The official notes confirm the apparent interpretation of the title as a response to the contemporary, so-called “post-factual” era (“The Earth is flat, Finland does not exist. The truth is not fundamental. Five actors move around an unclear scene, in uncertain relationships, their characters vanish totally in some places…”). But I found that the only direct references in the production were in fact a certain interpretative strain and courage, which is certainly not meant as a criticism.
Jingling reverberates through a gloomy theatre hall as if a Russian troika is coming and there is a whirring which is less definable but sounds frightening and almost apocalyptic: this sound divides the various scenes of the production with slight variations and as it gradually clears, we find out that it is a distorted version of the song The Lime Was Burning, Burning which is heard directly from the stage at the end. Then Braňo Mosný in the costume of a French-style waiter emerges in a vista of slight additional lightning between two drapes on the backcloth. With his hands outstretched in front of him he holds the thin stems of wine glasses between his fingers and as he moves his fingers the goblets knock against each other tinkling. But it is not so simple: with a completely serious expression of importance Mosný walks with bent knees kicking his legs comically in the air (“a la Monty Python”). The sound dies down backstage and Tomáš Pokorný and Michaela Halcinová enter. They are also very smartly dressed: Pokorný in a suit with a waistcoat and bow tie, Halcinová in a rather revealing but still decent dress. They are fully absorbed in each other, teasing each other and they are generally self-satisfied and beaming. When the waiter (now erect) brings the first table they immediately leap at it looking around for chairs. Somewhere at this point the first English words of the production are interposed: “What a lovely place.” Pokorný articulates them with a “globetrotter’s” haughtiness in the manner of such a man appraising a slightly suspicious but distinctive establishment. Mosný brings another table and this time also a chair. The couple moves to it and the lady sits down. When waiter returns with a second chair he seems to push it obligingly towards Pokorný but instead moves backwards and his “victim” squats just before sitting down thus moving backwards, too. Together and in this curious position (Pokorný moving steadily backwards squatting) they leave the stage, come back into view and return. Pokorný finally sits down, lounging and teasing his partner and repeats his, “What a lovely…” as nothing has happened.
It was actually clear that such an obvious situation must “deteriorate” one way or the other. However, the originality of Stoka and its contemporary ensemble (which is – you will recall – the collective author of the production) lies in the degree of this deterioration and in how far actors are willing to go. The first breach (ignoring the waiter’s “deliberateness”) comes with the entry of a second couple of guests played by Lenka Libjaková and Peter Tilajčík. Mosný brings them in slightly stunned posture (a hand in front of a slightly opened mouth etc.) to the second café table on the stage. He sits them down – quite unscrupulously groping the woman’s breasts – and serves a dish of spaghetti with tomato sauce for Libjaková and places a goblet of water in front of Tilajčík. For a moment he deals again with a couple at the other table and then on leaving the stage he thrusts Libjačíková’s face in passing into the plate and dashes the water into Tilajčík’s face. Neither he nor she responds to this apparent aggression, they only abandon their so far stiff posture and act to each other in a very gentle and affectionate way: they feed each other with spaghetti, let their partner taste the tomato sauce… If the waiter did not repeat his action with the spaghetti dish and water rather routinely and perhaps out of habit it would be – particularly in comparison with the pompous and false-seeming other couple – a nice idyll. But the self-assured couple is not spared the waiter’s assaults: as well as the repeated gag when Mosný marches Procházka off the stage (this time luring him with a constantly refilled glass), the biggest aggression occurs in the course of choosing from the menu. It looks like a thick paperback, perhaps a kind of a supply catalogue brought by Mosný on a plate balanced high above his head. He throws it – again quite ruthlessly – on to the gentleman’s lap and while the latter studies it he moves behind the woman and begins to grope her unscrupulously. Halcinová responds with flattered amusement at first but as the assaults gain strength she tries to attract her partner’s attention but he does not react to her increasingly desperate signals. Finally the lady loses, her breasts are “raked” quite brutally and the waiter ends up treating himself to oral sex while, in a rather acrobatic position, he uses his foot to show Pokorný what he should order. In the end Mosný even half-smothers Pokorný with the menu and on leaving the stage – for the order which he more or less enforced – he “attends” again to the second couple. But that is not all. The waiter returns and instead of food he offers a revolver to the couple. They both smile amusedly (how many times already?) as if it is some peculiar local tradition. Mosný squats completely point-blank on Pokorný’s lap, waiting to see what Halcinová will do with the gun. At first she plays around with it (she imitates shooting etc.) but then as if she understands she puts the barrel in her mouth. For the first time – from Mosný, so completely external to the situation – the refrain of the whole production is heard: a quite plainly delivered sentence “Are you alone here?” And then the complaisant waiter pulls out a saltcellar and seasons the served “dish” for the lady. Ragtime reverberates, the lights fade and the couples start to dance. Regrettably, this rather lengthy description cannot show the timing of the whole scene, which lasts around ten minutes, or the degree of precision and unostentatious stylization with which it is performed. As for the rendition, we are in the field of a perfectly performed farce in which – as in the classic silent movies – any outrageousness could happen without arousing the merest astonishment or reaction disrupting the fictional reality on the part of the participants (the production also includes a parody of bad slapstick comedy and trashy humour where the performers are looking for laughs). But if we want to consider what this all means the situation becomes complicated. There are several possible interpretations: mockery of the self-confident and uppish West (in addition to his peculiar English Pokorný also speaks German) for which everything is just “a lovely place” and which is concerned only with itself. It is indifferent to the suffering of others and at the same time it is completely in the hands of service deliverers represented by the waiter who takes the place of all those who apparently serve us. All this could – letting the interpretative imagination run wild – be read from the introductory scene which is characteristically entitled “the production”. But if you want you can stick to the slapstick, although this is pretty black and absurd, arousing an uncertain sense that something is messy, something is happening but it is hard to say what exactly. That is a fairly up-to-date feeling.
Despite its equivocation and allusiveness, the passage described above is the most thematically tangible in the whole production. Nothing else is said so “directly”, but nonsense, peculiarity and the pure absurd increase. For instance the following scene is the complete reverse of the introduction. Libjaková (still with smears of tomato sauce on her face) offers Tilajčík quite plainly: “Do you want me to tell your fortune?” She finds out – by straightforwardly testing her “victim” – which hand hurts more after slapping, which palm is more ticklish and which fingertip is more sensitive to pinching. Finally she asks: “Think of a letter.” And when she guesses “E?” Tilajčík shakes his head and she just says “…Fuck!” and angrily leaves. The stage goes dark and Mosný’s waiter performs a dance number with an operatic aria in the background. A simple, completely ordinary joke, without any underlying meaning. This is beyond the scope of an interpreter. And at the same time both scenes, the fortune-telling blackout and the dance, fit the vaguely nervous atmosphere, as does, for example, an entirely typical Stoka scene built for the first time in this production around a dialogue. It is – again traditionally, I would say – a family situation: a father (Pokorný), mother (Halcinová) and son (Mosný). The son would like to move to a bigger town and the clearly wealthy father does not really understand this. It is virtually impossible to describe the whole dialogue with all its twists. Its longest section is an enumeration of smaller Slovak towns where the son might move (since the father thinks for a moment that a smaller town would be more suitable for the son). The conversation leads nowhere and it ends dully. Pokorný and Mosný – Halcinová spends the most of the scene bent at the waist and joins the conversation only sporadically, with a straight-faced delivery of banal sentences like: “Home is home. But elsewhere is elsewhere.” – keep straying from oddly stylized and archaically and literary Slovak into totally contemporary language and – of course – the whole is delivered with totally serious expressions, devoid of winks.
Many scenes in the production are twinned. The one above is completed in a dialogue between Pokorný and Libjaková, again in a stylized Slovak, reinforced by the impersonalized addressing of each other in the third person. It is again completely empty “small talk”, this time perhaps between members of high society, maybe about travel (the Taj Mahal and other historical sights are mentioned). However, the situation is physically complicated – both speakers move into more and more acrobatic postures using Mosný and Halcinová as their “gym apparatus”. At first they just sit on them (Mosný and Halcinová lie on the ground on their stomachs with their legs bent at the knees) but they gradually become more and more entangled with them. The living furniture conforms willingly and even starts to talk itself: the “Are you still alone?” textual refrain returns.
The following scenes from a doctor’s waiting room are also paired. Mosný on crutches asks in vain who is the last in line. He gets only contemptuous and almost hateful reactions from the uninterested people waiting. When there has been enough mockery the so far heavily and slow-moving Mosný suddenly comes alive and inspired by action heroes he gets his revenge in a series of kicks. The ruthless tormentors topple down in slow motion.
When the situation returns it is at first sight analogous. Again a waiting room full of uninterested people and again Mosný on crutches. And again the question about who is the last in line. But quite a few things are different. Mosný’s voice is throaty as if it is hoarse from incessant questioning. The people in the waiting room are immersed in various disgusting activities: Tilajčík is picking his nose, Halcinová removing dirt from between her toes and Pokorný tops it all when he first scratches his crotch and then smells the hand he pulls out from his trousers and then busies himself with the contents of his bellybutton and with tasting everything he finds there. Mosný indicates that everything could perhaps still turn around when he makes himself dance for a moment out of sight of the others, gazing into the audience. Expectations are confirmed by Pokorný’s answer to the repeated initial question – he points to the backstage and in a voice similarly throaty to Mosný’s he says: “I’m only waiting here for my wife.” Applause and the enthusiastic screams of spectators are immediately heard from a loudspeaker, actors step out of their roles and with glances of friendly admiration Mosný turns to Pokorný. He embodies modesty, pretends to blush, it is embarrassing for him but he enjoys the admiration, moves to the front of the stage bowing and beckoning to the rest of the cast who he applauds quite unpretentiously, of course – in short orgies of traditional dramatic double-dealing. Collective dancing follows, a very short scene in which Pokorný and Mosný alternate crazy orgiastic movements with painful grimaces and then there is the closing scene of the production: actors sit on chairs facing the audience and a sound of a starting – perhaps two-stroke – motor is heard. It seems it is ready to move off, the actors are shaking as if they are driving, but the motor suddenly dies. This is repeated several times with a constantly increasing intensity and finally an imaginary inertia catapults them from the chairs (however, like many times throughout the production everything happens in slow motion) and they are thrown against the audience where their bodies and faces get smashed against the invisible fourth wall. Libjaková cries out. It becomes dark.
The production has a distinct rhythm and is unreservedly restrained. It did not occur to me – albeit in the case of the only act – it was lasting too long. If this threatens, there is an unexpected point or “sidestep”. The audience’s attention and desire to follow developments on the stage are also maintained by the outstandingly focused performances. They are first and foremost unusually realistic; though apparently stylized (and thus requiring real performing, not “only” personalities existing on the stage) they are devoid of lavishness, swaggering or anything like flattery. But at the same time there is evident captivation and a gigantic effort. And most importantly it all makes sense.
At first sight there is no obvious link between the individual scenes in Post-Factotum but the production cannot be perceived as a series of sketches or as certain haphazardness. There is a strong undertow of that vague feeling already mentioned several times that something is wrong. In other words, as expressed through the production’s images: the contemporary world is not such “a lovely place” at all, it is hard to say what the future holds for us but if anything then elsewhere is elsewhere.
Blaho Uhlár and Co.: Post-Factotum, directed by Blaho Uhlár, set design and costumes Miriam Struhárová, music selection Lenka Libjaková and Blaho Uhlár, Stoka Theatre Bratislava, premiere December 7, 2017
published in Svět a divadlo, issue 4, volume 2018
translated by Ladislav Šenkyřík