Jean-Claude Carriere’s “Normální okruh (Ordinary circuit)” in Vancouver
[Some impressions by Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz]
The title itself raises a question: What is a ‘normal’ circuit? Can it be ‘abnormal’? But whether ‘normal’ or not, the questioning thought touches an exciting Czech theatrical event. Theatre Around the Corner brought to Vancouver two outstanding Czech actors in a dramatic production from the series “Radio drama on stage” that is currently running at Prague’s renowned club Viola (after having been produced for the Czech Radio by D. Kofrankova in 2004).
On May 15-17, 2008 the Studio Theatre at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, that has seen over the years so many performances of the Theatre Around the Corner, was sold out for three nights in a row; at the final performance chairs had to be added to accommodate the overflow. This is actually almost illegal in Canada, but here the thought of ‘legality’ versus ‘illegality’ takes on an ironically topical light in view of the play that was about to start.
A word on the performers:
During his rich acting career Victor Preiss, graduate of the Prague Academy DAMU has created unforgettable roles at various Prague theatres and for the last 15 years is the leading character actor at the renowned Theatre Na Vinohradech. He acted in dozens of films and radio dramas. In 1999 he received the Thalia Prize for his performance as Don Quixote and during 1998 and 2003 Czech audiences voted him the most popular actor. Two volumes of his conversations with 50 well known Czech artists “A Magnificent World” to which he contributed his own illustrations, appeared in 2006/7. Jiri Labus, also a graduate of DAMU is a core member of Studio Ypsilon where he created dozens of roles during last 36 years. He had guest engagements in many other Prague theatres and acted in many films as well as in television plays and radio serials. He was awarded the Prize Thalia for best performance in the play “The Head of Medusa” and in 1994 the Prize ‘The Czech Lion’ for the best performance in the film “America”.
And now the play itself. The stage: a bare, tiled office, an office desk, on it only a thick black folder and a vase with wilted dry flowers, two chairs, and a shabby coat hanger. A man enters heavily, sits behind the desk, and breathes deeply like someone about to start a job of which he is in full control: the Commissar. A pause – then noises back stage, voices “Just go in...”, shuffling. The Commissar quickly picks up the vase with flowers and throws it into the waste paper basket. (This symbolic gesture, indicating the disappearance of the last vestige of humanity was actually added by the local producer – Dr. Josef Skala, long standing dramaturge, director, actor and ‘soul’ of the Theatre Around the Corner, who had also designed the set and the lights for this staging). Man number Two enters: they face each other. The difference is immediately clear: seated behind the desk the wielder of the Law, before him the Informer, shuffling, apologetic, bowing, yet also a representative of the ‘Law’ – if darkly marginal. In this situation he is obviously, at least to start with, an underdog on the defense. The play consists of the dialogue that starts as an interrogation and becomes more and more of an exchange, as the scale of power begins to shift. Behind their talk there emerges a complex network of rules, concealed restrictions, pressures and the arbitrary nature of ‘politically correct language’. One thing is clear: the Informer has been summoned to testify on his ‘job’ of informing. He does so with unfailing conscientiousness and indeed passion. The Commissar asks questions, finding out more than he bargained for. Versions of “right” and “wrong” hover within the dialogue, vague forms of ‘judge’ and ‘culprit’ seem to take shape. But then these positions become fluid; the balance between the two, so clear at the beginning, wavers, dissolves, finally gets reversed.
The general atmosphere is obviously that of a police state. Concrete examples are heard rather than seen on stage. Several times there are eerie, grating sounds from outside, heavy steps, bashing of iron doors, clanking of keys, muffled screams. The two men on stage, obviously accustomed to these sounds, simply interrupt their conversation and wait until silence permits them to continue. A chilling, self-reflective example of the deadening force of habit occurs when the sounds are heard the next time: unconsciously the audience starts reacting in the same way as the characters on stage, simply waiting for the noise to cease. The topic of the conversation bristling with suspense and lop-sided humor is the act of INFORMING in all its shapes and implications. Through the Informer we gradually discover that he regards it as an ‘ethical’ job that tries to bring to light what hovered in dubious shadows, but also as a way to earn a living for the family, and primarily as a noble, all absorbing task to which he responds with an almost erotic passion. Then the plot thickens. Another aspect of the process wedges its way into the argument: we learn that the Informer informs on himself as much as on others. And this, as he argues, was quite ‘normal.’ Indeed the former Commissar had requested him to do this, “so that the tracks would be obliterated...so that it would show that he, the Informer, too, had a ‘file’ as everybody else.”
As the network of truth and lie, reality and fiction becomes virtually inextricable for the Commissar as well as for the audience, the tables begin to turn. At one crucial point the Informer has gained the upper hand. His tone of voice and body language make this clear. During the conversation the Commissar had revealed personal and professional ‘weaknesses’ which had given the Informer ample material to carry out his profession: to report on the Commissar himself. It is suddenly revealed that the former Commissar had not been transferred to a diplomatic job, but is actually incarcerated in the prison downstairs. For all we know, the previously heard clanking footsteps and muffled screams might have been his. Gradually the Commissar begins to understand. The play, having started in slow motion, keeps gaining momentum until, in the last moments, the speed becomes breathtaking. It is now that the Informer casually tells the Commissar that he had watched him closely for a long time and had already “reconstructed...[his] personality quite nicely.” He next suggests that the Commissar could avoid the fate of the ex-commissar by simply beginning to inform on himself. To start with, a few lines would suffice, he would soon get the hang of it. And indeed, as he begins to write, the Commissar warms up to the task. As to the Informer, he sees his file being safely closed, and preparing to leave, he benevolently offers to mail the Commissar’s report for him.
Despite his illustrious career as screen-writer and dramatist (he wrote scripts for legendary films by Luis Bunuel, Peter Brook, Günter Grass, Andrzej Wajda and Milos Forman) Jean-Claude Carriere who never lived under a political system of this sort has written in 2002 a text that, despite its brevity, has seized the most essential quality of a coercive post-totalitarian system: its ability to manipulate and distort the human spirit.
A word on the dramatic impact of the text:
We might think of other works that play with the unique psychological possibilities of a dialogue that midway drastically changes direction. There is, for example, Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story (1958), where one of the characters gets the other one not only to commit a murder but also makes him realize that he has been living a lie and has reached a dead end. Or else, closer in time as well as the political scene, there is Vaclav Havel’s play “Audience” (1975) in which the Brewmaster, having asked dissident employee Vanek’s to “inform” on himself, ends up by casting off his benevolent boss’s mask and breaks down sobbingly, bewailing his own helplessness. (It may be of interest here that in November 1991 “Audience” was staged to great reviews by the Theatre Around the Corner; the well known Czech actor Pavel Kriz played Vanek and Josef Skala was the Brewmaster). In the short story “A Cup of Coffee with my Interrogator” (1977), a whimsical conversation told in his incomparable style by Ludvik Vaculik, the Interrogator also suddenly changes his tone when unreachable forces behind the scenes seem to have intervened. In all these cases the character who seems to be at ease in his position of power experiences the shock of being trapped by a system of which he had considered himself to be a well working part. The audience is bound to realize that it is he who emerges as the play’s real protagonist. Sartre’s “No Exit” (Huis Clos, 1944) extends such a thought into a well-known dramatic metaphor.
In ‘Normalni okruh’, both characters are trapped. But the Informer, well settled in his job of ‘trapping’ others, builds his life around this trap, whereas the Commissar only learns in the course of the play that he himself is trapped. The audience goes through the same process, when in the last minutes of the play the emotional thumbscrews are tightened by one more turn. As the power play seems to have reached its final stage, the actors, on the point of leaving the stage, suddenly switch their positions and take on - visibly this time - each other’s roles. The murky merry-go-round can continue. The basic theme of ‘informing’ remains the same but the characters carrying it out are interchangeable. The audience witnesses how the flickering patterns of the power struggle, of reality and illusion, truth and lie, ethics and pretense melt before their eyes.
The way the two venerable actors brought this extraordinary minimalist text to life made the obviously spell-bound audience (among which there were the Czech ambassador and the honorary consul) rise to their feet and acknowledge the performance by extended enthusiastic applause.
I cannot imagine a better way to mark the 70th anniversary of the Munich Agreement on occupation of Czechoslovakia by Hitler, the 60th anniversary of the communist take-over of the country and the 40th anniversary of the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the armies of the Warsaw pact; all of them falling to the year 2008. Bravo Theatre Around the Corner for bringing this brilliant and deeply moving production half way across the globe to your grateful Vancouver audience!
Vancouver, July 7th, 2008