Hromobití on Granville Island:
Ivan Klíma Sees his Play Staged by Vancouver's Theatre Around the Corner
Czechs are not usually known for emigré group activities. On mountain trails and ski slopes around Vancouver Czech is heard more often than in ethnic assembly halls. But there is another place where Czech is heard, laced with all shades of local accents among the more mature or older generation, and by English phrases among the very young. This other place is the theatre. Although Vancouver's citizens of Czech origin (unlike some of their neighbours, say, the Poles or the Austrians) have no assembly hall, they most certainly have a theatre. Not a building, mind you, buildings can be rented (and there is a choice of these in Vancouver) but a lively, talented and dedicated group of actors, stage designers, set builders, assistant directors and all that goes with the enormously difficult and demanding task of staging a play.
Led and inspired by the enterprising and indefatigable director/actor Dr. Josef Skála (professor of pediatrics in his life off stage), the Theatre Around the Corner, already known to Vancouver audiences by remarkable performances ranging from French farce to Voskovec & Werich, from Capek to Kundera, has managed to bring into life an extraordinary theatrical event: as the premiere outside the Czech Republic where it had been produced only once, they staged Ivan Klíma's Hromobití. The particularly challenging and exciting aspect of this event was that the author himself was present at one of the performances and addressed the audience afterwards. Invited by the Simons Foundation (which, under its president Dr. Jennifer Simons has become a maecenas of Czech literature and culture) as well as Vancouver's two universities, Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia, Ivan Klíma gave several lectures, readings and interviews in the city before he took up an extended tour through the United States, sponsored by his publisher, to promote his new novel Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light.
On Friday, March 24, Ivan Klíma attended his play Hromobití (Sound of Thunder) in the Waterfront Theatre on Vancouver's lovely and popular Granville Island. Written during the dark days of 1972 when 'normalization' after the Prague Spring was in full swing, Hromobití, as Ivan Klíma explained, was the result of a quasi joke or literary game: a number of 'dissident' writers, banned from publication and for the most part performing menial jobs, used to meet in small groups to discuss literature and keep artistic sparks alive. During one of these meetings, one of the people present (the choice fell on Karol Sidon), was asked to point his finger on some spot in an open encyclopaedia. The word so indicated--left entirely to the quirks (or pre-destined pattern?) of chance (or fate?)--was to be the topic of a piece of literature to be written by each of the writers present. As it happened, the word thus chosen was a meteorological term describing a brief rolling sound that occurred when a bolt of lighting generated by electricity in the air, was thrust to the ground. It stands to reason that such a phenomenon hardly provided a suitable topic for a literary work. However, the writers responded. A poem was written, as well as pieces of prose (Ivan Klíma does not recall with any accuracy). But one thing he, of course, remembers: the play Hromobití was his own contribution to the chance-game.
Hromobití is a brilliant farce with far-reaching implications; a group of citizens arrive for a vacation in a mountain resort. Soon they find out--and so does the audience--that things will be rather different from what one expects from a holiday in the hills. Having come from different walks of life, far away from their daily routines, they form a sort of mini-version of samples from the human condition. As they enter the hall of the resort--and the stage--successively (by having carefully choreographed their individual movements and gestures, the director gives us ample and enjoyable time to size them up), they behave like any tourist would behave in a new place: they move with slow circumspection, read aloud from a guide book, check the view, inspect items that are standing around, respond to the displayed copy of a Rubens painting (a delightful stage prop and part of Vladimir Bezruc's surrealistic stage set). Above all, they reveal themselves in their all-too-human qualities. Soon the audience realizes that they are faced with a cross-section of humanity reminding them of the ancient image of the 'ship of fools' bound for adventure, possibly disaster.
There is, for example, the 'nice' couple Mr. and Mrs. Brett (convincingly portrayed by Peter Bugár and Gita Schoberová), a yes-man husband and a busy-body wife, eager beavers who make a go of any situation, who carry on obediently under any régime, who want their son to get what they never managed to get, who will do what they are told because they don't want to get into trouble with whoever is running the show.
Or else there is the bumbling 'he-man' Puzrle (the name sounds most amusing in Czech because it implies the very opposite of machoism) trying his muscular charms on the gorgeous blonde of the group whose cooing laughter gives him the goose flesh. He fails miserably in his erotic efforts: her suitcase is too heavy for him to lift (the actor Zdenek Matoušek even managed to get redder and redder in the face as he seems to struggle with the suitcase). Subsequently Puzrle volunteers for any job to be done--menial, dangerous, you name it. Whether he does so out of genuine desire to be helpful or out of idealistic courage, or whether he is merely making a desperate attempt to keep up his image of unlimited virility, remains an open question (and the director and actor wisely keep it so, thus not permitting any figure to become a cardboard character).
Then there is the paranoid Hemele (acted brilliantly by Olda Paták), with a permanent chip on his shoulder and haunted by the conviction that certain people (he names them several times, becoming increasingly funny, as he rattles off their names more and more quickly) are bound to find him and take their revenge. Again it is by no means clear whether Hemele is merely a harmless psychopath or whether the people whom he mentions felt his boot in the past when he himself still held the post of Director. His anxiety ultimately leads him to violent thoughts and as we laugh about his childlike delight at being in charge of a mechanism that could reduce to ashes any real or imaginary opponent, we are bound to realize that this situation has sinister parallels in real life and is not really funny at all.
There is also Landa, the physicist (Jirí Adler managed the role entirely without 'acting'), keeping steadily to the right margin of the stage, he raises his eyes from his laptop only for entirely personal reasons (say, when brushing or flossing his teeth) or else when he is officially reprimanded for being an outsider who refuses collaboration in a good cause.
Moreover there is, constantly on stage, and watching the antics of the others with detached amusement while busying herself with make up, nail filing and other implicitly erotic activities, the centre of sexual attraction, Ms. Simonová, the first of the guests to undulate her way onto the stage when a holiday beckons and the first to leave it when disaster strikes. (In this role Hanka Lynn gave another performance that again testifies to her talent as a remarkably versatile actress.)
Two other guests complete the picture of this micro-sample of humanity. There is Mikuláš, the guitar-lugging teenager and unsuccessfully regimented son of the goody-goody couple, played by Bronco Hyrman with utterly convincing slovenliness and entertaining pain-in-the-neck-behaviour, using his guitar for awkward sexual advances to Simonová, and breaking here and there into ear shattering rock rhythms which he is willing to change momentarily to folksy melodies when Simonová's response seems cool. Rejecting the 'proper' language of his parents, Mikuláš (who hates his name) translates manuals on sexual behaviour to any female that will lend an ear. Understandably there is not much chance to peddle such literature in this holiday resort; besides physicist Landa gets a hold of the book and reads it to himself (and the audience) as if he read a manual in a physics lab.
An additional character, Slávek, is a mute role for which director Skála had another striking idea: he lets him make his point entirely through his music. Working as the resort's handy man who merely follows orders, Slávek in this production also became a non-verbal commentator on life in general. Sitting quietly left stage (unless called upon to do some chores) he thoughtfully strums his guitar and sings dreamy Moravian folk songs. Luboš Dvořák's rather smokey baritone voice and gently harmonizing guitar beautifully transmitted the subdued message of the man who lets the world go by. When the situation around him has collapsed or literally gone up in smoke, he simply keeps sitting there, strumming away--representing the simple guy, the only one who has remained natural in this crazy world where everyone pretends, struggles, lies or grasps. He remains untouched by it all, and so does his lovely, old-time music reflecting a natural residue of human sanity.
But wait, what makes it all tick? Where is the kingpin in this situation? All these characters would have somehow carried on in the general messiness of life if they had not ended up in the resort, if the playwright had not put them under pressure that brings out the truth. The leader-organizer of the holiday resort (unlike the others he remains nameless), holds the stage before anyone else arrives. With his legs up on a table, his head twisted to the side, he is (or seems?) fast asleep. When awakened he becomes the power centre within a flash. Wielding a microphone (his resounding check-in signal "Here eagle...here eagle" makes the audience jump in their seats) he spouts rules and regulations for others to follow, is contemptuously pleased with the conformists, breaks into quickly abating fury when opposed, can be oily smooth at one moment, hard as nails at the next, all along giving out confusing and bizarre instructions with a mixture of a robot's mechanistic phraseology and a gospel-teacher's intensity. Looming dangers, as the guests and the audience rapidly learn, are absurdly meteorological: lightning can strike any minute but, in the absence of lightning rods, the guests will have to take charge of protecting the resort. As the situation becomes increasingly amusing, the leader/organizer becomes an increasingly threatening and mystifying figure as he differentiates the ways he manipulates the individual guests (who have ceased to be guests but rather become frightened children, if not victims), hands out quasi-bureaucratic jobs that endanger lives (for instance, holding a lightning rod on the roof and noting down increasingly illusory meteorological phenomena like 'circular lightning bolts'. Toward the end of the play, as the passengers on this ship of fools are busy with their grotesque security tasks (a wonderful directoral touch is that they are put on a mover's buggie one by one, and wheeled off stage like so many packages) the end the leader/organizer achieves what he has been after all along. By this time his intentions have also dawned on the audience. Smoothly gliding off the stage with a willing Ms Simonová he informs her about his villa in the valley that has not only a swimming pool and a canopy bed but also a lightning rod. The eminent Czech actor of stage and film, Pavel Kříž who now lives in Vancouver, has brought bone chilling life to this character, from hysterical bursts of high pitched laughter, to smug, silk-tongued praise of the Bretts' 'obedience', to a panther-like leap in non-conformist Landa's direction, in order to subdue him. I can see great dramatic potential in director Skála and actor Kríz's collaboration (already tested on writers like Milan Kundera and Václav Havel).
A closer look at the characters reveals Ivan Klíma's artistic signature in all of them. Klíma's strength (particularly noticeable in his prose works) is that he never gives us one- dimensional characters. Even in this short piece of dramatic writing he manages to write a dialogue that reveals multi-dimensional characters beyond the farcical situation. Beyond the amusement and laughter that rises in our throats, the play again and again gives rise to more weighty questions in our minds. Take, for example, the case of a thoroughly decent couple, anxious to do what they take to be their civic duty, trying not to rock the boat they think they are sitting in, keeping busy to stay out of trouble, and--this is supposed to be a virtue, after all--making the best of any situation. At what point do they represent people whose moral failing is that they are unable or refuse to identify absurdity, stupidity, power play, evil?
Or take a man with a persecution complex: perhaps he is just a medical case and needs psychiatric treatment; but perhaps this 'complex' is rooted in his past behavior when he had done harm to someone else: nothing special, just a touch of ruthlessness in career building, a negative word about a colleague in a ready ear, a drop of suspicion in another mind. When does his subsequent anxiety, his fear of revenge become a reason for 'protective' action, a brutal gesture of 'self-defense', a murderous deed?
Or else there is the steadfast taciturn intellectual who clearly diagnoses the insanity of the society he lives in. At what point does he join in the game and commit what Julien Benda called La Trahison des clercs (The Betrayal of the Intellectuals) almost seven decades ago?
Ivan Klíma never provides easy solutions, and Josef Skála, understanding this, managed to bring it out in his actors and transmit it onto the stage without depriving the play of its high-spirited, histrionic fun. We have laughed our way through the action but at the end we do not feel entirely comfortable in our seats for we are disquieted, unsure, thoughtful and therefore--perhaps--better?
The small miracle is that the Theatre Around the Corner has succeeded to draw from Ivan Klíma's Hromobití its essence that reaches far beyond what it easily could be taken for: a take-off on the regimented recreational establishments in which totalitarian regimes (right and left) have excelled. The play's level-headed and very critical author (no matter how kind and tolerant he is in private life) realized this very point, and was more than pleased about every aspect of the production.
For us, Czech speaking citizens of Vancouver and lovers of the theatre the staging of Hromobití
is another proof that we can look forward to new creative enriching adventures to come from Around the Corner.