I Served the King of England

Author: Bohumil Hrabal

Directed by: Dr. Josef Skála

30 November, 1-2 December 2006

Shadbolt Centre for the Arts - Studio, Burnaby, BC

“I Served the King of England” staged by Theatre Around the Corner OR Hrabal’s dramatic debut in British Columbia

Audience attending the opening night of the thirtieth anniversary season of the Theatre Around the Corner, the staging of Hrabal’s I Served the King of England, had the opportunity to view in the vestibule an exhibition of seven pictures of the renowned Slovak-Canadian painter Frank Jalsovký.  The fact that for security reasons the exhibit could not stay for the remaining performances is a strangely appropriate comment on what one might call Hrabal’s ‘double vision’ of human life. The pictures centered on the theme “Concretized vision on a night sky” a quotation from Hrabal expressing his concept of one highest truth. Yet this highest truth is not easy to perceive in his text, mirroring the motley disorienting adventures, a sort of kaleidoscope of twentieth century life in Czechoslovakia. And yet it is there, this truth, anchored in the author’s vision of human frailty and human glory inextricably mingled.

But now we enter the theatre. The stage, party illuminated, seems to suggest the events that will follow.  The almost surrealist set is dominated by a massive, peeling scaffold reminiscent of Prague in the fifties and sixties, implying something unfinished and the ever-present process of change. At stage left  is the concrete setting of a table, chairs, a shelf with glasses behind – a section of a restaurant; at the centre there is a suggestion of a secession boudoir with a red chaise lounge and a concealing lace curtain which later serves as a shadow-theatre screen. At the right is a green swinging door of a public washroom, as well as a bench and a gas lamp, suggesting an outside space. Above, on another larger projection screen we see Bohumil Hrabal’s face – his thoughtful, handsome face, darkened by a tragic shadow. Moreover, the face seems to be behind prison bars – shadows cast by the scaffolding. On the highest part, reachable only by a ladder, we glimpse the suggestion of a simple room, a table with an old typewriter and an open window....

The stage darkens and then comes alive. Out of the blinding beam of a reflector a figure slowly approaches, speaking (most of us know Josef Skála’s unmistakable voice) over Janáček’s piano motives to the projection screen, that has now changed to the image of a majestic cat. The narrator slowly approaches the ladder, slowly climbs up and sits in front of the typewriter, where he will remain throughout the play. From here he will philosophize, push ahead the action taking place below, wedge in a brief explanation about the ‘movie of his life’. Soon we realize that this is the ‘other’ voice of the main character, Jan Dítě near the end of his life, now separated from his youthful ‘alter ego’ that experiences on the stage below this ‘movie” of his memories. And so, by leaps and bounds, although with utmost care for details, “the unbelievable becomes reality,” and before our eyes unroll the events of Jan’s life: from his first job as a bus-boy who has his ears pulled, to his lucrative job selling sausages at the railway station, to Paradise, the local brothel into which he introduces baffling romanticism by adorning his surprised partner’s belly with flowers, to his unconscious collaboration with the Nazis, to becoming a post-war millionaire and ending his life in a communist labor-camp, where he maintains an unused road  in the borderlands.  As Jan’s almost picaresque journey continues and he finds courage and self assurance, other hrabalesque characters come and go, flashing up in colorful cameo scenes. All along, the action is punctuated by the pleasantly vulgar yet perfectly appropriate commentary of the female washroom attendant (the sterilized North American term for a “hajzl bába”), accompanied by the figure of a leftist poet ending up in a communist concentration camp, by a pompous traveling salesman, subsequently morphing into a playboy officer, a member of the Bolshevik militia and at the end a drunkard in the same labor camp. There are also traditional figures of hoteliers and waiters, obviously trained in luxury hotels in Vienna, harkening back to the elegance of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who check their employee’s clean vests and washed feet. The call girl in love later becomes officious Liza, the German schoolteacher who needs to have her partner Jan checked as to the truly Aryan quality of his sperm. The individual characters change their coat, their principles, their convictions....

The narrator helps us muse as we watch the passing of time and the passing of ‘accidental’ events. The motley human crowd moves, the crew and passengers of this ‘ship of fools’, come and go, pretend and strive, sew tail coats for waiters and dignitaries and try them out on the novelty of rubber mannequins that can be pumped up to fit the size of the client. As Jan Dítě – a sort of Melville’s Ishmael or Voltaire’s Candide – makes his accounts with life, his experiences, despite their seeming simplicity, suggest the almost archetypal patterns of great literary works, as Faust or Peer Gynt. Despite the realistic nature of the individual scenes, they become increasingly transparent, revealing–and this is the particular strength of Hrabal’s text – the great events that shook Central Europe during the twentieth century.

The whole production is based on a creative combination of musical and visual counterpoints. This brings to life – the special originality of the production – the historical dimension of average characters, as they are tossed about and trying to cope, more or less successfully, with the vast political changes that press on their lives. Moreover a fairy tale atmosphere flashes up here and there being introduced right at the beginning with the old folk song “There once was a king”. The historical perspective of the action is commented on by music, relating to the happenings and conjuring up bright and dark areas of the cultural and political past. For example, we hear the scratchy recordings of dance tunes from the early days of the twentieth century (taken from Josef Skála’s wide ranging heritage record collection), among them a unique one with Karel Hašler’s voice; the central musical motive that keeps returning at critical moments in Jan’s life is the subdued magic of Leoš Janáček’s “Along an overgrown path” (in the finely-sensed interpretation of the well-known Canadian-Czech pianist Eva Solarová-Kinderman); or else we are made to witness Wagner’s ecstatic “Ride of the Valkyries” interspaced by authentic Hitler’s hate-soaked polemics. The sound effects thus form an unobtrusive yet intense parallel to the play: moods are conjured up, joys rise and wither, fears emerge and break open....

The projection screen above the stage accompanies events visually: we are led from the tragic eyes of Hrabal to the knowing eyes of the feline (Hrabal would probably have enjoyed this portrait of the director’s beloved thirteen year-old Mourek), to reproductions of Mucha and Tichý, examples of the authentic kitsch of communist propaganda , to the huge penetrating eyes of a tragic clown’s face (“Magus of Prague”, whose original hangs on the wall of Skála’s living room and I suspect that it is his attempt at a spiritual self portrait), witnessing the narrator’s final suicidal fall from his window, until, at the end, we are unobtrusively returned to Hrabal’s features with his beloved half-liter of Pilsner beer. The use of shadow play, visible on the smaller screen, acts as a sort of voyeur window, and – another brilliant touch of the staging – permits us to witness briefly the na?veté and humor of private erotic scenes.

Hrabal’s characters demand sensitive, civilian and non-pretentious acting and the brevity of the scenes needs to be balanced by perfect understanding of the events that precede and succeed them. Also the rhythm of the dialogue becomes decisive, particularly in places of musical coloring. For an amateur team this is an enormous challenge demanding much preparation and strict discipline. All sixteen of the actors, whether they were experienced years-long members of the team or stood on the stage for the first time, responded to the roles with deep understanding and lively élan. Josef Skála, as the main character of the aged Jan Dítě, gave the play its original dramatic concept by his visually marginalized but aurally dominating presence. It is his unmistakable voice of an experienced radio-actor that leads us through the plays' fluctuating time levels, from the past into the present. The broad breadth of his intonation, touching the vocal register from thoughtful musings to ironic bites, coolly reporting at times and being movingly hesitant at others, from cool distancing to deep-seated pain, is the perfect guide through Hrabal’s world. Even that part of it that remained unspoken. Bronco Hyrman as the “alter-ego” of  Jan Dítě (a veritable Candide) combined the initial awkwardness and wide eyed gaze of the young piccolo with increasing self-assurance, as his eventual apparent success was never able to keep up with the ever-changing world around him; Zdeněk Matoušek, who has been delighting Theatre Around the Corner audiences for many years, demonstrated again his adaptability to shine forth in the briefest of scenes in a series of finely tuned character sketches; the experienced character-actress Gita Schoberová’s washroom  attendant punctuated and often punctured the action with her brusque and strongly savored comments, while her refrain “Oh, life in this stench” obviously extended to more than just her own situation; Helena Charvátová’s call girl, waitress and  subsequent  German teacher from the Sudetenland were played with her usual understated grace; Peter Bugár added to his dozens of parts, played throughout the entire thirty years od the Theatre Around the Corner history, another success in the changing character of the poet; Dan Zelman showed again a solid and disciplined work in the important role of Skřivánek / Zdeněk, just as did Luboš Petřík, who had been absent from the stage for many years. Radka Zelmanová morphed impressively from the Madame running ‘Paradise’ into the boss of the “sanatorium” for Aryan reproduction; Vladimír Cícha acted with obvious gusto the guest at the pub and the German physician. With his guitar and song Jiří Šemora again enriched the whole play. A special comment deserves Hanka Klinkerová, whose stage presence would not allow anyone to suspect that she had never before stood on stage. The same is true of Jan Procházka, and Dorka and Jiří Vaňourek. The difficult changes involving various time levels were rendered easier with the help of the stylized, yet historically precise costumes by Jana Reinbergerová, who, in her theatre debut, had accomplished this enormous work (it involved over forty changes of costume) on a high professional level.  The attractive and equally historically correct hairstyles were prepared by Petra Richards. It will be obvious from my previous comments that this production was technically extremely demanding and the utmost precision of the work by technicians Martin Sabo and Sláva Čech, under the experienced stage-manager and producer Jiří Adler, must be stressed.

This production of Hrabal’s play reminded me of an event from the past that might be of interest here: In 1974 a samizdat volume appeared, typed on by now history-honored onion skin paper and entitled: What would I write if it could be published (hence I write it for you Mr. Hrabal!). The volume consists of a number of essays by well known Czech authors but I will refer here only to one sentence by the writer Karel Pecka: “Anglický král” [je] román, kterým jsi neodvolatelně dosedl na stolec krále současné české prózy.” (By “The King of England” you have definitely and irreversibly claimed the royal throne of the contemporary Czech prose).  

How to elicit a fast-moving, entertaining, snappy and yet philosophically underpinned and in moments deeply poetic dramatic text from Hrabal’s seemingly rambling, but in fact superb prose work, was an extremely difficult task. The dramatization presented by the Theatre Around the Corner and prepared by Josef Skála, Karel Růžička and Jiří Adler, based on Hrabal’s original writings with awareness of the older dramatization by I. Krobot and P. Oslzlý, is worthy of standing, perhaps with some adjustments, on a well-known professional stage. It decidedly deserves the attention of theatre circles, even on an international level. The credit for this goes primarily to Dr. Skála (who co-founded and has designed dozens of successful productions of the Theatre Around the Corner). He also directed, designed the stage set and lights, as well as played the part of the narrator. He was obviously the soul of the play. However, it is clear that without an intelligent, valiant team of actors and selfless theatre enthusiasts a staging of this size and on this level could not have been accomplished.

 When, at the end, all actors appeared to take their bows, they bowed at first to Hrabal’s portrait (another director’s signature) in a silently eloquent tribute to the master, and only then to the audience. I imagine that if Bohumil Hrabal could have been sitting with us in the sold-out theatre on the shores of the Pacific, he would have joined the audience in their enthusiastic applause.

Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz