“Bylo tu, neni tu.....” based on Ivan Olbracht’s: Nikola Šuhaj loupežník
A few thoughts on the latest production of Divadlo Za rohem (Theatre Around the Corner)
A theatre enthusiast of my past warned me that one should never write about a play one has seen only once. I think he was right. Nevertheless I feel that something must be said about this remarkable production staged on the twenty fifth anniversary of Divadlo Za rohem. So here is, in all modesty, a fleeting impression of its premiere on Thursday, April 25, 2002.
What we see on stage immediately captures our attention (the incomparable Vladimir Bezruc’s hand): a desk and chair on the left, a mysteriously irregular screen backstage at the centre, another table and chairs on the right, in warmer colours, and another half-concealed space behind it. The screen seems to promise concealment as well as revelation, the corners obviously imply different worlds, and indeed, soon they will be filled with figures representing these worlds.
Then there is sound: a guitar player (Martin Drábek) appears as if from nowhere, strumming a haunting tune. He will stay there, almost throughout the play, changing the mood of his instrument, making his guitar laugh, stomp out a catching rhythm, sigh and snicker, breathe and sway with melancholy hesitance, narrating, as it were, and stopping short, here and there accompanied by waves of music from the concealed sound system, rolling across the stage from the right. But now, at the slow, contemplative start, a simple tune floats in the air, a woman’s voice, listened to by a little boy: “Maminko, you sing so well!” At the play’s end another little boy, smaller than the first, will say the same words to his mother–a generation later.
This is the fragile frame of the story of passion and jealousy, theft and betrayal, greed and generosity, true and false heroics; the weakness of strong men and the strength of weak ones, all steeped in human life’s throbbing joy alternating with tragic shadows. Although the play is an intense team effort, four characters stand out: There is the character we are prepared for by the title and perhaps our knowledge of Ivan Olbracht’s novel that celebrated individuality at a moment when a coercive regime was coming to power in the immediate proximity of his country: Nikola Šuhaj. (it is quite amazing to realize that Daniel Kolda who played the part had never been on stage before!). This gallant robber, kin of Robin Hood, Janošik and Mack the Knife; although the central character, emerges here as the calm eye at the centre of a hurricane of human passions and striving. This is perhaps why this production conceives him as a subdued character in contrast to the folklorist image he commands in people’s imagination. Here he is seen almost as an archetype rather than a flashy rebel. He finds his true love but is betrayed and murdered by a friend–a timeless motive that has reappeared in variations throughout the history of human beings trying to tell their own stories.
There is the innkeeper Mageri, oily and scheming, always coming out on top whatever the situation (brilliantly acted by Zdenek Matousek). There is the district police official, stretched beyond his capacities (Bronco Hyrman); his fluctuating between barking officialdom and stuttering worry is bound to be a veritable treat for the audience. Chewing his perennial toothpick, he leans against his desk, the stiff utensil of his bureaucratic power as well as his personal helplessness. Then there is Suhaj’s friend (Dan Zelman), strutting and sure of himself, a fixed ironic trace of a grin stuck to his face, carrying out his dubious business with what amounts to elegant ease, in the end becoming a traitor and killer for the prize on Suhaj’s head. There are several other memorable characters popping in and out of the action (some of them also on stage for the first time).
Similarly, in and out of this tale winds what I would call the chorus, emerging from five different directions, consisting of five colourfully clad women, singing and dancing, marching and turning, doubling as bar flies, here and there becoming for a moment individual characters, now swinging, now rebellious, now freezing in doll like poses, undulating to the changing rhythms and moods of the action–a sort of semi-parodistic chorus, reflecting the action in a kaleidoscope of colour, sound and movement, choreographed (by Lucia Bardosova) into a constantly shifting and changing presence. The lively pastel hues of their costumes (by Svetlana Bardosova) contrasting symbolically with the earth-coloured and primarily neutral costumes of the men.
The love story takes place (a surprise for the audience) behind the screen centre stage which suddenly becomes transparent and reveals a secluded private space. Several times we are admitted to this quiet haven, and can follows Suhaj and his girl moving from a youthful lovers’ embrace to worry about their child, to his having to escape and hide as a hunted man, to the arrival of a would-be suitor and a subsequent fight and killing (off stage) that results in an even more intense hunt after Suhaj, and his own untimely death.
But this is not the right word to conclude on, for the play (under Nora Linhartová’s admirable and perceptive direction) celebrates life in all its shimmering patches of light and dark. The Programme asks us to ponder but not to judge, to stop our race through the day chopped up by increasingly shorter attention spans, and take time to laugh and possibly--my addition--to shed a secret tear but, above all, to remind ourselves of the timeless magic of the theatre and the enormous selfless work performed by the creative people who offer it to us. A special feature in Program is an essay by Josef Skála in celebration of the ‘silver anniversary’ of Divadlo Za rohem (Theatre Around the Corner). He refers to the role that the theatre played in keeping alive the sound and meaning of the Czech and Slovak tongues, muses on the many that came and went or stayed in that exciting atmosphere of the backstage world, and names the surprising number of authors whose works were performed. It bears mentioning that Dr. Skála himself prepared and directed over twenty of these stagings and acted in many of them. The enclosed list of productions from 1977 to 2002, presumably from Dr. Skála’s archives, provides the audience with a valuable historical document.
All in all then:
Happy anniversary and Bravi, all of you, of the Divadlo Za rohem!