‘Antiwords’ Inspired by Václav Havel’s ‘Audience’ by Eliza Anna Falk
Posted on September 24, 2013 by Guest Author
Havel’s ultimate goal as a playwright was to appeal to his spectators, to provoke them into self-reflection and encourage them to change. His main concern was for human identity and its survival in the oppressive environment, including the globalized modern world. “Will the Czech actresses outdo the legend? Will they reach a state on the edge, recalling Havel’s motif of alienation?” These are some of the questions which had been asked about the performance by the theatre critics and educated enthusiasts of Havel’s works. What about an average American theatre goer with rudimentary knowledge of the Czech playwright’s legacy and a minimal awareness of what it is like to live in an oppressive state? What would Antiwords, based on Václav Havel’s play Audience, tell them about the author and his culture, how would the performance connect with them and their 21st century context?
Last Saturday, September 21, 2013, at the opening of Antiwords, presented by the Ambassador Theatre in partnership with the Embassy of the Czech Republic and the 2013 Mutual Inspirations Festival, I had my American friends sitting to my left and the Eastern European ones on the right and was eagerly awaiting their reactions and impressions. What If Havel himself was in the audience, I thought? What would he feel and say?
Several minutes into the play I was sure that Havel would laugh, as we all did during the opening scene reminiscent of the communist ‘mise en scene.’ Imagine two identically dressed and drearily looking actresses slowly walking onto the almost bare stage, carrying oversized paper mache heads under one arm and shopping bags containing beer bottles and jugs under the other. The laughter erupts when Čechová and Krivankova, facing the audience, place the beer bottles between their upper thighs and leave them protruding, open them with beer openers hanging from their necks latch- key style, and start pouring the beer into jugs using gentle but suggestive pelvis thrusts. What do we think we are looking at? The association is instant – two drunks urinating in public; image slightly shocking, but unexpectedly funny. Mind you, we had been warned. The director’s Peter Bohac warning had been read out to us before the performance – “If you have anything against drinking, leave now”.
The laughter continues when the oversized heads and men’s jackets transform the female actresses into the characters from Audience – Vanek and the Foreman. Audience, written in 1975 belongs to The Vanek Trilogy, three partly autobiographical absurdist plays bound by a character of Havel’s alter-ego Ferdinand Vanek, a dissident writer and intellectual. In Audience, Vanek, just like Havel in real life, is forced to work at a brewery, rolling barrels. The absurd starts when his boss, the brew master who earns brownie points with authorities by reporting on his dissident subordinates, calls him into his office and offers him a better job in return for inventing and admitting to political activities. At the end of a long and repetitive verbal exchange driven by the foreman who keeps knocking down beers like lemonade and forcing his reluctant subordinate to drink with him, Vanek, despite his apparent timidity, refuses to participate in “something I have always found repugnant” and asserts his identity and values despite all odds.
Miřenka Čechová and Sivan Eldar from the Spitfire Company, the creators ofAntiwords, courageously abandoned the play’s dialog and conventional acting and successfully transformed the play into a physical spectacle with the help of music, dance, movement and grotesque props, not to mention beer drinking, an ingrained element of Czech culture, society and history. Drawing on Havel’s love of the absurd and the visual and his dependence on humor as an indispensable tool of survival, they created a challenging and entertaining version of the conversation between the oppressor and the oppressed. Displaying only a few carefully selected fragments of the play’s dialog on the screen the directors decided to place their trust into the actors’ bodies and the oversized heads to convey the emotions, messages, moods and behaviors of the characters and the situations. The effect is brilliant. The highly skilled actors alternate between the characters, and although looking identical, are able to transform instantly as if by magic. In Antiwords, words are spurious; movement and dance combined with music or silence are sufficient to entertain and provoke the audience to react – even those only slightly familiar with the spectacle’s background and context… To Read More