Łukasz DrewniakHipster dell’ arte Or the so-called Czech socjety in madness
Jan Mikulasek, nearly 40 years old, is a Czech theatre director who is currently creating the most interesting stage in the country on the Vltava River – in the opinion of both critics and the public – the Prague Divadlo Na Zabradli. Yes, it is the same distinguished little theatre, squeezed into the historic medieval old town, which Vaclav Havel collaborated with, and which in the nineties was led by Petr Lebl. Since 2013, it has been managed by the trio of Petr Stredon, Dora Vicenikova and Mikulasek. They moved to Prague after five successful years on the small stage of the Reduta Theater in Brno.
Mikulasek is the leader and hallmark of Divadla Na Zabradli, the theatre has over a dozen of his performances in the repertoire, but other young directors also work here – Anna Petrżelkova (Baby by Charms), Jan Fryć (Velvet Havel), David Jarab (Macbeth – too much blood).
For the first time, we heard about Mikulasek in Poland when he made the Czech premiere of the adaptation of Mariusz Szczygieł’s reportages from the Gottland volume, and after that he came to Poland with his performances several times more: the Demoludy Festival in Olsztyn, the Premier Festival in Bydgoszcz, On the Border Festival in Cieszyn; the critic Kamila Cerna published his artistic portrait in the monthly “Teatr”. Somehow, strangely, Mikulasek did not break into the consciousness of Polish theatregoers as an independent, original and universally recognized artistic entity from the neighbourhood. There has been no hype about Mikulasek in our country – and there should have been. It is strange that in Poland, where Czech literature, Czech cinema, Czech athletes are adored even more than Polish literature, Polish cinema and Polish sport, and Czech theatre directors working on the Vistula River (not counting puppeteers), Eva Rysova and Jakub Krofta, are institutional and media powers, but Mikulasek was so unlucky. When he was showing Europeana in Bydgoszcz, we were in the middle of a scandal with the profanation of the Polish flag in the play by Olivier Frilijic, when he stood out during the Demoludy Festival, the reports from this edition of the festival were somehow inadequate…
Meanwhile, Jan Mikulasek has everything that seems to be missing from Polish directors. No one in Poland is doing this type of theatre, is not looking in the convention, which is the closest to Mikulasek. Although, a working hypothesis can be accepted that Mikulasek is a hybrid of the poetics and creative temperament of Jan Klata, Radosław Rychcik and Mikołaj Grabowski. At least that is how a Polish viewer, who has seen something by Mikulasek and knows something about Polish theatre, would try to break him down into pieces and reassemble him again. He shares Klata’s passion for specific montage of sequences and witty jokes; Rychcik’s surreal and brazen courage to associate seemingly incompatible things from completely different artistic and pop-culture sources; some of Grabowski’s characters would desert to Mikulasek’s theatre – among them bizarre hacked provincials, a pack of desperate officials, artists whose heads are an eternal battlefield between huge ego and ruthless self-criticism. The Polish traces in Mikulasek lead, however, to a dead-end, we are looking for similarities with Polish artists because we believe in some a common Central European community of taste and beliefs. Jan Mikulasek is theatrically closest to a Swiss named Christoph Marthaler. His ridiculous and horrible research of a frozen time, people trapped in their own past and failure to adapt were a revelation twenty years ago of German and European theatre, generations of viewers have grown up since then on his Murx der Europaer, Specialists, The Evening of the Three Kings, Three Sisters. Mikulasek probably has as well. Certainly, his theatre owes the most to Marthaler, the Czech director is his obvious pupil and heir, creatively processing his style, thinking about the actor and space, but the harmonic line might as well run into surreal territory – the Swiss Cabaret Voltaire, the DaDa movement and Czech literary and film surrealism combines a lot more than we think.
At first glance, the theatre by Mikulasek confirms the stereotypes of Czech theatre: light, surreal and viewer-friendly. This is because it is funny and about people, with songs and strange scenography. Only that it is just the surface of Mikulasek’s performances from Divadla on Zabradli. As Mikulasek uses stereotypes to confuse the tracks, deepen what is shallow, reverse what is known, squeeze everything that can be squeezed out of a good-natured convention.
His plays from the last fifteen years can be divided into two trends. The first is connected with avant-garde, pastiche and deconstructed meetings with great literature – “The Stranger” by Camus, “Doctor Zhivago” by Pasternak, “Woodcutters” by Bernhard. The second deals with the collective, Czech society and the wider European community captured at the selected moment of the twentieth century. Spectacles from the second trend (Europeana, Hamlets, Obsession, Hedonists, Discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, The Golden Sixties, The Grey Seventies or silence by Gustav Husak) are produced as a collective work – although Mikulasek is responsible for directing and Vicenikova deals with dramaturgy – they are the result of actors’ improvisation, they have a structure of a collage, a collection of grotesque scenes connected by a theme. Mikulasek and his permanent set designer Marek Cpin use the claustrophobic stage of Divadlo na Zabradli to the maximum. They create a metaphor of an eternal waiting room, a special place, a transparent prison. This can be a conference room, a lobby in the ministry or a hotel, cut in half and exposed two floors of the building, an actor’s wardrobe. That is where we meet Mikulasek’s characters – a random group, a crowd of men and women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A group of actors must survive in a tight place at all costs, deal with themselves and these other people. Idiotic rituals of everyday life collide with a festive absurdity. The worlds of DNZ are a pure metaphor of life: there is no way to live and there is no need or space and yet one must live. They would like to go somewhere, but there is no escape from this space. Mikulasek’s clown and desperate is doomed. They are trying to understand their situation and survive among others: but the only language that comes to them as such is the language of comedy, gags and lazzi, improvisations and provocations, show and execution of life. Grotesque, laughter and irony make up the cross-tuned world of the Mikulasek’s characters, they are its essence.
Mikulasek dares his actors: be deadly serious in idiocy, be perfect in falling and self-compromising. The characters of his theatre are, on the one hand, modern, hipster and European, on the other – time and again there is this post-communist confusion and triviality revealed in them. A person is not completely picked up here from fractions that they have just broken up into. Every time the Czech director shows a stage situation with a logical error that the characters want to tame at all costs. One can call them using a Witkacy term: “the so-called humanity in madness”, the so-called Czechness in the ups and downs. In the madness of art, history and love. Life is so funny that you want to cry. The actors from Divadlo na Zabradli play with this sensitivity of people captured by a hidden camera. The strangest things we do happen in ordinary situations, we lose the transparency of official meetings, we get rid of the absurdity of events in which and when nobody sees us.
But this lowness and comedy of the world of Mikulasek’s characters is only the first layer of his theatre, the latter, the deeper is lyrical and depressive. Because you can look at the stage cage as if it was a laboratory of human behaviour in relation to key ideas and values. In each subsequent performance, the director gives his comedians great themes: the history of Europe in the twentieth century, the unfulfilled desire for love, the mystery of stage art and real acting. What was left of communism in the Czech Republic, what is the common Europe, why do people live without love? You can choose performances from this trend and put them in a trilogy – like the one we show at Confrontations: Obsession, Hamlets, Europeana… Mikulasek’s “Theater of Little History and dense Everyday Life”. Monographic presentations of the achievements of one director have a deep meaning, show the scale of his theatrical interests, help the public to recognize the style and strategies of the creator. We can analyse the works of a mature artist who knows exactly what he wants to achieve by returning to the same theatrical language. Let’s treat these three Lublin evenings with Mikulasek as three acts of one story, three subsequent editions of a perfidious experiment on life, history and theatre.
We are now in a theatre dressing room. There are far too many Hamlets walking around practising their monologue “To be or not to be”. Six actors and one actress dressed up in black hamlet costumes with ruffs trying to concentrate before the show. Are they supposed to play together? Who will come out on stage first, who deserves most to play the main role? The performance quickly abandons Shakespeare’s context and begins asking questions about the meaning of being an artist. A collection of theatrical anecdotes and etudes, about what is going on behind the scenes before the show, what the actor has to do to play well, is counterpointed with monologues from Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handtke, Heiner Muller, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Tennessee Williams… The artists portrayed by Mikulasek – alcoholics, losers, divas and pure stage animals – experience moments of existential dread, struggle under the weight of their self-reflection and before going onstage their typical stage fright is haunting them. And this never-ending director’s growl: “I do believe – I do not believe” with which they torture each other. When are they on stage and when are they actually playing? How much does the performance, that is life, on the stage really cost the actor? The dressing room becomes a metaphor of both human fulfilment and eternal anxiety, whether what I do in my life serves something important. Do my doubts make any sense? Is it still art or just craft? In Mikulasek, as in Shakespeare, all people are actors and the world/life is a stage. In the final scene, we will see whether multiple, repetitive dying on the stage actually teaches an actor how to die a good death, or whether the last performance really illuminates the entire path through art.
Inspired by the book-essay by Patrik Ourednik, a story about what happened in Europe in the 20th century. The changes in society, customs, politics, and narratives describing reality. We are on a discussion panel, perhaps in some subcommittee during the European Parliament meeting. There are prints of pages for lectures, switched on and off microphones, meaningful arrangement of chairs at the congress table – everything matters here, because Europe is objects and people who made unworthy use of them. The Brussels conference of expat and EU officials is turning into a court of Europe. First, actors play using only sounds imitating the machines and the whirring of tanks, air raids and train whistles. Then there is radio and cinema, pop music, a sexual revolution. Although full of philosophical quotations and statistical data collected by Ourednik, the play is about inventions and strangeness of European history and does not omit anything crucial, especially the Holocaust. Progress is reflects itself in crime. The society is in love with objects and is itself a subject to manipulation. We become aware that our history is governed by a group of clown-dilettante-politicians. Instead of two world wars, people are more interested in the history of hygiene and gender discovery. An essay cut into single sentences, just as Europe is not complete, it is only an interaction of random events, people and words.
Love stories from one tenement or a block of flats. We can see three floors simultaneously, and a dozen or so characters. They are coming in, going out, waiting, hurrying somewhere. She may come or not, he is moving out, she is cleaning after him, he is paying for love. Everyone here is unhappy in love, hungry for love, drowning out pain after breaking up. Mikulasek shows love as a disease without a cure, obsession and desire leading to destructive and senseless actions. We can see skits and gags about hope and loss, longing and lack of reciprocity. We are laughing at men’s and women’s illusions, loops in error and despair, choking on unhappily in love characters. The whole room is shaking, and with it the theatre, from the heartbeat of a woman in love. Love is surreal, it makes the world and life unreal. Mikulasek looks at love as if it is a theatre, in which the main roles are always terrible.