Vol 1, No 19
1 November 1999
T H E A T R E:
A Chilly Summer Performance
Frana Sramek's Leto revisited
The Czech Theatre 1999-2000 Festival, which brings plays from provincial theatres all over the country to be aired in the capital, reminds Prague residents that they do not constitute the be-all and end-all of Czech cultural life. Indeed, it looks as if Prague may have something to learn from its country cousins.
Prague theatres, like the city in general, tend to lean towards the West, filling their programmes with translated works, mainly by English and American playwrights. The provincial theatres, by contrast, appear to be more "patriotic": half the plays in the festival were written by Czechs. In keeping with this trend, the Mlada Boleslav City Theatre has revived the long-neglected play of the Czech poet and dramatist Frana Sramek (1877 to 1952), whose verse was strewn with both romance and revolution, earning him many a young girl's heart as well as time in jail. Tamer than some of the works coloured by his anarchist and later Communist leanings, and rather in keeping with the festival's theme, Leto, Sramek's most successful play, presents the story of a couple of fin-de-siecle Prague intellectuals who spend their summer in the country.
As far as the performance itself is concerned, Prague could also learn a thing or two from Adam Pitra's set, one of the best I have seen on a Czech stage. In the second act, over-sized pumpkins and haystacks spill over the stage, while the lighting perfectly captures the atmosphere of lazy late-summer days. Director Ondrej Sokol exploits the set for all it is worth, sending his actors careening round the haystacks on bicycles and hiding behind sheaves of corn in order to overhear conversations. Sokol also captures the summer spirit with his gentle use of slapstick; for example, in the opening scene, the feuilleton writer Perout (played by Frantisek Kreuzmann) "fishes" and casts his line into the stalls while the audience is filing in, wrapping himself up in his fishing tackle to comic effect. This scene is characteristic of the play as a whole: while the idea is good, the director allows the action to drag on too long, and as a result the tempo of the performance is rather uneven.
This uneven quality is further exacerbated by the fact that, while all the actors give decent performances, Ivo Theimer's rendition of the gauche student Skalnik outshines them all. The audience dozes in summer lethargy when he is absent from the stage, waiting for things to liven up with his next appearance. This is partly due to Theimer's superb sense of comic timing. Fundamentally, however, the fault lies in the play itself; Skalnik is the only character to introduce any real conflict into the plot.
This lack of conflict and plot development in the play undermine the talent that is otherwise manifest in the performance. The effort to revive some of the forgotten works of Czech drama may be commendable; it is not without reason, however, that Sramek's work has remained on the shelf for so long. Leto may bring a few rays of summer sunshine to a cold October evening, but there is not enough substance in the play to keep an audience warm for long.Catherine Miller, 30 October 1999
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