Svejk outgrows "Czech boots" in New York

29-11-2004

Fans of Czech literature will no doubt already be familiar with Jaroslav Hasek's early 20th century novel "The Good Soldier Svejk", a massive satirical tome in which the author's ridiculously smiling, moon-faced hero, Svejk, reduces the Austro-Hungarian Empire to something of a mockery in the course of his adventures in the First World War. Now Svejk has been adapted for the stage. A new theatre production is underway at the Theatre for a New Audience in New York, based on an adaptation by Irish playwright Colin Teevan.

The director is the Lithuanian-born Dalia Ibelhauptaite, who we caught up with to ask about "Svejk" - how she had been struck by the novel and character:

"I think that Svejk is an extremely theatrical novel, it's an extremely visual novel, and it's about the character. Definitely the scale of the character is the size of Hamlet - by his depth, the complexity of it, and the journey he makes."

Ibelhauptaite says she was first introduced to Svejk way back when she was a high school student in Lithuania, saying the character was adored for his anti-war stance. So many years later, it was a special thrill for her to bring the character of Svejk to life, and she says she was lucky to get the perfect man for the part.

"We were very lucky that the actor who agreed to play the character of Svejk is a two-time Tony winner, Stephen Spinella, an extremely accomplished and wonderful performer. His Svejk is more innocent, and I think trusting and open to the world."

Reviewers like the Village Voice have praised Mr Spinella's performance; nytheatre.com compares Mr Spinella's task to that of a concert pianist who delivers despite being allowed only "half the keys". In other words, he succeeds in capturing depth in Svejk's doe-eyed innocence and underlying, hidden mirth, a quality in the character that isn't always easy to portray.

Otherwise, though, the production has taken some flak from some for surrealist elements not found in the original text. Mrs Ibelhauptaite is of a contrary view: she says the novel offers many possibilities for non-linear story-telling and creative direction, and she is critical of the tendency for theatre to too often lean on a more "traditionalist" approach.

"For me for the production the most important principal was to create a non-realistic world where this story can exist. Because, the thing is that, you know, Svejk's world is kind of extraordinary. And I think that setting it in a realistic pub with wood floors and a red-brick wall is not interesting. After all, we live in the 21st century and I think we have to look for new expressions for the stories of the past. For me it was important to find a way of non-linear thinking, so we see one scene from a dog's perspective, with the characters barking. In another a cannery and cat talk and a gramophone sings. For me this is a 'normal world'".

Finally, one thing most reviewers have agreed upon is that "The Good Soldier Svejk" remains one of the greatest - and funniest - of anti-war novels, whose message remains highly relevant - from World War I to the War on Terror - today. Dalia Ibelhauptaite once more:

"People can relate to that and in fact what is good about our production is that it does not 'moralise'. It doesn't say what is good or bad, it tells a story. And it, tells the story of a person who survives against all odds and I think that's the most important thing. In Prague, in the Czech Republic, people should be proud that Svejk has grown out of his 'Czech boots' and travels around the world. I think that's fun! "

Svejk - the play - continues until December 5th at the Theatre for a New Audience in New York. For more information check out www.tfana.org

29-11-2004

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