Working with memories for remembrance

Continuo Theatre (CZ) developed a documentary theatre narration dealing with the national trauma that the whole Czech and Slovak societies still bare toward the occupation in 1968. What happened August 25th, 1968 on Red Square in Moscow? Or rather – what happened before and what then? The peaceful demonstration against the occupation of Czechoslovakia was dispersed in a few minutes and its participants were arrested, questioned, tried, imprisoned or sent to exile, labour camps and psychiatric prison-hospitals. How quickly do people with free opinion become political prisoners?

The members of the producing collective talked in the interview about the difficulties and challenges of transforming personal stories of those affected to a performance on stage.
Presentation of “NOON”: 5th of December 2018, 8 pm @Bakelit Multi Art Center, Budapest

What was the starting point of your production? The re-calling of the 1968’ event in 2013 or rather the interest in the work of Natalia Gorbanevskaya or maybe the thematic itself?

The first thing, which is not the point of departure but provides a general feeling about the context, is the national trauma that the whole Czech and Slovak societies still bare toward the occupation in 1968.

The very starting point was in 2013: several protestants of that time, together with Natalia Gorbanevskaya went to the Red Square to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the 1968 demonstration. As well as 45 years ago, they were caught by police in less than 5 minutes. Even if, after few hours of interrogation, they have been released, and they were not sentenced to labor camps, gulag or psychiatric hospitals, they were anyway sentenced to very high finance penalization. On the same day we connected with several people in Russia and Czech Republic, including Natalia Gorbanevskaya, to express our support, and we wrote a petition, which was signed by one thousand Czech citizens and was addressed to the Russian government through the Russian embassy in Czech Republic. All already at that time, we felt that in the contemporary international relationships, in the Russian society and in our world, there was something insane. But there was not an impulse to create a theatre performance out of it, yet; we were feeling ashamed, endangered, we had a big feeling of injustice, it was a really emotional impulse. Soon after, in autumn 2013, Natalia Gorbanevskaya died in Paris, so unfortunately we didn’t have the chance to meet her personally. In 2014 Miloš Zeman, the president of Czech Republic, awarded Natalia a medal of honor in memoriam. Her sons took it, with a recommendation to president Zeman, that it’s nice to give this medal of honor to their mother, but it would be great for him to be consistent, and in the same time to speak about the contemporary activists and protesters against Putin’s regime, such as Pussy Riots, Antonin Navalny – Gorbanevskaya’s son spoke also about the repetitive actions against the human rights, which were happening in Russian Federation: killing journalists, threatening the opposition, etcetera. In reaction to this public call by the sons of Natalia Gorbanevskaya, president Zeman spoke in a national radio broadcast, and he named Pussy Riots as criminals, without neglecting to provide a vulgar translation of what “pussy” means in Czech language. He repeated this vulgar word several times, on an on air broadcast, and claimed that there are no similarities between the protesters in ‘68 and the today “so-called” opponents against Putin’s regime, the latters trying only to profit from the so-called persecutions as a way to be famous in the West and then to emigrate. Viktor Fajnberg wrote him that this was an absolutely amoral evaluation of the situation in Russian Federation; he recalled several cases of infractions of Human Rights. Zeman said that Fajnberg is paranoid and that he should be treated with psychiatric care – what actually all already happened to Fajnberg in 1968: he was sentenced with the same diagnosis, “paranoid”, and he spent four years in psychiatric hospitals of the Soviet Union, where psychiatric cares’ abuses were taking place.

This repetition, this absurd coincidence was actually the starting point: we thought that we have to remember the courage and braveness of this people, and not let them get dishonored by the Czech president.

 

You made a lot of interviews, how do you handle the dealing with those shared memories? Isn’t it incredibly difficult to talk about such traumatic experiences and continue using them for a performance?

Yes, it’s true: the biggest difficulty, or challenge, was the theatrical “transcription” of all these information, all that we knew. We studied several books; we had interviews with the dissidents, Viktor Fajnberg, Pavel Litvinov, Tatiana Bajevova, with doctor Frejdin who is a specialist on the issue of psychiatric abuses in the former Soviet Union. He was a friend of Natalia Gorbanevskaya and helped her to reduce the consequences of the brutal treatments and medications she received when she was in Kazan psychiatric hospital. We spoke also with Alexander Daniel and Pavel Marčenko, sons of Larisa Bogorazova, another protester in the 1968 demonstration, and with the son of Natalia, Jaroslav Gorbanevsky. We could speak also with other people who were arrested or prisoners in psychiatric hospitals. Our task was to transform all these information into a theatre performance, avoiding to bore people with such a mass of information – but in the same time to create a true and touching stories of human beings. We reduce the amount of material, about which we wanted to speak. We focused on the main personage of Natalia Gorbanevskaya, author of the book “Noon”, on the consequences of her protest, especially the punishment assigned by the regime, a two years-long internment into the psychiatric hospital. We focused also on Fajnberg, who was punished in the same way.

In the final theatrical result, it’s not so much about historical background or objective history, but the focus is really given to concrete persons in concrete situations, and to observing, discovering and talking about the things that Gorbanevskaya and Fajnberg experienced. The biggest task for us was to stay true even though we are doing fiction, even though we were creating parts, about which nobody can say how it really was, because they are not documented.

 

When you talk about humor in your performance (http://www.continuo.cz/blog/) – did the affected themselves include it in their narration of the events or was it inserted by your team to make the piece a bit brighter?

We were mostly inspired by the meetings we had with Viktor Fajnberg. He spoke about these events with a lot of overview, humor, cynicism towards the KGB agents and the representatives of the regime; he was really laughing about them, even if we know that he spent almost four years in the psychiatric hospital, and it was not funny at all. He was very close to death, because he decided to hold on hunger striking and to go until the end, unless his requests would be fulfilled, and in the end he succeeded. He described with big humor how he was beaten by a woman, a secret agent of KGB, on the Red Square. It was the moment when four teeth were beaten out of his mouth, because the woman was hitting him using a bag with a brick inside – he said, “Maybe it was not a brick, maybe there was Karl Marx’s Capital books in it!” With the same lightness and humor he explained us the most inhuman, cruel treatment he received, the artificial feeding: three persons were fighting with him, inhibited him, tied him and then they put in his nose a rubber pipe, through which they injected water with sugar, vitamins and lemon juice. This was the main inspiration, and encouraged us to speak with the same humor about these things in our performance.

noon2
photo documentation: ADÉLA VOSIČKOVÁ, KAREL FOŘT

What role does the musical accompaniment play?

The music was composed by Elia Moretti, a many years collaborator of Divadlo Continuo. His way of creating music is never illustrative; he never aims to only bring an element of emotionality. He composes the music in a way that narrates parallel stories, which are creating a wider context – somehow he goes close to the Greek tragedy chorus function: to create a wider context for particular situations, so that they can be understood on a wider, human, existential level. In the composition are used songs and themes by three remarkable folk singers of that time, Bulat Okudzava, Karel Kryl, and Alexander Galič.

 

You decided to use the literary form of reportage. I read on your blog that you are working with masks – is that the reason, because you want to make it as authentic as possible and give your characters the real faces of the “Brave Eight”?

The mask is used for Leonid Il’ič Brežnev, as an image of nightmare or oneiric vision of Natalia Gorbanevskaya, as she was drugged in the Kazan psychiatric hospital. He was presented, by himself and by the regime, as a man who was above everything. His image was very well articulated in newspapers and TV. He was the regime’s representing icon. So we decided to create his character half mask, half puppet, which has no real human face and is used as a symbol. Can also be understood as a mask of the regime. Whilst all the other characters in the performance have human faces.

 

See the story and its faces, the collectiv and its implementation on stage – 5th of December 2018, 8 pm @Bakelit Multi Art Center

 

written by: Diana Fischer

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