August will be dominated by the Olympics, like it or not. Personally, I have never really been interested in sports, and will probably weather the month without seeing a single competition. However, this behemoth of an event has spawned a range of cultural activities, often critical, that I find much more appealing. One of these is Just a Must Theatre’s English-language premiere of Sports Play by Elfriede Jelinek, which brings the marketing of the body and of emotions in sports into focus. Moreover, waking up to the sight of the HMS Ocean (the Royal Navy’s biggest warship) reminded me of the incredibly pertinent connection she draws between sports and war.
As the Dramaturgs’ Network, we will use this opportunity to take a look at this production in our August d’n café event. The Dramaturgs’ Network is an organisation for UK theatre practitioners committed to developing dramaturgy and supporting practitioners’ development in the field. Founded in 2001, it is a volunteer arts organisation created to share ideas, knowledge, resources and skills in current dramaturgical practices. Jelinek’s playtext will offer a rich field to discuss issues of dramaturgy including questions of directing, acting, and scenic design. The script of Sports Play is over 160 pages long and therefore needs to be worked on with a specific performance in mind. There is no straightforward realistic staging of such a text, and I find this need for a personal engagement, for a search for an overarching theme or metaphor one of the main strengths of this kind of text. Just a Must have clearly found such an approach. All of the reviews published so far in The Guardian, The Times, and the blog Postcards from the Gods mention the striking design of the mountain of white fluff and the mesmerizing and unusual choric performances as the centrepieces of the performance. Overall, I was particularly excited by the way the company is able to fuse British and continental theatrical approaches into a convincing and overpowering whole.
For our pre-show discussion, we have the exciting opportunity to talk to director Vanda Butkovic, designer Simon Donger, and Translator Penny Black, with the dramaturg Karen Jürs-Munby joining us through a specially prepared video message. During this event, we are keen to address the perennial question of cultural differences. This is only the second professional performance of a play by Jelinek in the UK (the first one was a production of Services at the Gate Theatre in 1996). Considering that she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004 and has been a constant feature on stages across continental Europe for a long time, this is truly astonishing. It seems that Jelinek the playwright and the idea of dramaturgy share a common fate in the UK: both are perceived as too complex, too intellectual, as too foreign and Germanic to be of any interest to the theatre culture here. Elisabeth Mahony’s review in The Guardian serves as a point in case: she interested in the performance at moments where it offers “stories with which you connect quite powerfully”. This nearly obsessive focus on character and personal stories strikes me as a recurrent feature in a ‘common sense’ approach to theatre in the UK. What it misses is that Sports Play offers a wide range of other opportunities for engagement that captivate your mind and your guts. In his blog Postcard from the Gods, Andrew Haydon offers a much more nuanced perspective: for him, this is a performance “that so successfully does not try to seduce you as an audience member, or flatter you, or slavishly try to keep your attention, or trick you into becoming “emotionally involved” with the “characters”. That’s not to say that it *isn’t* funny and engaging, but somehow you focus more on the intellectual content than trying to “empathise” with specific characters or their *emotions*.” Like Haydon, I was also struck by how well this play works in English. Since it offers such a wide range of material, it does not need any specific kind of cultural adaptation. Instead, Just a Must Theatre allows it to exist in a space between the British and the Austrian culture that reveals interesting tensions as well as surprising parallels. The question of how this dialogic space was created will serve as a starting point for our discussion about the dramaturgical process. We are keen to shed a light on the negotiations that happened in the rehearsal room with regards to the choice of passages, the engagement with the translation, and the development of the stage design. We warmly invite you to join us for this exciting discussion on 1 August, at 5.30-7.00 at the Chelsea Theatre, followed by a performance of Sports Play. Café visitors are entitled to a discounted ticket for the show! Places can be booked under
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Jens Peters (as host for the d’n café)