Audience, the 1975 play by Václav Havel, and the first to feature his alter ego, Ferdinand Vanēk, relates a tale in which a brew master embarks on a drinking session with a young, dissident writer and, as the drink loosens his tongue, allows it to become known that he, the brew master, has been employed by the state to spy on the young writer. As a high profile dissident writer, Havel’s own work was banned from theatre performance. Nonetheless, the work gained a sizeable reputation from being performed in illicit living-room performances, and through samizdat – the illegal replication and dissemination of censored publications across the Soviet bloc.
So that was then, and this is now. The particular social and idealogical milieu may have changed but the drinking, and the absurdity, and the human capacity to somehow always feel compelled to relate to each other in terms of hierarchy and power – all of this remains intact.
Antiwords is the mischievous, knowing offspring of Havel’s play. Antiwords is Audience abstracted down to its pre-verbal essence. Whatever words remain, whatever little hooks that bind the message to a specific time and place in history skip and pop and jump and stick like grooves in an old record, arbitrarily repeating phrases until they become meaningless.
The staging is simple. A table, two chairs and a crate of Pilsner Urquell (Yes, the attention to this little detail is astonishing). The two performers, Tereza Havlíčková and Jindřiška Křivánková, take control of the room without fuss, effectively and beautifully. Critically, they each have a glint in their eye. Critically, because to embark on a drinking binge without the guiding light of mischief and devilment would ring false, and The Spitfire Company, shortlisted in 2013 for a Total Theatre Award for One Step Before The Fall, don’t do false. The defining characteristic of the company is their commitment to addressing the impact of the dramatic proposition upon the performers. That central premise is, for me, where the good stuff tends to lie.
The two women each knock back the first beers of the night and, as it were, go to work. This entails slipping into suit jackets and fantastic, outsize head masks, designed by Paulina Skavova , that present the grim, determined and sour expressions of men conducting business either with or against each other.
The drinking ensues. Bottles fizz open and foam and froth arc across the table. Masks are lifted, beer imbibed in great, wholesome gulps, then the masks come down again and work is resumed. Power and hierarchy are boorishly declared and the drinking runs its cultural course from euphoria, to affection, to sentimentality, then further down into the sodden depths of paranoia and resentment. Tempers quicken, hopes are lost. The drinking, ultimately, oils the path to despair, and by the end of the show, when the crate is empty and the masks are discarded we are left with the most hollow of scenes. The two performers, at the close of their dazzling efforts, seem utterly spent, and completely alone. Sick to the core and, somehow – and I don’t know where this comes from – compliant.
This is total theatre. The mark of its impact is that every time I think of this beautiful, beguiling show I want to have a drink with these women, and it somehow makes me feel lonely and doomed.
Spitfire Company’s Antiwords is presented by Aurora Nova at Summerhall, Edinburgh Fringe 2015