A boatload of fun - the Forman brothers set sail once more

Photo: Ondrej Nemec

The evening calm of Prague's Vltava River has been disrupted this week by a lively theatre production on board a 276-foot tugboat. While cruising on the river in the very heart of Prague, audiences have been enthralled by a theatre adaptation of Russian author Alexandr Glin's maritime fairytale Nachove plachty or Purple Sails as it's known in English. Purple Sails is the brainchild of Petr and Matej Forman - the twin sons of renowned film director Milos Forman. It was first presented in Prague in 2000 as a special event to mark the Czech capital's year as a European City of Culture.

The production proved such a success that it has since toured all over Europe. The strikingly visual elements of the play help it transcend language barriers and as a result it has enthralled audiences on waterways throughout the continent. For the past two years it has also been shown on dry land in a specially adapted tent.

Now, however, the play is setting sail once more, and the boat will be hosting a number of performances this autumn in various Czech towns on both the Vltava and Labe (Elbe) rivers.

Matej Forman says presenting the play on a boat adds an extra dimension to the production:

"The boat gives you this complete freedom of movement. First of all this is because you are part of a vessel that's sailing. The second form of movement is what happens on the round circular stage on the boat, which changes its space and décor. Consequently, you feel that you are part of some special things that are in motion. Of course, you are also aware of the sky and stars around you. You see the moon and the stars and you often have to deal with wind and rain - or at least the actors have to. In the tent it is much more comfortable in quiet, good conditions, but you miss the motion of the sailing."

Performing a play in the confined space of what was formerly an old coal barge certainly presented the Forman brothers with many challenges. An ingenious rotating stage had to be constructed to allow for rapid scene changes. The directors also had to come up with some imaginative blocking to ensure that every inch of deck space was cleverly utilised by the actors.

The play's unusual setting has proved popular, however, and practically every showing of Purple Sails has been a sell out. The fact that the show is a travelling production also helps arouse the interest of audiences. Matej Forman says that this is especially true of a touring play, which is a presented in a many diverse riverside locations. The various different backdrops for Purple Sails ensures that each performance is a unique occasion in itself:

"There are towns like Melnik, Litomerice, Usti nad Labem, Decin and Nymburk, which we can reach via the boat. Usually they have a place for us somewhere outside the town. So people have to walk through a small field or something to get to the boat. There was a very beautiful moment last year when we saw people walking along a small path by the river just to get to see the performance on the bat. For us it was like a small celebration from the beginning. And then on the other hand we were in Antwerp, which is a huge harbour in Belgium. We were the smallest boat among all the others. We were practically lost among the huge big boats that were passing all the time. And while we were sailing during the performance I can imagine that people were so shocked at all the things going on around them that maybe the performance was lost on them a little bit. But then again in another way it must have been a big adventure for them."

Using a dazzling array of slapstick comedy, virtuoso musicianship, and spectacular lighting and choreography, Purple Sails makes every effort to keep its audience riveted throughout the performance. As Matej Forman explains, pulling out all the stops to keep spectators entertained is a wise move. Once the show gets up and running, the theatre ensemble literally has a captive audience for three hours before the boat returns to the landing stage:

"In some ways, the audience is virtually imprisoned, because the only way to leave is to jump into the water and to swim to the other side of the river. But of course, it has big advantages and disadvantages. I would say the beautiful thing about it is that if you don't like the performance you can go out and still have a beautiful time watching the trees passing by and looking at Prague from a very special angle. You also have a bar which is open so it's not like you have to watch the performance."

To ensure that the audience is as comfortable as possible, they watch the show in informal cabaret-style seating. The theatre company also provides wine and food during the performance to help the audience enjoy a relaxed and enjoyable evening. Matej Forman says that there are never too many disgruntled punters after the show:

"If there are people who haven't enjoyed the performance, we can recognize them right away afterwards, because they are the ones who are first at the gates of the boat, waiting to be let off. But they have to wait 40 minutes in any case, because the boat has to wait for a lock to fill up before sailing back to port. Usually they have a nice time though. The last part of the journey is more about moving around the boat, having a beer in the bar and talking to friends. Our musicians still continue to play Hungarian gypsy music after the performance, which I think helps make people feel very comfortable here."

As these musicians play while the boat returns to port, there are indeed very few people eagerly waiting to disembark at the gangway gates. While they wait for the ship to go back to its moorings, most of the audience are quite happy to drink at the bar and enjoy the sights of Prague as they savour what remains of this novel theatrical experience.

The people I spoke to after the show certainly seemed to have been captivated by the Forman brothers' production:

"I think it was the most beautiful performance I've ever seen. I know this part of the river and I could recognise all the bridges as we were going by. It was really, really beautiful."

"From where I come from in Australia, I have never seen a play that's been as innovative as this. They've got such a small amount of space but it is mutating all the time, which I think is amazing. I particularly like their twisting, rotating stage."

How do feel about now having to wait for the boat to get back to port before you can leave the theatre?

"I'm not too worried about that really because I'll just have a walk around. There's always things to look at from the boat and I'll talk to a few people."

"You feel that you are part of the play actually. I think that was the most exciting thing."

Did you like being on a boat or was it a distraction?

"It's not a distraction at all. It's part of the performance. I actually saw the play in a tent a year ago and the ambience here is much more exciting. You see the skyline going past and it's very exhilarating."

"It's a very special performance. I could recommend it to anybody. It's a very beautiful and very special idea. It's just an amazing performance. Beautiful!"

To out more about when and where Purple Sails will be showing this autumn go to www.formanstheatre.cz