Cabaret band Tiger Lillies perform specially created English-Czech piece at Prague theatre

Described as a musical morality tale, the Tiger Lillies bi-lingual show Zde jsem Člověkem! or Here I Am Human! has just enjoyed a short but successful first run at Prague’s leading avant-garde theatre, Divadlo Archa.

'Zde jsem Člověkem!'
A bowler hat, brogues and braces wearing cabaret group, the Tiger Lillies have built up a committed following in the capital and elsewhere in the Czech Republic since first performing here in the early 1990s. Martyn Jacques is the band’s singer and accordionist.

“When we first started coming here we were just a very small, unknown bar band, really – we used to play in bars. So we came to the Czech Republic and suddenly we were playing at places like the Repre [long closed club in Obecní dům] in front of a thousand people. That was exciting for us – before that we were just playing in tiny little folk cellars and bars. We’ve played in a lot of bars in the Czech Republic, we’ve been all over, played in lots of different clubs: rock clubs, jazz clubs, folk clubs…We’ve been coming back ever since. We seem to have built up a kind of a cult following amongst Czech people. It’s been great. It’s one of the best places we play – we love Prague.”

The director of Archa theatre, Ondřej Hrab, says the Tiger Lillies enduring popularity with Czechs may be related to a similar worldview.

“I think it is the grotesque humour which is in their songs. It’s something that Czechs always like. They also anticipate the world with some kind of bizarre humour. If you read Jaroslav Hašek, or you even if you look at our former president Havel’s humour of the absurd, it’s here, it’s part of our culture. So they very much fit in with the Czech understanding of humour.”

The Tiger Lillies had performed several regular concerts at Archa over the years when Hrab approached them with the idea of a collaborative project.

“We decided that we should do something more, we should do a theatre piece. I came with the idea of doing something based on Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel. It was the initial idea, which later developed into something we can call a Rabelais of the 21st century. Because there is still this idea of grotesque carnival, the idea which is described by the literary scientist Bakhtin as carnival culture. That means that at least once a year you have a chance to look at society which is upside down, and it’s a sort of healthy moment for society.”

'Zde jsem Člověkem!'
Once agreement had been reached, the whole project came together rather quickly, says the Tiger Lillies’ Adrian Stout, who plays double bass, musical saw and theremin and, by the way, now lives in Prague.

“Martyn wrote a lot of songs quite quickly. And that spurred Ondrej into taking it from an idea and turning it into an actual production. Because he gave Martyn the source material. Martyn wrote the songs quite fast, a lot faster than Ondrej was expecting. Once he had this set of songs he was spurred into action and contacted the director Jiří [Havelka] and the designer. Eventually Jocelyn Clarke, the dramaturge, came in to kind of oversee the whole thing, and I suppose keep an objective eye on the production and discuss different ways of interpreting the way we were going to deliver the songs. So we were the ember and then the fire was lit fairly fast…isn’t that beautiful? Oh my God, I think I’ve wet myself, that’s so beautiful!”

Jocelyn Clarke, the dramaturge of Here I Am Human!, is a young Irish playwright and academic. He outlines his involvement in the project.

'Zde jsem Člověkem!'
“The underlying concept, I came up with. Then it developed and evolved with the director and the actors and also with the Tiger Lillies. Then in terms of creating texts that the MC of this kind of life transformation show would speak, I made those as well. Also then not only as a playwright but also a dramaturge, I then help in terms of making the scenes, in terms gags or routines or jokes. But generally it’s a collaborative affair. It’s a matter of taking all the different inputs and then shaping them into a theatre piece.”

Alongside the Tiger Lillies playing their songs, Here I Am Human! features three Czech actors, two of whom mime while the other serves as a moderator. His narration has been translated into Czech, a language the Tiger Lillies don’t speak. But drummer Adrian Huge says not understanding hasn’t proven a problem.

“I believe, because I only speak three words of Czech, that he’s explaining very scientific facts about the body: how to remove hair, how to beautify, how to clean all the dirty liquids out, all the bodily fluids and things. They’re not very long texts, but they are scientific, and luckily we do know roughly what he’s talking about.”

'Zde jsem Člověkem!'
The short run of Here I Am Human! at Divadlo Archa came to a close on Wednesday night. But it is likely to be performed again, says Adrian Stout.

“The whole idea is that we start it here and then probably come back here, but also we would like to take it around other theatres and other festivals and things. Obviously the texts would have to change. The moderator can speak English, so he would probably switch to English, I would think…It’s the sort of project where, because we sing in English and we tour around a lot of different places, we’d love to be able to take it to other countries and see how it goes down. It’s good to take a Czech-English collaboration and take it somewhere else, like Germany or Australia or America. So yes, we’re optimistic.”

Photo: David Kumermann,