Cabaret Hrabal: a groundbreaking literary tribute to the great author in London


The centenary of the great Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s birth is being marked by film screenings, book readings and literary debates at home and abroad. One of the most original events has been organized by the Czech Centre in London – a groundbreaking literary experiment going under the name Cabaret Hrabal. Ahead of the big night I spoke to the head of the Czech Centre Tereza Porybná to find out more about the show.

“The cabaret format is a format that enables us to work with eight artists each of whom will present their own vision of Hrabal’s work and the idea came to us in my office when I and my colleagues were discussing all these centenary activities such as book readings that are happening all over the world and we thought –there is enough of that, we don’t want to do any more of those. And at the time we were actually working on another project with the British poet and literature promoter Stephen Fowler and we thought why not ask him to help us.”

The cabaret which will be held on Thursday as a one-off event, will include visual interpretations of Hrabal’s works - a moving image piece, text sculptures, and something you call a brand new conceptual project – can you give us a closer idea of what visitors can expect? Who are the artists taking part and how are they representing Hrabal’s works?

“We approached artists from various fields. There is a classical drama adaptation of Hrabal’s work that will be presented by Lucie Eisler who herself is a renowned actress and screenwriter. She has created a notable performance called The Boring Afternoon which won an award at the Fringe Festival a couple of years ago and she will perform a theatre sketch from this play to the audience. We also have a filmmaker who was inspired by Hrabal’s novel Closely Watched Trains and has been filming trains around London and making an experimental film collage out of this as a tribute to the late writer. We have Stephen Emmerson who engages audiences and wants to present literature not only as spoken words but also in a physical way –so he will be creating these placebo pills out of actual pages from Hrabal’s books and inviting people to digest his work in the literal sense.”

'Placebo pills' by Stephen Emmerson, photo: archive of Czech Centre in London
You mean swallow them?

“Yes, that’s right.”

And what about the text (book) sculptures?

“That’s Sarah Kelly’s work. I should say that all of these artists are quite young and very much part of what is happening now on the London poetry and literature scene. They are not big names that you would read about in the Guardian literary review, but these are the people forming the grassroots of the new literary voice and literary generation. Sarah Kelly is one of them. She herself is a poet but she works with a lot of other media. She tries to work with the physical aspect of literature and really engage not just people’s ears but also eyes and whole bodies. I think the whole idea is to make people think “out of the box”. It is interesting that now a similar initiative is taking place on a municipal basis in London where they have started building benches in the shape of famous books such as Alice in Wonderland. So it seems there is a general need to present literature in different physical forms as well as just the spoken word.”

Artwork by Sarah Kelly, photo: official website of the artist
So the text sculptures that we can expect are something like these benches?

“Something like a bench or wall –something that will invite people to move around.”

What about the “brand new conceptual project” by Tom Jenks?

“That is still a secret and we will find out tomorrow (Thursday). That is the biggest experiment that we have and we really do not know. We know some of his work and like it and we decided to take the risk and give him a free rein. They are actually rehearsing right now at the Horse Hospital so a few of the technicians will already have seen his piece but we will see it for the first time tomorrow night.”

So did all these artists suggest their own interpretations of Hrabal’s works ?

“Yes, all we did is decide –together with Stephen Fowler – who the artists would be and then it was up to them.”

And how did you select them?

Steven Fowler, photo: archive of Czech Centre in London
“He brought us a list of names, people he’d worked with before, and we did some research, saw some of their work…some we already knew and thought it would be nice to work with them again…and it took about two and a half months for us to pick the right people.”

How are they interacting – if they are interacting at all? Are they commenting on each others’ work, exchanging ideas?

“It depends. For example Zoe Skoulding is based in Wales, so she is just working on her own on her sound poetry piece. I know Sarah Kelly and Stephen Emmerson are in touch and they are consulting their work and of course all of them communicate with Stephen Fowler who is the brain behind the project and whose role is to put it all together and find the silver lining around all the individual pieces.”

Who has been your first critic? Has anyone seen the show? Have you had feedback?

“Not yet, no. That will come later, after the big night.”

From what you have seen –is there something that you yourself particularly like?

“I have to say that I really like Zoe Skoulding’s work – mixing poetry with sound and music and playing with the melody of individual words – that is something that speaks to me, but it is hard to explain unless you have seen it yourself. She is one of the artists whose work I really like and I appreciate very much that she is working with us.”

Tereza Porybná, photo: Vojtěch Brtnický / Czech Centres
She will be presenting a sound-based response to Hrabal’s “Diamond Eye”?


Who is your audience in London? Are you expecting Hrabal fans who are well versed in his work or are you hoping to attract young people who may discover his work as a result?

“I think it will be a mix. I think we will definitely get a Czech audience in part, people interested in Hrabal’s work who want to learn a little bit more or be reminded of some of the aspects….This is also why we picked Eva Daníčková, one of the eight artists performing, because she will do a classical stage reading so people can hear Hrabal’s work in its original form not just some lose interpretations. We will also probably draw people who follow these artists or this scene already, so they will not come because of Hrabal but because of the artists themselves and last but not least, the Horse Hospital where we are hosting the event is quite a legendary space which has its own audience so I think we can expect some of them as well.”

Finally a speculative question – how do you think Hrabal himself would have liked this cabaret?

“I think he would probably tell us we are crazy and go and have a beer somewhere else!”

Although Cabaret Hrabal is a one night event, it will be filmed and a short Cabaret Hrabal film will soon appear on the Czech Centre’s Youtube page.