Czechs and Faust: A continuing affair

Faust na Petrine, photo:

The story of Faust, the doctor who makes a pact with the devil in his pursuit of knowledge, has captured the imagination of some of the great Czech dramatists. In 1985, Vaclav Havel tackled the legend in his play Temptation, or Pokouseni, as it is known in Czech. Just under a decade later, animator Jan Svankmajer tried his hand at the story, producing a grotesque feature-film called Lekce Faust.

Faust na Petrine,  photo:
Likewise, any actor worth his salt will at one point in his career aim to play the ill-fated Doctor Faust, on his quest for knowledge. You just heard an archive recording of Rudolf Deyl the Elder, playing in a performance of Goethe's Faust.

But now there's a new production of Faust, which couldn't be further from the classical theatrical version. The production is a joint-effort between amateur theatre group Majak, and Jezek and Cizek, whose members are all either currently homeless, or have been homeless at some point in the past. What's more, the setting is a million miles from the playhouse stage. The play's director, Jakub Capka explains:

"This structure, according to the information that we do have, used to function as a reservoir. The little houses that used to be around here would use it in summer when everything else dried up. But it hasn't been used for more than 100 years, so it's a bit dilapidated, which suits us and our play very well. Now it looks great, it's in this tucked away space, but when we came here to clean it up it was in such a mess. It took us a whole week to cut branches back, to clear the place up - there was a lot of rubbish. But on the other hand, it's a gorgeous location, really gorgeous. And it has really been easy for our set-designer to work with this space."

Faust na Petrine,  photo:
Over the past couple of weeks, members of the Majak theatre company have camped out here with the actors from Jezek and Cizek. I asked Marek Strizovsky, who's playing Faust in this production, how this had been:

"We've been staying here together for a week now, and the conditions have been quite demanding. We've been up against the clock, so we've not had much sleep. We're staying right where we are going to be performing. All our technical equipment is out here, so we have to look after it at all times. For me, it's been a pleasant experience, you don't normally get the chance to do such things, and it is summer outside. It was the members of the Majak theatre group who decided to camp out here, and most of the members of Jezek and Cizek decided to join us, so it is a bit like we have swapped roles. I'm not sure to what extent it has helped our acting. We sometimes get a bit cabin feverish. But I think we'll manage."

In this production of Faust, the unfortunate doctor is seduced by the prospect of the perfect laboratory, and the perfect house. It raised a few smiles in the audience to see the devil portrayed as a real-estate agent. I asked Marek Strizovksy whether the theme of housing was deliberately important:

"Yes definitely, it's linked to the space we are performing in. The 'interior' of the reservoir feels a bit like a cellar or a laboratory. And the theme definitely struck us as an important one in this play. There are several things that must seduce and subsume Faust, and one of them for us, is this house. So yes, in our interpretation it is important."

Karel Lampa has been a member of the Jezek and Cizek theatre company for the past three years. You just heard him in his role as foppish German Baron Lepsch von Telsch in this production of Faust. He also plays a very glamorous floozy at a party later on in the play. He explained that most members of Jezek and Cizek have no formal theatrical training, but that they learn acting through other sources:

Karel Lampa,  photo:
"I've learnt through my father, who was a professor at the college of drama in Brno. And then, of course, through my own experiences, they have helped me understand better the roles I have been given to play. And then most of all, my transvestitism has helped me with my acting. When you're a transvestite, you're always transforming yourself into something else, and the roles you are playing are always a little bit different. Working in the theatre really does me good, and I get to use the talent I inherited from my father."

Faust has been turned into an opera on several occasions as well. This is an excerpt from Charles Gounod's Faust et Marguerite, which has been translated into Czech. But again, the music accompanying this particular production of Faust couldn't be more alternative. It is provided by indie-rock band The New Kids Underground, and at times sounds truly catatonic.

As well as directing the show, Jakub Capka plays the devil in this production of Faust. With so many big-name writers and directors having tackled the Faust myth before him, I asked in what way his interpretation was different from that of his predecessors:

"While we were coming up with the script for this production, we tried all sorts of different approaches. We tried studying lots of different interpretations of Faust to see how it had been done in the past. We looked at the 'greats'. And in the end we said, 'Alright, stop!' We want to create our own theatre so, in the end, we forgot about all of these past plays and tried to remember our first childhood memories of temptation and the problems that Faust confronts. We wanted to bring our own childhood into it."

'Faust na Petrine', as this production is known as, runs until Sunday 19th of August in Prague's Petriny park. As you have heard, it is all in Czech, but there are video displays, shadow-puppetry and circus tricks, (not to mention a bar), to keep the non-native speaker entertained.

So, Faust na Petrine joins the illustrious ranks of productions of Faust to have been staged in Prague. But whether it will be remembered as one of the best of them, well, only time will tell.