“Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell” returns to Prague stage after alcohol-induced break

Oldřich Kaiser (on the right)

When the theatre play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell by the British author Keith Waterhouse opened in Prague in March 2009, it became an instant success. The tragicomic show starred a leading Czech actor, Oldřich Kaiser, in the part of the heavy-drinking London journalist Jeffrey Bernard. But the play was cancelled in November because Mr Kaiser, just like the main character, was himself struggling to deal with alcohol abuse. Earlier this month, however, Mr Kaiser returned on stage as Jeffrey Bernard at another venue in the capital.

Oldřich Kaiser  (on the right)
It’s ten 4:50 AM, and Spectator columnist Jeffrey Bernard has just woken at the men’s room at The Coach and Horses, his favourite watering hole in London’s Soho. In the next two hours, Jeffrey Bernard will drink a bottle of vodka and share some of the stories from his blurred and restless life.

The play starred Peter O’Toole when it first opened at the West End’s Apollo Theatre in 1989. The Czech production at Prague’s Ungelt Theatre, where the play premiered two decades later, chose Oldřich Kaiser for the lead role. The 55-year-old acclaimed actor of both stage and screen parts has appeared in films such as I Served the King of England, Walking Too Fast, and most recently in Václav Havel’s film debut, Leaving. Director Julek Neumann explains the choice.

“Ungelt’s artistic director, Milan Hein, thought it was a perfect play for Oldřich Kaiser. It was a nice starting point as well because from the very beginning, we were playing with the idea that not only the character but also the actor could be drunk, and the audience shouldn’t see the difference.”

Julek Neumann
But that was unfortunately not the case. Like the main character, Oldřich Kaiser has been struggling with alcohol abuse. Following a series of incidents, the Ungelt theatre pulled the play off last November. Julek Neumann again.

“I wanted him to be on the edge in front of the audience, playing a drunk so realistically that they couldn’t tell the difference who did in fact have something to drink. Unfortunately, it didn’t balance well.”

Three months later, however, the play reopened to a packed house at another venue, the U Hasičů Theatre with Oldřich Kaiser back with a vengeance. Jeffrey Bernard’s escapades on stage again draw roars of laughter from the crowd, although the real Bernard’s fate was far less comical. Oldřich Kaiser says his own drinking issues helped him to understand.

“Drinking is of course dominant in the play but on the other hand, he was a man who never let go of his freedom and always did everything his own way. You can feel from the play that he didn’t want to be put in a box, to fall in line, which is a view I understand. He let things out through alcohol, and every end is bitter in a way. But I think he did things the way he wanted all his life, and the end could mean a blessing for him.”

Oldřich Kaiser,  photo: CTK
The play was adapted for Czech audiences, although it has retained some of the references, including the name of the Soho pub. Mr Kaiser also added some of his own alcoholic antics, like the one when he attacked a police patrol in a Prague café.

“I saw this as an opportunity to make it more interesting, given the fact that I’ve been labelled as an alcoholic. So I thought I would use it, and I’m so glad. If I’d lived an orderly life, I’m not sure how good I’d be in the play.”

At the new venue, Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell plays several times a month. Producers hope it will again do well at the box office – this time, with a reasonable balance between the real Oldřich Kaiser, and the misfortunate Jeffrey Bernard.