New production brings communist-era dissident home theatre back to life

Eva Leimbergerová, Zbigniew Kalina, Tereza Nekudová and Ondřej Volejník

Two comedies written by dissident playwright Pavel Kohout in the 1970s with the intention of being performed in private in peoples’ homes are being revived by the MANA theatre in Prague's Vršovice district – but not on a regular theatre stage. Instead, the plays are being staged in two small spaces that are evocative of the environments where they were originally performed.

‘Bytové divadlo’ or ‘apartment theatre’ is associated in the minds of most Czechs with dissident artists in the era of ‘normalization’ in the 1970s and 1980s, following the Soviet-led invasion of the country in 1968. Actors, playwrights and others working in the cultural sphere who were banned from writing and performing in public started holding private performances in their own apartments or apartments of friends.

Josef Kačmarčík | Photo: Pardubice Theater

Director Josef Kačmarčík says that there were several reasons for his team’s decision to revive these two comedies, although the genre was entirely new to him.

“On the one hand, the plays struck us as entertaining, and on the other, we realised there were two spaces in the theatre that were perfect for these plays. One of the plays is called ‘Fire in the basement’ and the other ‘Bad luck under the roof’. We realised we had both a basement and an attic in the theatre, so we could do site-specific performances right in those spaces.”

Only 25 spectators can squeeze into these small spaces to watch the performances, which should help evoke the oppressive atmosphere of the communist era, when the private lives of individuals were under constant surveillance by the totalitarian state. Kačmarčík says it should also bring the audience a more immersive experience.

The MANA theatre in Prague's Vršovice district | Photo: Vršovické divadlo MANA

“The idea of ‘apartment theatre’ seemed appealing partly because of the public interest in it and partly because the audience is sitting so close to the performance, they are in direct contact with the actors, and that could be a way to make these plays even more interesting.”

Pavel Kohout wrote these one-act apartment theatre plays in the early 1970s, when he was being persecuted by the communist regime. Kačmarčík says that although they were written in a very different time, the plays still have things to say that are relevant today.

Kohoutovy aktovky | Photo: Vršovické divadlo MANA

“Of course, I hope that totalitarian regimes are forever well and truly behind us, but it is precisely this invasion of privacy that to me seemed very relevant. That suddenly someone starts explaining to you from on high who you really are and what your problems are, and that you’re actually not as ok as you thought you were.”

Actors Eva Leimbergerová and Zbigniew Kalina play the main roles, with Ondřej Volejník, Tereza Nekudová and Václav Hanzl in supporting roles. Kačmarčík says that the cast was selected for very specific criteria.

Photo: Vršovické divadlo MANA

“The script is very challenging textually, and it’s also a comedy, so it requires a certain sense of rhythm and timing, commitment, energy. So we chose actors that we thought had a feeling for that kind of stuff and who would be capable of covering that broad range of skills.”

Authors: Anna Fodor , Václav Müller | Source: Český rozhlas
run audio


  • Czech Books

    Kafka, Čapek, Kundera and Havel, these are all world renowned names, but what about all the others? How well are Czech authors actually known abroad? 

  • Sex under Communism

    What was sex like under Communism?  What was allowed and what was prohibited? And in what ways was the country more liberal than its Western neighbours?