Radka Denemarková: Who’s Afraid of Ivana Trump?

'Spací vady', photo: Bohdan Holomíček

If Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Ivana Trump were locked up together in one room, what would happen? In the world of theatre, anything is possible, and in Radka Denemarková’s “Spací vady“ (Sleeping Disorders) this is exactly what happens. David Vaughan talks to the author about her remarkable play.

Radka Denemarková,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
The production of Radka Denemarková’s play at the Theatre on the Balustrade is one of the most complex and raw pieces of theatre that I have seen for a long time, and it has a breadth and depth of language that makes the play every bit as interesting to read as text as it is to see on the stage. So it is good news that the full text has just been published in a Czech edition, complete with photographs from the production. While Jean-Paul Sartre, in his best-known play “No Exit”, places his three characters in hell, Radka prefers a kind of purgatory. Each of the three characters can leave the room, should her name be called by someone still living who loves them.

Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath represent two generations of outstanding woman writers – Virginia Woolf in the first half of the twentieth century, Sylvia Plath in the second. Both sought independence and struggled to reconcile their impulse to write with the countless pressures and constraints of their time and the ghosts of their own past; both ultimately took their own lives. In Radka Denemarková’s play, they are thrown together in one room. As they look back on their lives as a whole, they cling onto their illusions. Much of the time they spend bickering over their respective qualities as writers and poking cruelly into each other’s past lives – with only occasional hints of empathy – until the various protective facades with which each had surrounded herself, begin to crack.

Then in comes Ivana Trump. She is the most obviously fictionalized of the three characters. After all, the real Ivana Trump – the glitzy Czech-born socialite, former athlete and fashion model – is still very much alive. In the play, Ivana is also a writer – although of a very different kind, working mostly through a ghostwriter. She is a tough, successful twenty-first century businesswoman, at home in the world of money and marketing. She turns the lives – or should I say afterlives – of her two unwilling roommates upside down.

'Spací vady',  photo: Bohdan Holomíček
I asked Radka Denemarková, who is best known in the English-speaking world for her award-winning novel, Money From Hitler, to tell me more about the background of the play.

“I think of it as an autobiographical text, although that may seem a paradox, given the way it is written. But I don’t like it when writers just write about themselves – showing off their ego, what happened to me, how I got ill, who I slept with etc. I prefer to make it more general, to conceal my questions behind specific situations. There are several different themes. I wrote it after what was, luckily, an unsuccessful suicide attempt, and at about the same time my father died. I felt the need to sum up everything I’d lived through in my 40 years so far. I think you can sense that energy in the play. Even though it’s highly stylized, I see it as an autobiographical text. Many prose writers when they get to about my age write something that looks back to their roots or their childhood, but for me, funnily enough, it took the form of a play.”

And maybe because of that, the play, both on the stage and as text, is so full of energy.

“Yes, it was just like that. I’m not going to give up. I look at things differently now. I can laugh about suicide, no one can begrudge me that. Everything is complicated, nothing is black and white, and that doesn’t mean that some things should be taboo or hidden. None of us knows what might happen in our lives. I think it happens to each of us, whether it’s fate or whatever, that we suddenly doubt our whole life, our life partner, friends, what we do or don’t do. And you have to work through that somehow.”

It’s almost like a kind of post-suicide note…

'Spací vady',  photo: Bohdan Holomíček
“Yes, it is as if you have come back from hell, or from somewhere – not a prison, but some kind of strange dream or… Mars. That’s a better way of putting it. As if I’d come back from Mars, and found myself back on Earth with people again. If I hadn’t experienced all these things, I’d never have thought of writing this.

“Originally it was going to be a prose work, but what happened was that the characters kept talking to one another, kept fighting each other in a battle of words, so I decided to write it as a play, although it’s not really a play in the classic sense either. Certain things were important. They were dead, Virginia and Sylvia had chosen to end their own lives, and they were writers who took their writing seriously. It’s not just scribbling, but they are writing because the world is impossible to read, and remains impossible to read. Also I like the grotesque and black humour. I think that of all the things I’ve written, it’s the one with the most humour. It’s as if they were part of one woman. Virginia and Sylvia are both struggling for a kind of independence, to be able to make their own decisions about their lives. Then, after death they meet someone who really is emancipated and independent, and they look at Trump with astonishment and say, ‘Is this what we wanted? Is this what it looks like?’ I wanted also to confront the things that bother me in the world of literature. When you start writing and publishing, to your horror you recognize everything that’s going on in the business, and you want to detach yourself. It takes a lot of strength. Otherwise you lose touch with your inner self and end up succumbing to the time you live in, to what the critics and other people in the industry think. I wanted to laugh at all this a bit. “

But Ivana Trump in the play is far from being just a figure of fun.

'Spací vady',  photo: Bohdan Holomíček
“One of the reasons I chose her is because she has to have talent. She’s very practical. While the other two self-indulgently talk about literature, she turns up and starts rearranging the room. She is a talented businesswoman, but also she retains the clichés, the female weapons, that the other two fought against. They wanted to be seen as human beings, but Ivana says, ‘Okay, you want a blond and a blond with big breasts.’ And she combines the female and male weapons. She can’t understand suicide as a consequence of some experience or a way of seeing the world. Instead it’s a marketing trick. Of course, I exaggerate things to an absurd degree, but that’s the world we live in today.”

As I watched the play, I found myself hoping for some kind of transcendence, or at least reconciliation – or even just a hint of understanding between the protagonists. At times something really does seem to be round the corner.

“On several occasions the words empathy, sympathy and humility appear, but the protagonists just aren’t capable of it, even towards themselves. Virginia and Sylvia are capable of a huge amount of self-reflection when it comes to their writing, but not in their lives. Sylvia is trying to be equal to Virginia, but she can never manage it, because of the different worlds they came from. It was predetermined. Instead she is like a little child. She needs to cling on to someone, to be praised. Sometimes she resists, sometimes she fails. Situations from during her life repeated themselves – round and round in circles. But there is a point in the play when they don’t need to do this anymore, and they can be themselves; when I was writing, I thought I’d reach a moment when they’d succeed, but it just didn’t happen.”

So there’s no happy ending, although you are left with a sense of something that could have been. And at the very end there’s a further twist, but that would be spoiling the story.

The production at the Theatre on the Balustrade, now, unfortunately, at the end of its run, was directed by Slobodanka Radun and featured Magdaléna Sidonová, Marie Spurná and Jana Hrubinská, as Plath, Woolf and Trump respectively. To end our interview, I asked Radka Denemarková, who herself has long been associated with the Theatre on the Balustrade, whether she was involved in the production – especially given the strongly autobiographical nature of the play.

Photo: Women’s Press
“Yes, there was one important thing. I was involved in choosing the actresses, because I knew that they would have to engage with one another. Originally the idea was to use really well known actresses, but they have a habit of behaving like stars, wanting to stand out, but here, all three of them really have to be connected, and not dominate the space, although the thread comes back again and again to Virginia Woolf. It was also important for Ivana Trump not just to be an unpleasant character – because of course everything’s more complicated and she’s a human being too. These are all things that I tried to address.”

So far, Spací vady has yet to be translated into English. But it is an important work by one of the Czech Republic’s leading contemporary writers, so I hope that English-speaking readers – and theatre-goers too – will not have to wait too long. For the time being, you can read Radka Denemarková’s novel, “Money from Hitler” in an English translation by Andrew Oakland, published by Women’s Press in Toronto.