Review of Substitute Existence in Prague’s A Rubín Studio production

The Prague theater A studio Rubín presented a text by Simona Petrů entitled Substitute Existence, which inspired a committee of writer and translator Jan Zábrana’s journals. The testimony of a morally dislocated time, in which the only perspective for the writer is work, does not depend on descriptions and factuality. Director Adam Steinbauer archives it on the motif of general human destiny through metaphors and the use of Christian symbols.

The publication of the Zábran dailies committee, which under the title All Life marked the atmosphere of the burning years from 1948 to 1984, shortly after the Velvet Revolution, aroused many reactions, including polemics. Literary critic Pavel Janoušek expressed suspicion in Tvar magazine that the editors “omitted” passages about certain famous personalities for sure, which the author’s widow Marie Zábranová later dismissed in Lidový noviny. “It’s worthless gossip as one lady said,” she said.

The dailies, which sold over 10,000 copies, revealed a great deal of context and detail about the socio-cultural environment of the time. But above all, they rehabilitated a great talent, who was not allowed to publish his own work during standardization, but only to translate it. His translations of modern Anglo-American and Russian literature, further enriched with commentaries and interpretations, remain exceptional.

A certain paradox can be observed in the personal and creative life of Zábran. Although he was a man fundamentally opposed to communism – his National Socialist mother and father were sentenced to long prison terms in the early 1950s after fabricating charges of high treason – he did not has never publicly rebelled against the regime. His resistance was internal, silent and hidden.

He projected his ethical struggle with the Zábrana system in writing, especially in the diaries, which, in addition to contemporary testimonies and author sketches, present an image of despair, irreconcilability with the regime and can -to be even God as the highest authority who committed such a thing. The theme of death also returns more and more intensely in the notes. Zabrana, 53, died in 1984.

The production Substitute Existence, which by its title evokes the provisional life of the author forced by time, questions how to deal with the involuntary dependence on totalitarianism. It thus fulfills the motto of the 54th season of the Rubín studio in Prague, which is nothing but dependence.

The creators cheerfully answer the question not by digging into the totalitarian doldrums or stenciled treatment of normalization, as demonstrated by Tomáš Dianiška in the productions Špinarka and Encyclopedia of Action Film, but by the inner and turbulent fate of man, for whom creation is the only free place.

He describes production inhibition more or less as an anti-hero who has accepted a compromise solution, works in a factory, later translated, but at no price does he want to sign anything for anyone . “These people haven’t given me peace for months, they’re arresting me in the street. Sign! But when it comes to knowing where we’re going to hide? We don’t have a relative! We don’t “We don’t have a cottage! As it is, we don’t worry every day just living there.”

Tomáš Milostný as Jan Zábrana. | Photo: Patrik Borecky

Routine daily life, hemmed in by the walls of an apartment building in Malešice, Prague, involves cooking conversations with his wife Majka and drinking at the train station. To this, the authors add a dreamy position when Zábrana remembers his mother in crime, or compares himself with literary protagonists – the flute Gerža passing through the system of his short story Psovod Gerža or Sylvia Plathová, whose poems Zábrana translated in Czech just before her death.

In addition to diaries, the author of the play, Simon Petrů, also relies on other sources: the book of Eva, Zábran’s daughter, called Flashky or the poem Kvílení by beatnik Allen Ginsberg. He skillfully quotes them, constructs them, and drives them into a meaningfully composed form with a clear storyline.

In Substitute Existence, the Barrière identifies with the destiny of those it translates. He sees himself as representing Ginsberg’s generation of the damned or “the finest heads destroyed by madness, hysterically exposed and starving”, as Ginsberg writes in Howling.

The barrier recalls the Russian writers Andrei Platonov, Ivan Bunin and Boris Pasternak struggling with Soviet totalitarianism, as if he saw in their destiny a bit of resemblance to his own. And in the current context, the viewer can again think of contemporary Russian artists who find themselves isolated, even if they sided with Vladimir Putin – for example, director Dmitry Krymov, whose Torun festival, in Poland, has been cancelled.

Simona Petrů’s text introduces a phrase from Erben’s ballad Christmas Day. We find ourselves in a building in Prague, where Christmas Eve is celebrated: a holiday from which the Communists have ousted all spirituality, while the key symbolism of the eve of the Lord’s birth has remained the hope of salvation.

Director Adam Steinbauer develops this motif especially in the second part of the production – in a surreal image of the figure of the Crucified, effectively represented as a black spider in a red net, and a star in Bethlehem cut out of paper. In the end, after Zábran’s death, Eva’s daughter brings her in and hangs her glowing in the dark on a microphone stand. For the light of Bethlehem is a challenge to follow and must lead us to the Saviour. And as Zábrana says in the text: “In the corner of the dark corridor, in the faded mirror, I saw myself as I would like to see myself. Triumphant, proud, free and young as God.”

Vaclav Marhold and Agata Cervinkova.

Vaclav Marhold and Agata Cervinkova. | Photo: Patrik Borecky

The director also works well with the cramped back of the Rubín cellar, which can only accommodate about fifty people in this arrangement. The first part of the production is next to the bar in the foyer and adjoining spaces, the second in the hall, in which he first lets us look behind the open door like a smoky prison cell. Two places of play perfectly separate the two positions of the text – the first more earthly and civil, the second strongly poetic, even metaphysical.

Steinbauer relies on atmospheric light transitions and guides the three actors with precision. Jan Zábran portrays Tomáš Milostný as an autonomous man, literally distressed and fascinated, but a humanly resigned artist at a bad time. His wife Majka, daughter Eva and Sylvia Plath are played by Agáta Červinková. He distinguishes the characters well from each other with varying degrees of concreteness and dynamics of speech.

Václav Marhold then presents Gerž and the Crucified with verbal but also gestural precision. For these last two young actors, it’s great to see them grow with each theatrical opportunity.

The existence of substitution confirms that even from apparently difficult material, which could lead to the expected reading of normalization, it is possible to create a black and white production, concentrated and suggestive.


Simona Petrů: Substitution Existence
Director: Adam Steinbauer
At studio Rubín, Prague, premiere March 25, next reruns April 23 and 24

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