Humorologie: Festival of Emotions, Belgium, 29th June 2013
On entering the Cirk La Putyka theatre tent for a revival of their first show, ‘La Putyka’, we are met with a visual aesthetic steeped in popular romantic circus imagery, from the stripy socks to the popcorn machine. Barman Jirì Kohout’s red nose, signalling his role as the hapless fool attempting to control a situation beyond his reach, is also a nice nod to its original incarnation as a representation of drunkenness.
For this is a show where beer is the hero. If you have ever been one of the last few standing at the end of a late-night party, you will recognise the skewed reality that you can never quite describe the morning after; half-falling asleep into your drink one minute, and manically engaged in activity with complete commitment the next. It’s certainly not unique to the Czech bar culture from which the show’s creation stems (the ‘putyka’ of the title itself means ‘pub’).
Commitment, however, is not the same as ability. Inebriation is a forgiving fiction for acrobats who miss their balances, and trampoline artists who offer us no more than we can find these days from teenagers practising in their back gardens on YouTube. But, because it is part of the theatrical fantasy, this mediocre level of skill doesn’t matter to me, and I’m drawn into their world. I still get the nervous feeling in my stomach that good circus acts can provide, as I forget the reality of the trained performers and see them onstage as drunken risk-takers.
The boundaries between fiction and reality are blurred almost from the start. Following Kohout’s opening monologue, which attempts to recast the audience as bar-room customers presenting him with ‘a ‘one last beer’ situation’, he acquiesces to our purported request, and some of us suddenly find ourselves with real bottles of beer placed into our hands; the world works differently here. Kohout, as the only speaking member of the 14-strong ensemble, has some great comic one-liners that he delivers well and – like most of the company, including the band – communicates clearly, if not eloquently, through his physicality.
The klezmer, punk and pop-culture fused live music provides an energetic accompaniment throughout the show (with a wonderful piece of handbell work, as the band attempt to summon the harried barman, and then get lost in their own sounds). With singer Andrej Rády’s falsetto, this is a cross between the Tiger Lillies and Gogol Bordello – with the odd snatch of Queen or Frankie Goes To Hollywood expertly interwoven for good measure, feeding the surreality of the evening.
As we peer through the metaphorical glass at the flamboyant characters who enter our bar, gymnastically dancing their way through lovers’ tiffs and bar-room brawls, we recognise the way alcohol loosens our physical inhibitions. We are served up glimpses into their stories, the way events at a party are remembered in fragments the next day.
I particularly enjoy the way that the direction from Rotislav Novák and SKUTR has ensured the world of the bar stays alive at all times; let your eye wander, and you will notice small exchanges and interactions occurring continually amongst the cast.
After a concussion induced duet between Pink Lady Zuzana Havrlantová and a life-sized human puppet, the madness builds until kicking out time arrives at last. I feel a little sad that it’s all over, and am not surprised that the show was revived this year after popular demand.
And then the poignancy is lifted by the beer bubble finalé! (You’ll have to watch it to see what I mean.)
The show sets out to entertain, and it is clear the company are having as much fun as I am, although it’s possible that if you don’t recognise the alcohol fueled experiences I’ve described, it may be somewhat inaccessible. The circus element comes primarily from the mythology inspired visual aesthetics rather than content or structure but, after all, the awards that ‘La Putyka’ has won are from the theatre world, and I would say deservedly so.