Rendezvous in Bratislava
Miriam Sherwood with music by Thom Andrewes and Will Gardner
Camden People's Theatre
Miriam Sherwood’s grandfather, known mostly under the pseudonym Jan Kalina, was a very busy writer-performer. He had written, among many other books, five autobiographies, one with the satirical title All the fault of Jews and cyclists.
His jokes were so distressing to a 1970s Czechoslovakian government, they locked him away for a year to cut down on the laughter.
Miriam’s affectionate celebration of his life, Rendezvous in Bratislava, is a sort of performance party, concentrating on the fun and the humour, mixing song, sketches, readings and dance.
Pegged to a washing line along the back wall are cards indicating key moments in his life, from his birth in 1913 to his death in 1981.
On the back screen are projected two key rules guiding his creative output: draw out the connection to the present and blur the distinction between performers and audience.
The cast certainly immerse us in the show. We are welcomed with drinks of strong alcohol someone tells me is the Slovak drink borovicka, an audience member is volunteered to join the musicians, another is asked to sit and listen with headphones to a record. Some of us are asked to read out jokes. Everyone is encouraged to sing along with the line “let laughter be the medicine for our sins” and the entire audience is invited to join them on stage to toast with more alcohol the New Year of 1958 (apparently a good year to party).
One sketch features a professor from the 2040s exploring why laughter has disappeared, which involves some time travel backwards to glimpse Jan’s life. Though Jewish, Jan managed to avoid deportation to a labour camp during Slovakia’s fascist period in the Second World War. He also endured the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring. In the latter, the song “Socialism with a human face” is interrupted by gunfire.
The light, gentle humour and immersive fun hold our attention, but we never get a close view of Jan’s character and the context, including the horror of Slovakia under fascism, is very sketchy. This is surprising given that 80% of Slovakia’s pre-war Jewish population was murdered, many of them dying in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp which this month marks the 75th anniversary of its liberation. The Slovak government during the war years even paid the German Nazi government some 500 marks per Jew to take them away and never bring them back.
Jan Kalina made a name for himself in part by cabaret performances that commented on the world. Surely such a witness to some of the most traumatic events of the 20th century deserves a celebration that includes, along with the fun, more of the context that shaped him.
The UK tour of Rendezvous in Bratislava continues till late May before a summer tour of Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna