Sunday 14 May 2017

Zelle Nummer – Stückemarkt, (HdBF, TT17), Berlin

[seen 12/05/17]

Czech playwright Petra Hůlová’s Zelle Nummer (Cell Number) – shown here as a semi-staged rehearsed reading directed by Armin Petras – is a fascinating play. It’s fascinating for its subject matter – an imagined future where Czechia’s political/intellectual elite have withdrawn into cells to consider the question of Czech national identity, particularly in the light of Syrian refugees arriving by the EU-quota-load. It’s also fascinating for its form – a three-handed “debate play,” albeit one which feels more like three intercut monologues; a feeling exacerbated by Petras’s staging here. The English translation – projected as surtitles – lets us know that the play goes heavy on the alliteration (which may work rather better in the original Czech).

The most fascinating thing, however (for me, as an almost-definitively-not-Czech, English outsider), is the extent to which – with the change of only a few place-names and historical details – how loudly and clearly the piece also speaks to the current situation in England (and by extension, “the UK”/”GB”). *Of course* our histories are poles apart, which only serves to compound the frustratingly numerous similarities that spring up as soon as the question of “national identity” is asked. Instead of his piss-poor verbatim nonsense, Rufus Norris should have staged and toured an example of a play about National Identity from every other country in Europe. (And he should have done this *before* the referendum.) (Theatregoing,) UK audiences would have soon seen that there is literally nothing unique about England’s attempts at nationalism, about the vexed questions of what a national identity even is, and that our vanity of infinitesimally small differences was on a hiding to nothing. (None of which answers whether any country should want to be a part of the EU, but it might have taken the edge off the atmosphere of toxic xenophobia – if anyone had actually been to see them. Which, realistically, might not have happened. But heigh ho.)

Would this play do well in England? Not in its current form (a form it was difficult to properly/meaningfully assess, with a “staged reading” in German that obscured more than it elucidated). I think the monologue-ishness of of the structure might be hard to make work (to my tastes), although given that The Vertical Hour was ever a thing, perhaps with a convincing set, and the right actors, it could be given a good go. There’s also a vein of political incorrectness in the piece – a disabled character in a wheelchair who says some pretty hardcore things, another character who is ambiguously, Rod-Liddell-ishly, “liberal”-baiting – which might confuse English audiences used to be being told what to think by playwrights with unimpeachable liberal credentials.

Still, I would be interested to see it. Perhaps full, naturalistic production Downstairs at the Royal Court, with a top-flight cast, for just one week. Maybe in rep with some other nationalism plays from other places (not least The Patriots). But, yeah. Ain’t going to happen, so I’ll stop reviewing it as “Fantasy Programming League” (where every single play gets put on as an experiment).

Will be fascinated to see what the Germans made of it, if anything.

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