A hunched man behaving like a rat followed by a bare-chested woman frantically step on white bricks scattered all over the stage: they are part of the chaos brought to their town by the Pied Piper, who is not the romanticised man from medieval legend but a witty woman of a big heart. The rats are gone and Dante’s hell, visually resembling the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, comes alive in “The Ratcatcher” that premiered at Švandovo Divadlo on Saturday, Nov, 5.
A new adaptation of Viktor Dyk’s Czech classic, from 1915, “The Pied Piper,” alters the story of Hamelin, a merchant town in medieval Germany with seemingly happy, merry citizens, whose only source of evil are the rats that have flooded their houses. That’s when they call the Piped Piper, in some translations called the Rat-catcher, who would sing a magical song, so quiet that no-one but troubling rodents can hear it, luring them to the river.
Dyk’s novel was inspired by the legend that appears in many European countries’ folklores. All stories are united by one idea, hyperbolised in the play: the Pied Piper is able to rid the town of the rats but not of the evil qualities of its residents. Though in the play, as in Dyk’s novel, there is also a romance: the Ratcatcher, who usually never stays after his task is done, falls in love with one of the town’s girls, Agnes. This changes the Rat-catcher’s life, and gives the play another layer of complexity.
Švandovo Divadlo has staged their production in an unusual way, echoing the contemporary gender struggles: the Rat-catcher, traditionally a male character, is played by Klara Cibulkova, the theatre’s lead actress. According to the press-release, she did not expect to star in this role: “Why? Why me?” Cibulkova asked herself upon hearing the decision of Dodo Gombár, Švandovo Divadlo’s artistic director, who has staged the play.
“I wish that we could move away from seeing the Pied Piper as a man or a woman. In my eyes it is mainly a being,” said Gombar in the press release. “Giving this role to Klara Cibulkova, I wanted to bring into the production a paradox and natural, non-theatrical tension.”
The staging rises a number of other sensitive issues, perhaps, too many for a two and a half hours play. “Hidden force, manipulation, deceit, hypocrisy, a community’s ignorance, passion, true love, jealousy, whispers of the devil, hope,” Gombár listed just a few of them. According to him, the Pied Piper is someone, who would solve all our problems.
“We tried to look at Dyk’s ‘The Ratcatcher’ from the perspective of today’s society,” said Martina Kinská, the scriptwriter for the production. “We wanted to bring up the motives and themes that are part of our lives nowadays, whether we like it or not.”
Our societies’ sins and wrongdoings are revealed in the play: sexism, greed, lust and scapegoating in one way or another are unleashed by the cast. The powerful violin music with recognisable gypsy motives, composed by Gabriela Vermelho, also strongly reminds us of either the European refugee crisis or the Czech Republic’s own Roma question.
The theatre’s interiors, with its spacious halls and bunker-like seating, helps to create Hamelin’s unwelcoming to foreigners atmosphere. However, this shouldn’t prevent expats from being lured to Švandovo Divadlo, attracted not only by the theatre’s challenging productions, but by English surtitles that come with every Czech-language staging.
“The Ratcatcher” will be shown three more times this year, Nov. 26, Dec. 5 and Dec. 13. Tickets are available online at Švandovo Divadlo website for just 120 crowns.
Photo courtesy of Švandovo Divadlo