In Werner Schwab’s Dead At Last, No More Air, theatre is rotting from the inside. Written in 1994, the text depicts a production inside a production, but the tearing up of the rulebook doesn’t stop with a quick bout of metafictionality. Through an embedded production that sees professional performers replaced with residents of a local retirement home, Schwab puts a play within a play – and then attempts to kick both his actors and director out of it. Spending some time on the very peripherals of these layers as the postdramatically-inclined Just a Must theatre company finishes its run at Camden People’s Theatre and prepares for the Brighton Fringe, I caught up with one half of the company, director Vanda Butkovic, to see why she felt compelled to take on a play by a writer determined to fracture our view of the stage.
When talking about the postdramatic and performance art with avid translators, it’s easy to fall into a romanticised mythology of Continental theatre. While the British binge on overpriced, traditional portions of Andrew Lloyd Webber, with side orders of Shakespeare, our sun-kissed European cousins dine on nutritionally balanced tapas of bold new trends. While the stereotype may be limiting, Butkovic explains how, on the Continent, “where theatres are heavily and regularly subsidised, their role in society has a much more important place.” In the UK, lacking the backing of the more daring funders, yet committed to “new texts and writers who are well known and respected in parts of continental Europe but who have received no, or minimal exposure in the UK”, Butkovic accepts the possibility that her focus may leave her company out of pocket. But with so few British companies focusing on contemporary texts in translation, the important thing for her is to take the risk that mainstream funders won’t, and boldly target a gap in the UK’s cultural offerings.
Butkovic’s stance towards theatre is so dynamic, it runs the risk of sounding contradictory. Here’s a woman who finds directing the overthrowing of a director “exhilarating”, an energetic creative who is eager to tackle her practise head-on, and to slam a chunk of self evaluation right into the heart of her work. Butkovic’s enthusiasm and passion for contemporary work in translation, clashed with the practical and financial obstacles placed on any artist looking to make a change (“the climate is harsh for the type of work and ideas we are trying to promote and the funding is almost non-existent”), and has made Butkovic’s company, by her own admission, like some breed of guerrilla fighters: “we know that there is interest from certain audiences and professionals, and we somehow have to try and get the work out there“. While, with another streak of self-awareness, Butkovic is keen not to put her work on a “righteous pedestal”, it’s comparisons such as this that could give her a punky reputation.
But while fiercely reluctant to direct work that is already widely produced, confrontation is not at the heart of this director’s practice. Butkovic’s relationship to Britain’s postdramatic undercurrent is something that developed organically as she met Croatian producer Berislav Juraic and established Just A Must back in 2009. The co-founders were alarmed by the dearth of contemporary plays on the British stage, and found it natural to focus on their mutual interest in the postdramatic. Butkovic articulates, “it’s not that we were actively looking for a niche, but our common preference for certain types of modern European postdramatic theatre meant that we were naturally able to add something a bit different to the UK theatre landscape”. Since then, the pair has delivered four pieces, this current production being the second from the relatively unsung Schwab.
“It is not an accident that this is the second text by Schwab that I’ve directed”, confesses Butkovic, as our discussion turns to the source piece. Encouraged by her perseverance in bringing the Austrian playwright to new audiences, I ask Butkovic whether there’s more room for Schwab on the British stages that he so seldom graces. Her response illuminates what it is that makes the writer such an essential focus for Just A Must: “It amazes me that the UK, with its modern melting pot cultural landscape, doesn’t care for, or show any interest in the works of modern geniuses [like Schwab. . .]. Schwab is very refreshing, because his characters speak like humans would if they didn’t have any social inhibitions or were constrained by conventional norms of behaviour. [… ] His writing is so original that every sentence offers a new perspective on a well-trodden subject, through a cliché free, deconstructed use of language”.
Whether you consider her a punk or a pioneer, there’s something compelling in Butkovic’s desire to evaluate the status quo, and to add new trends to the what’s on guide. But not everybody likes a lone ranger: “Financial gambles do not appeal to producers, and that is why they shy away from untested, unconventional texts”. Producers have not been alone in showcasing a resistance to Butkovic’s breed of theatre; responding to a review that pitched Just a Must’s work as unsuitable for those “looking for dinner and a show date night”, Butkovic laments the UK’s entertainment-driven industry, where “making a profit is often the key driver in producing work”. While various companies across continental Europe are marking the 20th anniversary of Schwab’s death, Butkovic is adamant that the playwright could garner more recognition here but, with a touch of resignation, she adds, “as long as ‘intellectual’ pursuits are considered secondary to what can turn a profit, it will continue to be a challenge to produce his works in the UK”.
If you’re looking for the cheap thrills of popular, lowest common denominator theatre, you’re unlikely to have much fun with Just A Must’s programming. Butkovic is keen to generate debate around her shows, quickly admitting that “our work is not to everyone’s taste or interest”. That said, Just a Must is not without its fans. In an admiring review on One Stop Arts, one critic mused that the company is “unlike much of the theatre you’ll see in this country”. Butkovic is not looking to drop a crowd-pleaser, and confronts feedback of all kinds with an equal consideration: “Our shows are talked about and questioned, both positively and negatively, and this suits us as we want to start a dialogue and to exchange ideas and cultural influences”. She adds, “In the artistic sphere, you have to be curious, spontaneous, pragmatic – you also have to be free to fail and to enjoy what others perceive as ‘failure’. This freedom releases companies and their artists to explore and grow”.
There’s a taut revolutionary spirit in Dead At Last, No More Air, that’s just right for the type of cultural commentary that Just A Must has been revving up for the last five years. As Schwab deconstructs his microcosmic world of theatre by injecting an elderly troupe of amateur thesps, I ask Butkovic whether her interpretation of such a charged, anarchistic moment is part of a forecasted or fantasised shift in how we appreciate theatre. She responds, pragmatically, “for our company, staging this text is a statement, but I do not have any illusions about where it will lead. I do not think that anything will change; we are just trying to make a bit of space for us to practice our profession in a way that works for us”.
Dead At Last, No More Air is at The Warren, Brighton, from 30th May – 1st June 204,
Photo: Ludovic de Cognets