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Features Performance Published 4 July 2013

Performing Sports Play

Dramaturg Karen Jürs-Munby on staging Jelinek in different arenas.

Karen Jürs-Munby

When the English language premiere of Elfriede Jelinek’s Sports Play took place at the Nuffield Theatre, Lancaster University on the 11th July last year, it was timed to coincide not only with the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics but also with Jelinek in the Arena: Sport, Cultural Understanding and Translation to Page and Stage the first conference dedicated to the work of Elfriede Jelinek in the UK (organised by Prof Allyson Fiddler, Dr Rebecca Braun and myself).  As Just a Must theatre company is getting ready for a short revival of Sports Play at Camden People’s Theatre before taking the production on its first international ‘away game’ to Macedonia, it seems a good time to reflect on the ways in which the play resonates differently in different ‘arenas’.

In his seminal 1998 premiere production of Ein Sportstück at the Burgtheater, Vienna, Einar Schleef famously staged the play with 142 performers, including large choruses. In the infamous ‘Sportlerszene’ (sportsmen scene) the durational ‘Kampfchoreographie’ (fight choreography) was visually reminiscent of the aesthetic of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 film Olympia and developed a palpable physical energy that communicated the fascist potential of sports. What is perhaps less well known is that Schleef also took on the challenge of Jelinek’s provocatively open stage directions – ‘Do what you like’ – by inserting his own scenes into the production. For example, a prologue consisting of a historical speech from the 1888s reopening of the Burgtheater, spoken by the oldest actor at the theatre, and the old Austrian national hymn sung by the chorus anchored the performance in the historical environment of the vast Burgtheater. Moreover in the long version (7 hours, rather than the ‘short version’ of 5 hours!) there were large film projections of silent scenes based on the Oresteia, filmed in various locations within the Burgtheater, in its cellar corridors, on its grand staircase and in its attic spaces, that extended the production in a site-specific way and made full use of Schleef’s ‘home advantage’ (Jürs-Munby 2012: 31).  The audience was invited to turn up in sports gear.  As such, in the arena of the Burgtheater Schleef’s production confronted its audience with Austria’s historical investment not only in high culture but in sports as a public display that serves to underpin a nationalist ideology and distract from a fascist past.

Just a Must’s English production, directed by Vanda Butkovic with an ensemble of only seven performers, is a much more modest affair.  As Andrew Haydon put it in his review (Haydon 2012) it is ‘much more a bite-sized, intelligent chamber piece than some intimidating monolith of regietheater-gone-mad’,– although this comparison is somewhat uncharitable to Schleef’s undoubted achievement.  Yet, as an acutely timed, small-scale touring production, Just a Must’s Sports Play also had and still has the potential to reach audiences in arenas that are differently charged in political ways than the Burgtheater and resonate with the themes of the play in new and different ways.

The brief for scenographer Simon Donger was to design a transportable set that would be flexible and allow for multiple readings.  The ingenious set design he came up with consisted mainly of hundreds of kilos of white toy stuffing material, which came to be known among the cast as ‘the fluff’.  Transported on tour in vacuum-sealed bags, on stage the fluff unfolds a magic of its own. On one level, it is simply a resistant material the actors have to shift around during the performance, which along with the delivery of Jelinek’s ‘linguistic gymnastics’ represents a strange Olympic discipline in its own right.  On another level, the malleable fluff becomes Mount Olympus, a playing field, a battle field, a trench.  It also becomes the stuff that Olympic dreams (or ideologies) are made of, the ‘stuffing’ of artificially enhanced athletic bodies and the toy stuffing of sporting merchandise. The material leaves plenty of room for the spectator’s imagination to fill in the gaps and complete the images.  As the production toured to venues of radically different size, the scale and amount of fluff were adjusted for every venue.  This will no doubt have had an impact on the way the set was ‘read’ in different theatres. On the vast stage of the Nuffield, a large black box theatre, it was easier to get the sense of a changing landscape or field.  In more intimate theatre spaces such as the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter, the more ‘domestic’ battles between ‘Sportsman’ and ‘Woman’ and the direct audience address by ‘Elfie Elektra’ may have communicated more easily.  But in either case Jelinek’s wandering, shifting text often cuts across easy identifications, allowing the spectator to make connections, rather than reading the set simply as an illustration of the text.

The geographic location of the theatre and the timing of the touring dates, too, matter to the way in which the production is read.  During the early touring dates and prior to the opening of the Olympics in London, the events of Euro 2012 were still fresh in everybody’s minds.  As such the recent violent and racist crowd behaviour in Poland and Ukraine resonated strongly with the play’s argument that football events can serve as a catalyst for nationalist and fascist group dynamics. By contrast, on the final leg of last year’s tour at the Chelsea Theatre in London, the production was surrounded by the hype of the Olympics.  After the spectacular opening of the Olympics it felt at times like the surrounding euphoria was drowning out Jelinek’s critical voice.  This voice was, however, given more weight and attention when Just a Must was invited by the Cultural Olympiad to stage a one-off ‘marathon reading’ of the entire text at Soho Theatre.  The reading lasted for nearly six hours and the audience were invited to lie in the fluff to listen to the text.

Looking forward, the revival at Camden People’s Theatre comes at a time when the arts are experiencing an extreme post-Olympics blues. Severe funding cuts have taken their toll, the Olympics having siphoned off much of the money that would otherwise have sustained many more arts organisations for years to come.  In the small but important experimental venue of the CPT, this fall-out from the London 2012 Olympics will be felt strongly in the experience of a production that may ironically have never happened without the Olympics.  Such are the contradictions of capitalism.

The performance at the Ohrid Summer Festival in Macedonia will be yet another ‘ball game’ and I suspect the connections the play draws between sports and war will resonate most strongly here, in a country that was once part of the former Yugoslavia. At the time the play was written, the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia were fresh on Jelinek’s mind. In an interview with Simon Stephens Jelinek explains that: ‘The unrest in the former Yugoslavia after all started with a football match that then became charged in nationalist ways and ended in violence.  This was the game on the 13th May 1990 between the Croatian club Dinamo Zagreb and the Serbian side Red Star Belgrade in Maksimir Stadium’ (Jelinek 2012).  The fact that the play will be staged in the open air at the Ohrid festival will add yet another dimension, not only facilitating the reading of the stage as a sports field/battlefield but also strongly evoking the play’s intertextual references to the Greek tragedies of the Oreistea in an amphitheatre arena.

The experience of touring Sports Play is thus continuing to demonstrate that context and timing are of the utmost importance in the reception of the play.  While this is true for every production, it is especially so for the production of a play that engages critically with the other, often heavily mediatised ‘arenas’ – the ‘theatres’ of sports events, wars, economics and politics.

You can also read Diana Damian’s interview with director Vanda Butkovic here. 

Sports Play, directed by Vanda Butkovic and produced by Just a Must is playing at Camden People’s Theatre, London 13- 14 July 2013, followed by tour to Ohrid Summer Festival in Ohrid, Macedonia 21 – 25 July 2013.

Karen Jürs-Munby is a Lecturer in Theatre Studies at the Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts, Lancaster University, and the dramaturg for Just a Must’s production of Sports Play. 

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