On the 13th May 1990, a scheduled game between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade at Maskimir Stadium in Zagreb turned into a large-scale riot lasting over seventy minutes. Fuelled by ethnic tensions and mutual provocations from the Red-Star gang led by Arkan and Dinamo’s own Bad Blue Boys, it became a symbol for the war that was to sweep the entire Yugoslavia a year later, leading to its disintegration. Elfriede Jelinek was watching this in her home in Vienna, and was really interested in the way in which this game that never happened, this caustic mix of sports and fighting, was becoming an icon for the ways in which the two intertwine. “The way people are trained to be sportsmen and women is easily paralleled with the training of warriors and soldiers”, Vanda Butkovic, director of the British premiere of Sports Play tells me. “You learn to clean a gun to shoot someone else; in sports, you learn how to use a sporting tool to become faster and more efficient. This is such an open and blunt connection, but also one that resonates on so many levels- as it does in the play.”
Just a Must’s Sports Play coincides with the opening of the London 2012 Olympics and is following a politically charged Euro 2012 Cup. The performance will be interrupted at various times to make room for live broadcasting of the Olympic results- and in a particularly appropriate turn of events, is sponsored by Austrian beer company Stiegl at a time when the Olympics have banned any advertising of alcohol. It takes sport and war away from the public sphere in order to better understand their connection- and it’s refractions are not only challenging, but carry particular cultural baggage.
If Jelinek has gained recognition in the form of a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004 “for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power”, and repeat winnings of the Mulheimer Dramatikpreis for for her relentless exposure of Austrian hypocrisy and her technical and formal play, critiquing not only public misconceptions of Austrian identity but also problematic taboo subjects, she is still very much an outsider to British culture- and arguably, a disputed public intellectual in Austria. In the UK, she is best known for novels such as Greed, Women as Lovers and Lust, as well as Austrian director Michael Haneke’s film adaptation of her most autobiographical novel, The Piano Teacher. She famously accepted her Nobel prize through a video rather than in person, and her particular approach to literary discourse, her progressive social critique mean she’s often considered to “dwell on what is repugnant” as literary critic Tim Parks has noted.
The opening to Sports Play reads: “The author doesn’t give many stage directions, she has learnt her lesson by now.” Dramaturg Karen Jurs-Munby associates this with the number of times European- particularly German- directors have staged her texts with little regards for such authorial technicalities. Written in 1997, Sports Play is essentially a collection of monologues that build on from the association of rituals of war and sport- the sporting arena and the battlefield and the dialectic of individual vs mass. An important element in the wider narrative of postmodern text, Sports Play is rich with references- deconstructed quotes from philosophy to pop culture, motifs, characters inspired by real-life situations as well as a heavy autobiographical presence in the character of Elfi Elektra- embodying Jelinek’s problematic relationship with the loss of her father. Often said to have emerged from and reacted to the cultural contexts of modernists such as Karl Kraus, with a dense element of satire and a playful engagement with the fluidity of meaning in language, which is treated musically and architecturally rather than literally, Jelinek’s Sports Play is a textual tapestry that functions like a musical score rather than in line with any representational politics. It distorts dialogues between personal and public, individual and crowd, and displaces polarities by way of giving a voice to victims. In a recent interview with Simon Stephens, Jelinek reinforced this by saying “i always have to give a voice to those who get a raw deal”.
Butkovic explains that the aim of this translation was not to construct a politicized space with references which have become redundant since the play was written, or which are culturally obscure in the UK. “There’s enough relevant material in the play; there’s no need to embark on any adaptations. We are not going to look at Austrian politics in the nineties, but focus on themes and sports that resonate with a British audience.” The performance text and the real text are quite different. “We focused on how it sounds, not what it’s saying. For the choric scenes in particular, you can absolutely hear it. When the chorus applies the rules like in a musical composition- dynamics, pauses, tempo, rhythm, sound of the words, repetitions- then everything is explored against the meaning of the text.”
It’s a concept that has translated into the play’s performance in an elastic, almost musical set of compositions in which physical action and text interact, juxtapose and threaten meaning out of each other. Groups of performers recite monologues whilst undergoing a physically demanding task, in the context of a scenography of 140kg of fluff which can be anything from a muscle to a mountain. The central choric element of the performance- essential to Jelinek’s text- provides a shifting power structure from which monologues and dialogues emerge without any precise cultural denominations or aesthetics. In addition, it frames an interesting theatrical meta-narrative playing with the conventions of tragedy from the Greeks to the postmodernists, thus opening up a formal exercise that’s as muscular as the play itself. Here sport is not just placed under scrutiny, but deconstructed in its iconogrpahy and social gravitas. “When you read Jelinek in your home, it has one sound. But if someone says it to you, it picks up different meanings. In re-reading, in letting it wash over you, you begin to pull recurring motifs, to notice that architecture. It seems random, but it’s actually incredibly carefully threaded; if you pull one thing out, you shift a million others. You have to be careful about what to cut.”
Butkovic didn’t shy away from cutting the text, and was interested in staying true to the form, this invasion of deconstructive, arhythmical words that displace normative engagements with text onstage. “It is a series of monologues and yes, of course, you can stage it with music stands, like a basic reading. I’m interested in that and I’m not going to make action onstage where it hasn’t been prescribed.” She recalls what German director Nicolas Stemann said about Jelinek’s texts; “you have to slash them with a machete, rather than just cut.”