Features PerformanceQ&A and Interviews Published 18 July 2012

Sports Play: Vanda Butkovic

The director on text as musical score, hammering out logic and Andy Murray’s mother.

Diana Damian Martin

If Jelinek’s work has explored  subjects from feminism to national identity, nuclear tragedies to cultural memory, in carefully crafted plays that lack dramatic arches or recognisable characters, she carries with these an Austrian intellectual legacy that ranges from Wittgenstein to the Wiener Group that experimented with language.  Ludwig Wittgenstein developed the concept of the language games as part of a wider philosophical project that sought to detach language from holding immutable relationships to reality; for him, language could contain nomadic meaning. In the development of his philosophy, he was instrumental in reconsidering language as a fluid, conceptual term.

However, Jelinek’s writing also takes its influences from German Romantic and High Modernist musical traditions, and arguably, this treatment of text allows her to construct and deconstruct character presence without any recourse to a poetics of identity- on the opposite, the dynamic between sound and the materiality of language offers this nomadism to her linguistic interventions. “Jelinek has themese and subjects- the abuse of bodies, able or disabled bodies and their association with fitness and the ideal iconography, as well as the image of the woman in the press, amongst others. Jelinek is an infamous TV addict who takes constant notes- and this is present in her text via adverts or quotes or references to particular news stories. Then there’s quotes from Ancient Greek mythology, such as the recurring themes of the Amazons – Penthesilea occurs in verse. It sounds like a jungle, but there’s a path through it”.

These linguistic gymnastics as Butkovic calls them are uprooted via their wider cultural context, be it postmodern theatre or an ever-changing feminist discourse, but they also carry through into the relationship the performers have with the text. “Jelinek speaks of her actors as text-bearers, almost like a model on a catwalk.” Butkovic decided from the onset not to rehearse anything in the order of the scene, giving time to each moment without anticipating any linearity of what comes next. “For the performers, I think it was weird, not having a dramatic arch, a character to associate with, but also freeing, and more interesting. You have to go against what people are told in their training from their first day. There is no ‘who am I’, ‘what do I have to say’, no identities. You can be somebody, or anybody, but not a particular woman with a life-story. It’s an enriching process, because there are no rules. When actors began to suggest things, we accepted everything apart from logic. I really tried to hammer out finding this character logic in the text.”

Photo: Ian Hughes

An important element of the performance was the idea of the universal concept of mother. “The mother of sportsmen, like Andy Murray’s mother- always there, somewhere, looking through her glasses… We have that in the show in a woman who sees her son in the battlefield of sports. “ Equally central is the use and abuse of bodies within sport. “We have that in Austrian bodybuilder Andy Munzer, who died of steroid abuse. Thirty tumours were found in his autopsy; his liver had dissolved too. Andy has a durational monologue in the piece, and I think this topic really echoes today more than ever.We also have a gender war- this kind of idea of equality as a blurred image on the horizon, and here we’re really playing with stereotypes. And of course the mass vs individual. Jelinek likes to give voices to victims, and this opposition really plays off in relation to the chorus.” There’s a real sense of externalizing, embodying these events rather than portraying or enacting them- and in that way, Jelinek’s Sports Play holds an intrinsic resistance to communicative meaning. It’s the text itself that constructs and filters- through heavy satire which Butkovic has capitalised on for a British audience- a problematic iconography, making the most invisible of associations natural parasites.

When asked in an interview whether she is concerned with resistance, Jelinek replied. “I am more concerned with determining how and from where these social constructs develop, for example, constructions of feminity that come from the media. I am interested in popular myths and in demythologizing them.” In Sports Play, this connection seems amplified,confrontational and playful- and it’s this confidence which will surely make this production an urgent contemporary social critique as well as bring to the UK an essential figure of the contemporary cultural canon.

Sports Play is produced by Just a Must. It is playing at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff between 9th and 20th July, at Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter between 23-24th July and at Chelsea Theatre in London between 30th July – 4th August. The play is published by Oberon Books and translated by Penny Black.


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Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

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