Welcome to the tavern: an empty space, two chairs, a table, a bucket, a crate of Czech beer. Actors Jindřiška Křivánková and Miřenka Čechová enter bearing netted bags containing a bottle of pilsner, a glass beer stein, and the huge, oversized head masks designed by sculptor Paulina Skavova. They connect with their audience in the way only clowns can: wry, bemused, yet eternally curious. They enact a series of short skits, gradually shuffling upstage before donning their masks solemnly; enormous, statuesque, reverend and ridiculous objects that give Křivánková and Čechová the air of being at once belligerent and bathetic. And then the drinking begins.
All in all, the pair consume between ten and fifteen bottles of beer each by the end of the performance. It starts off almost as a dare: Křivánková emerging, siren-like, from behind her mask to down a frothy lager; but by the time her character – a version of the brewer in Václav Havel’s 1975 play The Audience – excuses himself to relieve his bladder, a power play has begun between her/him and Čechová’s version of Vaněk, in turn an alter ego of Havel himself. What began as a drinking game quickly becomes more like chess, a political wrangling over the value of dissident writing under a repressive communist regime, with Křivánková and Čechová exchanging roles each time one of them goes to take a leak.
In Havel’s play, the brewer finally accuses Vaněk of treason against the state and, in an absurd coup d’état, attempts to persuade him to inform upon himself. But in Antiwords, the narrative landscape is much less densely populated, the brewer’s accusations looping hysterically on recorded voiceovers as his masked counterpart goads the Vaněk figure with slapstick jabs and gesticulations. The brewer’s repeated cry of ‘Have a beer!’ might have started out as a ploy to inebriate his guest, but Vaněk/Havel reveals next to nothing about the nature of his writing, instead breaking forth into impromptu boogies, with the sound of Czech pop reverberating round the auditorium.
Though much of the political undercurrent of the piece may be missed in performance, Spitfire leave a series of lingering impressions with their audience, a compelling set of questions that forces us to evaluate the nature of artistic freedom in the face of censorship, and the ways in which the state can be subverted by self-expression. Hence the drinking. But the vast consumption of alcohol on stage stands not only as a means of escape from repression, a hedonistic salute to Dionysian abandon, but also as its antithesis, an addiction licenced by the state, and employed on behalf of spies like the brewer to force confessions out of dissidents like Havel. From the first angle, this is boozing at its best, wholly liberated and culturally a million miles away from the binge culture of Britain; but it’s also a reminder of the vulnerability of speech in the absence of inhibitions, and of the danger of voicing words deemed anti by the powers that be.