All images by Ctibor Bachratý
Aréna Theatre, Bratislava, SLOVAKIA
Script and direction: Rastislav Ballek
Dramaturgy: Saša Sarvašová
Musical dramaturgy: Ewald Danel
Music: Ivan Acher, Boaz Avni, Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Georg Benda, Max Bruch, Joseph Haydn, Georg Friedrich Händel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Romuald Twardowski
Conductor: Ewald Danel
Light design: Róbert Polák
Cast: Juraj Kukura
Slovak Chamber Orchestra led by Ewald Danel:
Ciolin: Vladimír Bereník, Iveta Blažejová, Pavel Bogacz, Martina Karnoková, Michaela Karvay, Kristína Mihaliková, contrabass: Marián Bujňák, violoncello: Andrej Gál, Katarína Kozelková, viola: Juraj Madari, Martin Petrík, Peter Zwiebel
What I Saw
A white haired white man in a white suit and red sneakers approaches a music stand. To his left is an empty orchestra, to his right, are a tarp, paint cans, and a blank canvas. With gusto and verve he begins reading passages from the Holy Bible, starting with the creation story, followed by Abraham and Isaac, Jacob wrestling the angel, the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, the Ten Commandments, and the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Throughout the telling he takes breaks to throw paint against the canvas, getting as much if not more on his pristine white suit. While the Old Testament is underscored by recordings of contemporary composer Ivan Acher (whose opera Sternenhoch was also featured in the festival), when the story segues into the New Testament he is joined by the Slovak Chamber Orchestra who perform works inspired by the New Testament by Bach, Haydn, Handel, and Mozart among others.
In Bible, presented by Bratislava’s Aréna Theatre, director and adaptor Ratislav Ballek and team have chosen some of the more exciting and dramatic pieces from that text, with performer Juraj Kukura bringing an intensity that is at turns passionate, charismatic, fierce, and empathetic. His performance emphasizes the sacrifice, heartbreak, and humor in these stories, making the Bible feel fundamentally human.
In one of his last acts Kukura takes off his jacket, spreads it on the canvas over a crucifix he has painted, and then nails the jacket to it. Is he equating himself to Jesus? Are we all Jesus? Kukura’s final gesture is to remove his microphone and recite passages from the Sermon on the Mount, including “Do unto others” and “for the measure you use it will be measured to you.” The delivery feels entirely secular, urging kindness, forgiveness, and civility to fellow humans. In re-contextualizing the Bible as a performance piece, an adventure story, a family saga, even a soap opera, the production does not exclude that it can also be a collection of stories instructing us how to live and treat one another. Some of which is good advice.
Slovak program curator Julia Rázusová sees the piece as provoking our relationship to the Bible – does it still determine who we are or is it merely a historical text? Are we free from the Bible?
Rázusová was also drawn to Bible’s unusual performance experience: a reading with accompanying orchestra and Kukura’s action painting. “This act of reading and listening is an interesting lost principle in theatre and our tradition,” she told me. “In English speaking countries storytelling has a much deeper tradition than in Slovakia.”
In a post-show discussion with Rázusová, Ballek spoke about the aesthetic and thematic goals of the production, as well as its intended impact on the audience. Kukura, who is also a painter, conceived the project “as a man’s take on the world, and his own personal exhibition.” Ballek directed Kukura to do as little as possible with the text, with the aim that the piece be seen as a reading rather than a stage play or production. Watching and listening to him was to be meditative and contemplative for the audience, who would then relate it to their own personal experiences.
Ballek chose the individual texts for their narrative strength, with the sacrifice of Isaac, the Book of Moses, and Exodus providing a linear dramatic art from Genesis to the resurrection. While allowing that the piece could have taken any number of forms, from exhibition to radio or audio performance, Ballek said that they chose the theatre in order to confront the audience with the text in a space that would not allow them the luxury to leave or turn it off. In that sense Ballek believed that they were creating “an act of violence” on the audience. What is revealed after this violence is up to them.
This forced confrontation with the Bible was one of several ways the creators sought to challenge and discomfited the audience. According to Ballek, the piece can be viewed as blasphemous from all vantage points – for theatre-goers it is deliberately non-theatrical as a reading, not to mention the sacrilege of bringing religion into the theatre space. For the religious, the project is too theatrical, humanizing and emphasizing the drama of these stories, which many deify.
About the Artist
Rastislav Ballek (1971)
studied philosophy and sociology at the Faculty of Arts of the Comenius University in Bratislava, later also graduated in theatre directing from the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. He has directed at several acclaimed theatres in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. In 2003 – 2008, he was artistic director at the Žilina City Theatre. He authored the cult original production Tiso at Aréna Theatre (Divadelná Nitra 2015) and directed Kukura (Divadelná Nitra 2012), The Holocaust (Divadelná Nitra 2013) or Rosmersholm (2013). At the Opera of the Slovak National Theatre, he directed the world premiere of Martin Burlas’ chamber opera Coma (2007). Ballek’s productions and theatrical projects regularly appear at local and international theatre festivals (Plzeň Theatre, Sterijino pozorje in Novy sad, Serbia, New Drama Bratislava, Divadelná Nitra, Eurokaz Festival in Zagreb, Expo 2000 in Hannover). Ballek is twice-nominee for Best Direction in the Dosky annual critics survey. He earned Dosky for Best Production of the Season 2004/2005 with Tiso, written for and directed at Aréna Theatre. In 2017, he received the Stano Radič Prize for Discovery of the Year at the festival Kremnické GAGY for The Economy of Good and Evil, and his production The Principles of Newspeak earned the title ‘Počin [Poučn]’ at KioSK Festival 2017 for lighting design.