I am ashamed to admit that other than through the film The Pianist which is based on one of her novels, this was my first encounter with Elfriede Jelinek’s work. This is shaming because Jelinek is a Noble Prize winning, feminist novelist and playwright and at least one of her plays was already available in translation in 1994 (in Plays by Women Vol. 10 edited by Annie Casteldine). It is even more shaming because Jelinek’s plays are actually studied in the Department where I work on courses taught by my colleague Karen Juers-Munby. Karen also contributed to Penny Black’s translation of Sportsplay and acted as dramaturge on this its British premiere, directed by Vanda Butkovic.
From talking with Karen, I did know in advance of seeing the show that rather than ‘plays’ Jelinek writes ‘performance texts’ allowing great freedom to the director/ company to interpret them and to render them theatrical. This style of work can be challenging for both producers and audiences and, in this instance, these formal qualities go hand in hand with a political stance that in her native Austria has made Jelinek a highly controversial figure.
Sportsplay was first produced in Austria in 1998 and was originally five hours long. Its translation and staging in a two-hour version in Britain in summer 2012 classifies it as one of a number of artistic productions not part of the official ‘Cultural Olympiad’ seeking to provide some counter balance to the official and media discourses around the London Games.
At the start of Just a Must’s production the stage is dominated by an enormous white ‘mountain’ (I’d guess at least 10 foot tall) shaped into a peak. This is made up of a fluffy white substance that someone told me afterwards is used to stuff teddy bears. The image of eviscerated soft toys this suggests is fairly in keeping with the piece.
The show opens with a recording of a woman speaking in German playing over the entrance of a female performer who dons a wig to achieve a striking resemblance to photos of Jelinek. For the duration of the show she plays the role of ‘the author’, or rather this particular author. The rest of the cast consists of two women and three men who sometimes function as a ‘chorus’, engaging in impressive vocal gymnastics in their delivery. They also take on and discard ‘personas’; the mother, the son, the capitalist(s), the beautiful young woman, the wife and memorably a wannabe Arnold Schwarzenegger (who is originally from Austria). These personas are expressed through or in connection to sporting activities (football, tennis, golf ‘dancercise’, swimming, weight lifting) represented with varying degrees of physicality.
Much of the time the Jelinek figure watches from the side but she also makes speeches, is the target of speeches, intervenes in and occasionally takes part in the action. This reflects a play that sometimes seems like the embodiment of a debate this character is having with herself, sometimes one she is having with absent critics, sometimes with the audience. Equally, the text moves from the highly personal and the specific, embracing stories of her/Jelinek’s(?) mother and father and her relationships with them, to broader socio-political issues. Her first speech sets up a number of ‘themes’ and interweaving metaphors that reoccur and are developed throughout the show; a river running with blood; this river being rebuilt and ‘restored’; untold numbers of uneasy, restless dead; sport as war; the body as machine. The language is spoken by the cast as if it is poetry but it is only very occasionally ‘beautiful’. Instead, while there is often a dry wit, it is frequently banal, repetitive, everyday. Nevertheless, it is made distinctive through the way fragments and phrases are pasted together by means of association and ‘jump cuts’ rather than linear transitions, so that ‘sense’ constantly emerges and dissolves. This fluidity is mirrored in the performers’ skilful manipulation of the malleable white material that makes up the ‘mound’ in the opening sequence. Initially this is spread across the stage in a rolling, forward movement created by the partially hidden bodies of the cast, so as to swamp ‘the author’. Thereafter it is constantly moved about to create different shapes and spaces, suggesting snow, clouds, foaming water or bodily fluids, and the performers swim in it, emerge from it, sink into it, drown or are buried by it and resurrected .
Yet in contrast to these tropes of fluidity the text often seems keen to set up polarised oppositions; between ‘thinkers’ and sportspersons; mind and body; mothers and sons (and mothers and daughters); men and women and between the ‘author’ and more or less everybody else. As a result, the ‘feminism’ in this work sometimes appears to be posited in terms of an old fashioned ‘sex war’. However, on the restlessly shifting ground of this show overall, these polarisations cannot hold, at least in ‘simple’ terms. If there appears to be sympathy with ‘the mother’ appalled at the loss of her son to sport/war, she is not only represented as clinging and controlling (smothering even) but held to account for colluding with the systems that prepare him for this role. If misogynistic attitudes that define women as hysterics and of speaking too much, (if they speak at all) are dissected, so are female investments in a femininity supported by capitalism and disseminated by the media. In short, it is evident from this play/ production exactly why Jelinek is controversial. This is a work that refuses to allow the spectator, feminist or otherwise, to appropriate it to any habitual or comfortable positions in a way that is not always easy to assimilate or pleasurable. Underlining by implication the lessons of twentieth-century European history, it potentially offers itself as an antidote to the sort of supposedly ‘harmless’ or ‘friendly’ nationalism that is often a feature of sport and so much in evidence in the 2012 Olympics. Above all, however, at least as interpreted by Just a Must, it insists on the importance of uncompromising and unflinchingly oppositional voices in the context of contemporary politics, even as it touches on the various ways (violent and non violent) in which such voices are silenced. As such, once I had a chance to absorb it, I wondered about stories I heard of the ‘original production’ of Sportsplay meeting with a standing ovation and at ‘our’ (this audience’s) warm reception. My instinct is that ‘the author’/Jelinek might have preferred us to be shouting back at the stage and (verbally) brawling with each other in the bar afterwards. Such behaviour seems to me one of the few reliable signs of the ‘success’ of a political work, which if it cannot necessarily provoke us into thinking ‘otherwise’, might at least provoke/irritate us out of some well worn attitudes.