Review: The Conquest of the North Pole

A second comedy play by the great but non-existent Jára Cimrman is now in English

Virtually every Czech person knows about Jára Cimrman, a writer, inventor and explorer who never actually existed but has a firm place in popular culture.

Cimrman has been a bit of a mystery to people who don't speak Czech, but now a second play attributed to him is being performed in an authorized translation at Žižkovské divadlo Járy Cimrmana (Jára Cimrman Theatre in Žižkov), the venue of the original Czech versions.

The Conquest of the North Pole played to an enthusiastic reception on its opening night. Zdeněk Svěrák, now 80 years old and one of the actual people behind Cimrman's alleged plays, said he had just two words for the new production: “Well done.” Ladislav Smoljak, the other co-author of the play, passed away in 2010.

Making Czech humor work in another language is no small task. Much of the comedy depends on word plays and misunderstandings.

“The language is very specific,” translator Emilia Machalová said. Jokes couldn't be rendered word for word, but some similar concept had to be found in English, Machalová added.

She translated the play along with Brian Stewart, who also acted and directed, and Hana Jelínková Svěráková.

One change that received a lot of attention was switching a goose from the original into a hare in the English version, as the Czech wordplay simply couldn't be replicated. Czech audience members who came with friends said they were waiting to see how that particular bit would come out. But the hare pun played to copious laughter.

The cast of The Conquest of the North Pole is virtually the same as for The Stand In, the first Cimrman play to be performed in English: Brian Caspe, Peter Hosking, Curt Matthew, Michael Pitthan and Brian Stewart.

The structure of both plays is bit unusual. The first act is a lecture or panel discussion about Cimrman and his supposed accomplishments. After an intermission, there is a more standard rendition of a play allegedly by Cimrman, who according to legend has often been encouraged to give up trying to be a playwright or writing anything at all.

The first act of The Conquest of the North Pole has a bit of visual humor and slapstick to get things going. Each of the main cast members has a go at elucidating the audience about some previously unknown aspect of the great Cimrman.

One aspect of Cimrman's work, making tableaux vivants or living paintings, is explored with the help of volunteers from the audience.

And the evening wouldn't be complete without a series of technical difficulties and minor disasters, but in the end everything works out more or less, as is typical of Czech humor. 

The second part of the evening gets us into Cimrman's play depicting a woefully ill-prepared expedition by four members of Prague winter swimming club with almost nothing they need.

There is a certain style of overacting required by these plays and the English-speaking cast hits the right mood.

While it is an ensemble piece, Brian Caspe stands out as an assistant teacher who is a perhaps a not as smart as he thinks he is. Caspe's character Václav Poustka keeps a journal of the expedition, and reads from it during the set changes. It gives you a more complete picture of the misbegotten expedition because you can imagine for yourself some of the catastrophes along the way.

Curt Matthew also gets some laughs as Varel Frištenský, who is taking the place of sled dogs. Frištenský is often at the center of misunderstandings but so sincere that it is impossible to hold him accountable.

The other main roles are a bit more straight but also have some moments. Pharmacist Vojtěch Šofr, played by Brian Stewart is the most regretful of the group. Karel Deutsch, played by Peter Hosking, leads the expedition but often in the wrong direction.

The Stand In gives a bit more background on Cimrman so if you don't know who he is it is good place to start and overall a bit more conventional.

But one can also jump right into it with The Conquest of the North Pole, which somewhat more free-form and anarchic.

A poll by public broadcaster Czech Television in 2005 to name the greatest Czech ever found Jára Cimrman quickly taking the top spot. The poll organizers changed the rules to only include real people, but were faced with so much backlash that they made a special category for fictional figures and also broadcast a documentary on Cimrman.

More Information:

Tickets for Cimrman English Theatre:

Cimrman English Theatre is a group of professional English speaking actors living in Prague.

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