Review: Deaf Empire

A new play tries to shed light on the often difficult life of Bedřich Smetana

Last year, the Prague Shakespeare Company went through the entire canon of the Bard's works. This year, the company will be focusing a bit more on new works and plays by other authors, as well as reprising some of the more successful of last year's efforts.

The new play Deaf Empire just had its world premiere at divadlo Kolowrat. There are two more shows left on March 9 and 10. The play by local author Stephan Delbos looks at the career of Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, who like Beethoven became deaf in his later years but continued to work.

Gregory Gudgeon is back as Smetana. He has appeared in productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company and other troupes in Britain and was in the Elton John-Tim Rice musical The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre in London. He was also in several Prague Shakespeare Company productions last season.

He carries us through several decades of the composer's life, transforming from a character filled with optimism and success through his difficult later years when his health became an issue.

In the background of the events is the Czech nationalist movement. Poet Jan Neruda, played by William Valerián, pops up as one of Smetana's close friends and they discuss the issue and how it impacts on the arts. Several venues, for example, only are open the German works but not Czech ones. Velarián depicts Neruda as a bit of a rabble rouser, causing trouble in the pub.

Popping up from time to time is a pair of naysayers who bring some comic relief. PSC regular Bob Boudreaux and Russell Eastman show up as critic Rieger and critic / composer Máyr, who lambaste Smetana's work for using folk music themes and elements of Czech culture. In their top hats and fancy suits they make up mocking poems and deride such classic works as The Bartered Bride for having songs about beer. They see themselves as the protectors of real culture. The cast is rather large, and these two coming back from time to time is a helpful thread to tie scenes together.

Coming up near the end is Zdeněk Piškula as composer Adolf Čech, who conducts Smetana's later work. Piškula has appeared on the show StarDance, the local version of Dancing with the Stars, and in a number of Czech TV series as well as the film Three Brothers (Tři bratři). It is a smallish role but shows the passing of the musical baton to a new generation. He brought some personality to the character, and hopefully he will be back at PSC in a larger role.

The play covers a large period of time from 1850 to 1882. The sets are fairly minimal, so the times and places can shift quickly. Supertitles announce the changes as if they are musical movements.

But for a play about music, there is surprisingly little music in it. A few notes are played on the piano during a music lesson and some other brief pieces are hinted at. Lucie Špičková turns up near the end as an opera diva to sing some snippets of a work in progress. A short piece of The Bartered Bride is heard as well.

Overall though, the play does provide some insight into the times when a Czech cultural identity was emerging. And while people take Smetana for granted as a successful composer, the play shows that in reality his own experience was a bit different and his life was a nearly constant struggle.

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