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Rebel without a crown

When characterising Slovak theatre director Blaho Uhlár, few theatre critics confine themselves to simple adjectives or labels. Sometimes the epithets come in odd pairs - vulgar genius, absurd revolutionary, penniless star - while at other times they reinforce each other - drunken iconoclast, touchy egotist. But the descriptions are never simple, and rarely the same.
Such ambiguity seems approporiate for the man behind Slovakia's most controversial theatre. Founded in 1991 by Uhlár and designer Miloš Karásek, Bratislava's Stoka Theatre has for ten years been a middle finger in the face of traditional stage production, and sometimes a thorn in the side of the government (especially during the former regime of Vladimír Mečiar). Like Blaho himself, Stoka has been equally praised and put down, deified and dismissed, revered and reviled.


Stoka theatre's Blaho Uhlár is on stage for the first time in the English language production of Z Diaľky
photo: Ctibor Bachratý

When characterising Slovak theatre director Blaho Uhlár, few theatre critics confine themselves to simple adjectives or labels. Sometimes the epithets come in odd pairs - vulgar genius, absurd revolutionary, penniless star - while at other times they reinforce each other - drunken iconoclast, touchy egotist. But the descriptions are never simple, and rarely the same.

Such ambiguity seems approporiate for the man behind Slovakia's most controversial theatre. Founded in 1991 by Uhlár and designer Miloš Karásek, Bratislava's Stoka Theatre has for ten years been a middle finger in the face of traditional stage production, and sometimes a thorn in the side of the government (especially during the former regime of Vladimír Mečiar). Like Blaho himself, Stoka has been equally praised and put down, deified and dismissed, revered and reviled.

The theatre's mixed reputation can partly be attributed to the tendency of audiences to form extreme opinions about art that is not easily understood. At Stoka, plot is thrown out the window, or smeared in the face of the audience like the stale wedding cake of a couple that is already divorced. If the crowd is at times confused, Stoka seems to be saying, then maybe they've caught the point; if they are disgusted, then that's good too, for Uhlár offers no tidy epiphanies, no kitschy endings. Many reviewers have compared Stoka's 16 original productions to the work of Samuel Beckett, the groundbreaking Irish playwright (Waiting for Godot) who likewise twisted reality into absurdity to deliver his message.

Although Uhlár, born in 1951 in Prešov, became interested in theatre at an early age, life as he saw it never fit with traditional stage norms. "When I was starting out I always had a problem getting young actors to express outdated themes in established plays," he says.

Uhlár began his career after graduating from the Academy of Musical Arts in Bratislava in 1973, a period when the Czechoslovak government, clamping down after the excesses of the late 1960's, had artists on a tight leash. In 1974, however, Uhlár began a 10-year stint with the Youth Theatre in Trnava, an institute that afforded him slightly more freedom than he would have enjoyed in an adult theatre.

After the revolution, Uhlar recalls, he wanted to explore new dramatic possibilities and challenge entrenched theatrical methods. He sought primarily to "liberate the creator from the dictatorship of the author," and to bring out elements in the characters of his actors rather than rely woodenly on scripts. A decade later, all productions put on by Stoka are group efforts, written in team sessions with the performers themselves.

In the theatre's most recent production, a two person show entitled Z Diaľky (From a Distance), Uhlar makes his move onto the stage after almost 30 years behind the curtain. "Every director secretly wants to be an actor," he explains. "And yes, I did get stage fright."

The show, which has its English-language debut on May 19th [see Top Pick, page 11], begins with Uhlár delivering a passionate monologue lamenting the things God never gave him. Suddenly, instead of God, a snow queen appears to torment and inflame his desires. Strange shenanigans and emotional schizophrenia ensue.

In person, Uhlar embodies and defies his work. He is more shy than one might expect, even a little jittery in a laid-back way. Nevertheless, sitting in his colourful backstage office and smoking aggressively, one can identify in the director some of the trademarks of Stoka theatre, among them sarcasm and a sly disinterest in traditional logic. His face is rarely without a slight smirk, as if he were constantly privy to a secret world of snide humour. When offering a drink to a guest he may recite a line from the English version of Z Diaľky - "We got a pub, we got whisky, we got no ice, you got ice, we'll get together" - leaving his guest to work out the relevance of the remark, if any, and wonder if Uhlár isn't having a little more private fun of his own.

Through both his work and his public pronouncements, Uhlár is known for his unflagging social criticism, an image that has never helped the shaky finances of his independent theatre. During the Mečiar years, when Uhlár couldn't, or wouldn't, keep his mouth shut, Stoka was completely cut off from government funds (although the theatre managed to survive from 1996 to 1999 when a Swiss NGO supported it)

After the 1998 elections, however, relations with government bodies warmed. Culture Minister Milan Kňažko, himself a former actor, told The Slovak Spectator on May 7 that he was "glad Stoka theatre survived the former government. It is absolutely necessary that it continues into the future."

Unfortunately, according to Uhlár, the current government still isn't doing enough to support Stoka and other independent theatres, regardless of Kňažko's good intentions. Although Uhlar rents the theatre (and its adjacent pub) from the city for practically nothing, keeping Stoka afloat remains a struggle.

As financial difficulties persist, souring reviews and rumours of discontent amongst his former troupe have made some ask whether Stoka's time has passed. Uhlar admits that there was a "romanticism and energy" immediately following the revolution that is no longer present, and that problems are inevitable among groups that work together for so long. Still, he seems unfazed by the uncertainty. "When Stoka began nobody thought we would last one year. Who knows what will happen?"

But while Stoka theatre may not be financially sound, nor universally palatable, Uhlár has managed to transform it from a novelty among Bratislava's intellectual crowd into a respected member of Slovakia's artistic community.

"In the beginning, performers from the national theatres looked down at Stoka," said Lucia Piucci, Blaho's bewitching counterpart in Z Diaľky who has been working at Stoka since its inception. "But now, when I see other actors and actresses around town, they always ask me how Stoka is doing."

The word Stoka, incidentally, means sewer. When asked why he chose this name, Uhlár smiles and explains, "because every society has them." True indeed, but not many societies can claim a Blaho Uhlár.

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