Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 10 May, 1999

Colin Teevan, whose muscular, cheeky adaptation of Iphigeneia At Aulis I reviewed on its Belfast opening in March, is also responsible for the more discreet pyrotechnics of this stage version of Jaroslav Hašek's novel, centring on the character of the Czech "holy fool" Švejk who finds himself caught up in the Great War. Švejk is "a certified idiot", too stupid to be duplicitous (when told to "put a sock in" a noisy cat, he does so quite literally), and a compulsive teller of banal and incomprehensible anecdotes, but his innocent openness somehow brings catastrophe upon all those around him; the most frequent victim is Lt Lukaš, the army officer who "wins" Švejk as a batman in a game of cards. From a mental hospital to the Galician front, Švejk somehow manages to pass unscathed through life whilst others are humiliated and even killed. The figure became a folk hero to a people whose national self-image is cartooned in a single line: "Tidy yourself up – we might be Czechs, but the whole world doesn't have to know."

Teevan does not attempt to impose any grand narrative structure on the material; it remains episodic and picaresque, as we follow "the good soldier" through incident after incident – he even manages to shoehorn in Hašek's personal recipe for grog. Director Dalia Ibelhauptaite gestures towards an interpretation suggesting that all of life is simply a show, a spectacle through which Švejk wanders without looking at the script, but she cannot bring herself to labour the point; the mask persistently worn by Mike Burnside (who appears as essentially the same character under a number of different names) is unexplained, the verse prologues to each act are fairly dispensable, and the design is at least as conscious of the mechanics of presenting the players as it is of any metaphysical symbolism. A broad catwalk, peppered with trapdoors, traverses the tiny Gate space between two miniature proscenium arches, so that actors can pop up in any of a number of places. However, Giles Cadle and David Benke seem to have left the audience out of their calculations: seating is uncomfortable and cramped, sightlines are appalling, and lighting frequently cannot illuminate actors without also dazzling spectators.

True to the character of Švejk, Martin Savage never does take that ridiculous expression off his face, even when being beaten up or threatened at gunpoint. Highlights among a host of cameo performances include Maitland Chandler's Doctor, Roy Smiles's homicidal Lt Dub and Sally Hawkins as a kidnapped dog. An enjoyable, if fidget-inducing and unprofound, couple of hours.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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