Incredible scenes! Prague stages design spectacular with a giant cat, tiny flats and a 16-legged theatre | Stage

Incredible scenes! Prague stages design spectacular with a giant cat, tiny flats and a 16-legged theatre | Stage

‘Hello stranger.” This cheery neon greeting, inside one of the pavilions at a former slaughterhouse, welcomes you to the UK exhibit of the Prague Quadrennial. It’s a reminder that, four years after this vast festival of performance design and scenography last took place, a few months before the Covid-19 outbreak, the arts are still beckoning audiences back and adjusting to the pandemic’s impact.

The quadrennial features dozens of multimedia installations representing productions mounted around the world during theatre’s difficult last few years. But several countries face the future too. Kathrine Sandys and Lucy Thornett, the UK exhibit’s curators, encourage visitors to contribute ideas for “a radical reinvention of ways of thinking and working”.

You enter their space through a scaffold arch with a raised curtain of hi-vis jackets: this is a construction site for post-pandemic theatre. On a table is a map of the UK, covered with notches for passersby to plant ideas on rolled-up notes. By mid-morning on the first day, the map already features several proposals and observations scrawled on these paper skyscrapers. “Strangers have taught me more than my closest friends,” reads one. “Creating with strangers opens up worlds of possibilities.”

The UK exhibit is prepared for the quadrennial.
The UK exhibit being prepared for the quadrennial. Photograph: Jakub Cervenka

This spirit of ready collaboration spreads across the 15th edition of the quadrennial, a key event for industry professionals and academics but also an informal, playful extravaganza for visitors at Holešovice market, its central hub, where secondhand stalls and shops operate as normal. This is a residential area too and the general public have a seat at the table for these backstage conversations.

That’s literally the case in Ireland’s The Next Four Years, curated by Tom Creed, which invites you to pull up a chair for tea and biscuits while watching a film made last month. On screen, sat around the same table as the viewers, are leading Irish designers discussing issues around working practices, impostor syndrome, burnout, the rise of streaming services, the legacy of all those months spent working remotely and what support can be given to artists who are retiring rather than emerging.

Sustainability, also an ethos of the UK exhibit (which sourced materials and equipment in Prague), is a key theme in the discussion. As lighting designer Sinéad Wallace says: “In the model that we work in at the moment, all the money goes into the set and the stuff. Whereas in this other model, the money goes to the people for their time. And they spend that time making things cheaper, essentially, because you can use things that already exist. It also gives people longer thinking together.”

Like the UK exhibit, Ireland’s is intended to be a laboratory. The discussion is intercut with filmed performances: Jack Phelan’s This Is Definitely Real celebrates theatre’s USP of liveness then morphs into a meditation on the threat to actors’ livelihoods posed by AI. In Rob Moloney’s Disintegration, a cellist plays and then smashes her instrument to pieces. The accompanying conversations display a similar rip-it-up approach for the industry to start again.

The student exhibition is assembled.
The student exhibition, held at Holešovice market, being assembled. Photograph: Héctor Cruz

You could spend a whole day at just one of the three halls that make up the competitive element of the quadrennial. Curator Anat Mesner’s showcase for Israel is centred around theatre created by women, presenting costume and set design elements alongside footage of the performances in which they were used. They become artworks in their own right: in a glass case representing Michal Svironi’s show Carte Blanche, a portrait stares at us, veins growing like roots in her body, spilling out through her hands in the form of thick red wool, each strand linked to a mini cardboard figure. In the video, Svironi manipulates these puppets, representing people from her youth.

Thailand’s exhibit, curated by Nattaporn Thapparat, recreates a lockdown project where audiences watched productions on a smartphone, enhanced by a shoebox set that was posted to their homes. One of the films, The Disappearance of a Dramatist, adds a political commentary to its mystery but the whole collection of mini-plays movingly evoke that time when theatre in its traditional sense was lost from our lives. The room also recreates the domestic locations where online theatre is watched, whether under the duvet or on the toilet (this one is a lurid green).

It is a festival, then, commemorating past productions and imagining future ones. But for many countries, the design they bring to the quadrennial is an artwork in itself that may also incorporate an impromptu professional performance or audience participation. Or both. Romania’s The Bridge by Adrian Damian is a walkway for two in a mirrored room of dripping water. It’s intended to highlight the way the pandemic turned personal encounters with a stranger into something “rare” (that word is the official theme for the festival). One corner of Ukraine’s Garden of Living Things, curated by Bohdan Polishchuck, has a radiator presented by scenographer Olesya Holovach. Visitors are invited to carefully drain its water into drinking cups bearing slogans such as “best dad ever”, in memory of the families forced to do so in besieged Mariupol. In a bustling pavilion of ideas it brings a solemn moment of dread and reflection.

One of the three tiny rooms in Auguste Kuneviciute’s Reconstructing Memories.
One of the three tiny rooms in Auguste Kuneviciute’s Reconstructing Memories. Photograph: Anna Benháková

At a nearby park, Eliana Monteiro’s Florestania, about the devastation of the rainforest, is a soundscape to be heard lying in hammocks made by indigenous Brazilian women. There are quiet moments, too, in the student exhibition which takes place outdoors at the market. The UK’s Q explores the great British pastime of queueing. Portugal’s The Resting Assembly is a cocoon away from the crowds, dedicated to “in-activism”. Austria’s United in Isolation brings visitors one at a time into an abandoned workspace covered in a layer of plastic. Latvian students have created a series of vertical black box-style tunnels that you poke your head into, to see a framed section of sky – the only drama being slowly shifting clouds.

Several of these works recall the great pause of lockdown, and reflect a greater need for the industry’s traditionally relentless pace to slow down. Not that theatre’s endless opportunities can’t be fun: Hungarian students have envisioned the medium as a maze of revolving doors to push your way through while Slovakia’s symbolise it as a giant sandpit that is open to all.

Across town, at Damu (the theatre faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts), Prague’s scenography students exhibit their designs for plays by Euripides (a Trojan Women quilt) and Caryl Churchill (a straw hut for Cloud Nine). A fun performance on its roof, Mi-Meme, plays with dialogue, design and drama by asking you to make your own meme by cutting up existing texts and images.

A jumble sale of living costumes … Yabba.
Spanish artist Maria Jerez is exhibiting her piece, Yabba, at the quadriennale. Photograph: Anna Benháková

At the Trade Fair Palace, a series of installations consider scale. Auguste Kuneviciute’s Reconstructing Memories is a row of three model boxes used to revisit her country’s Soviet apartment blocks in the 1980s, based on real stories which you hear through headphones. Peering into the rooms, you see tiny vases, LP covers and plants but no people (they are depicted, instead, on artworks displayed behind each box). These empty rooms come to life as you hear stories of the events they once held. Much of the effect comes from lighting: the middle room glows with the warm memory of a wedding there. The tininess of the space matches one narrator’s memory of moving from the countryside to the cramped city. There is a fragility in this scale, a sense of distance and wistfulness, of a precious time now vanished.

There are a dozen stories in Chilean artist Catalina Gato’s diorama The Giant Cat before you even get to its feline focus. (This kitty is actually a regular size, but surrounded by minuscule buildings and figurines.) On one corner of the cityscape is romantic graffiti, children chasing each other, a stranger with his head in his hands. Around the block lies a huge napping tabby cat surrounded by people in hazmat suits and a pile-up of cars. But which poses the greater danger: the slumbering animal or the mini pistols trained at it? This satirical piece evokes both horror and comedy as a pair of dogs slyly consider the spectacle from the sidelines.

Throughout the quadrennial you see imaginative approaches to exhibiting designs for costumes but Yabba by Spanish artist Maria Jerez is something else entirely. It was conceived as a piece with five performers who are cloaked beneath huge sheets of material. But it is displayed in miniature: at first sight, it’s a jumble sale of spangly costumes and pointy hats. Then the silks and sequined fabrics begin to move, as if ready to take the stage. Their breathing in and out, controlled by a mechanical whirring unseen but heard, suggests a trace of a past performance – like the props used by the theatre director in Ingmar Bergman’s After the Rehearsal.

How Things Go, performed by Felix Baumann and Sean Henderson.
How Things Go, performed by Felix Baumann and Sean Henderson. Photograph: Anna Benháková

In the same building, a wide-ranging exhibition curated by Andrew Filmer explores how theatres and performance spaces “operate as acts of assembly and sites for community”. Examples from around the world are documented, notably for that brief period when open air theatre provided a first return for the arts during the pandemic. Ave Lola’s Tent, designed by Brazil’s Ana Rosa Genari Tezza, was conceived as a blend of park and performance venue. It’s fun to duck into New Zealand’s The Drifting Room, a mobile theatre that fits an audience of eight, cleverly providing them with a view of the outside while they remain hidden from onlookers. It can be walked around town, held aloft by its inhabitants, and was taken for a stroll through Prague.

The last four years have been more precarious than ever for theatre – a time of ingenuity but also exhaustion and exasperation. A clever clown production, How Things Go, performed by Felix Baumann and Sean Henderson, finds humour in the act of collaboration as its acrobatic heroes bicker and assist each other. To an accompaniment that sounds like a power drill, they form ramps, ladders and slides from their props. They’re playing with nothing more than a handful of wooden planks and boards but, as their show and the whole festival proves, the humblest of materials can take on a life of their own.