Culture

 

Play about two extraordinary Shoah survivors from Prague enjoys two months’ run at off-Broadway theatre

 
photo:  (radio.cz)
 

This summer, an off-Broadway theatre in New York put on a play about the actress Hana Pravda and the athlete Miloš Dobrý, two extraordinary Czech Jews living in Prague before WWII. The documentary drama “The Good and the True”, which has run for two months, follows the life of the protagonists who however never met in real life. Originally written and directed by Daniel Hrbek for Prague’s Švandovo Theatre, the intimate play conveys the courage and determination which helped the two people survive the horrors of Terezín and Auschwitz.

 
 

As the play’s run is coming to a close, I caught up with the director Daniel Hrbek who had just returned from New York. I asked him how he found out about Hana Pravda and Miloš Dobrý:

“I met Hana Pravda in London in 2005 after I found out that she worked in this theatre, in Švandovo divadlo. Her story was amazing and it immediately crossed my mind that it could be staged, but somehow I forgot about it.

And then I came across an interview with Miloš Dobrý and the story was really touching and moving. It mentioned a village in the Czech Republic, called Potštejn, where Miloš spent his childhood.

And I realized that Hana Pravda also mentioned this village. So I went back to her story and I found out there were lots of similarities. And that’s why we started, together with Lucie Kolouchová, to compile the story.”

Although they didn’t know each other, Hana Pravda and Miloš Dobrý definitely shared a sense of optimism and resilience, something that helped them survive the Holocaust as well as the post-war injustice. Daniel Hrbek says this was something that interested him more than their actual stories.

“Miloš Dobrý survived because of his way of thinking. He was a footballer and sportsman and as he said this kind of thinking, to think fast and act fast, was what saved his life. So his story is very dramatic but at the same time very funny. He was a really funny man.”

After the war, Miloš Dobrý became a president of the coutnry’s rugby union while Hana Pravda returned to Švandovo theatre where she met her future husband, British actor George Pravda. After the communist takeover of 1948, they decided to leave, first for Paris and then for Australia where they established the very first repertory theatre in Sydney.

“When the famous British actor John Gielgud saw their production, he told them to come to London. So they moved there and Hana started directing in London, in West End, and continued to do so for the rest of her life.

"George Pravda was acting in Oldwick, but he also appeared in one of the James Bond movies. So both of them were successful actors, yet nobody knew about it here. They were very successful and very brave and yet they were almost forgotten. So that was also a reason why I wanted to talk about them.”

Unfortunately, Hana Pravda did not live to the opening of the play, at Švandovo Theatre in October 2010. But her granddaughter Isobel, who also happens to be an actress, saw it and immediately came up with the idea to stage it in England.

The English version was co-produced and translated by Brian Daniels, artistic director of the New End Theatre in London. The title, The Good and the True, refers to the names of the two main characters: Dobrý is the Czech word for “good”, while Pravda means “true”.

After its opening in London in 2013, the play went on tour around England and Belgium, with Sam Reichlin and Isobel Pravda in the leading roles. I asked Isobel Pravda what it was like to portray her own grandmother and whether being so close to her actually helped her on stage:

“It is a wonderful experience. I knew her very well. Everything I am performing on the stage is directly from her. So either it was directly from her diary, which she wrote in 1945 on the death march, or it was directly from the interview she did with Daniel Hrbek in 2005. So I am speaking her words, delivering her story.”

“I have to approach it like any part. I have to look at motivations, situations, how I could relate to it myself. Although these were her words, it is not all of her. It is a script, which has to work on stage.

“So I have to work it technically, as an actor, and go through the same processes that I always do with any character. However, because I knew her, there is something that sits deeper in a connection which you would not get with another partner.”

Despite their close relationship, Isobel Pravda says her grandmother would never tell her about the horrors she experienced in Terezín and Auschwitz and only chose to talk about the good things:

“She told me about the theatre in Terezín, which meant so much to her. And she said that when they didn’t have enough to eat, in what was the worst of times, art was the bread of survival. It gave her the spirit and the capacity to keep on and not give up.

“And she also talked about funny things that happened to her. She had a great sense of humour. Even in Auschwitz she would find the amusing side and that also enabled her to keep her spirits up. And I thought it was a wonderful insight to how people deal with situations.

“And she also told me about kindnesses that people showed her. There was a German woman that hid them in her house, there was a Polish SS guard that let them escape, there were kindnesses from Czechs, from Russians, from Germans, from Jews, non-Jews and she talked about humanity she encountered.”

After touring Europe, The Good and the True was featured at APAP, an international performing arts festival in New York, which was a gateway to the off-Broadway venue where The Good and the True has been on from mid-July to the end of September.

“It is unusual to play in the United States when you only have played in Europe. So we were very lucky. It is impossible to go with a play to New York without any history of touring and success. Usually, you have to start in Chicago or Denver, somewhere in the United States, and only then you can move with the production to New York. So I still can’t believe it.”

The Good and the True has received largely positive reviews from such prominent publications as the New York Times and the New Yorker. Director Daniel Hrbek says the topic of Holocaust definitely resonated with New York audiences:

“I think that part of the success is that the theatre which invited us has a very good reputation and they often stage plays with Jewish themes. There is an audience which is used to going to these plays. New York has one of the biggest Jewish communities in the world so I guess it is the right place to stage this production.”

Daniel Hrbek says the play is now set for staging across the United States although details of the planned tour are yet to be confirmed. Meanwhile, the original Czech version of the play, Shoah, can still be seen at Švandovo Theatre in Prague.

 
Author: Český rozhlas Radio Praha
 
Added: 30.09.2014
 
 
 

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