Shared Moments in Rendezvous in Bratislava
Part of the magic of live theatre lies in the sharing of experiences. For a couple of hours, audience and performers are united in one space to share stories, music and emotion. On arrival at the Exeter Phoenix Voo-doo Lounge to see Rendezvous in Bratislava, we were welcomed by a woman dressed as a waitress, carrying a tray and speaking rapidly at us in very chirpy Slovak. She offered us a shot of Borovicka (a spirit made from juniper berries) each, which we clinked and drank with surprised glee. A nice bev is of course another thing that is shared at the theatre, and this began our evening which was to be full of shared experiences.
The woman later introduced herself as Miriam Sherwood and this was a cabaret created by her and her grandfather, affectionately known as Laco. The slight twist was that Miriam’s grandfather died 36 years ago and the two never actually met. Right from the offset, I was invested in her retelling of her grandfather’s life that seemed to be an attempt for her to share Laco’s life – something she was never actually part of – with him. Miriam describes Laco’s life largely based on his 5 autobiographies, however the 500 cabarets he wrote in his lifetime were the central concept for the exciting variety of comedy, music and theatrics that comprised the performance. Perhaps a piece of theatre where shared experience becomes so central gave Miriam a platform to explore a concept of interest and passion for both her and her grandfather: the blurring of boundaries between performers and audience.
It was moving to hear that this idea, that had been the focus of Miriam’s 12,000-word dissertation, Laco also described as being what drew him to cabaret. Rendezvous in Bratislava tells the story of Laco’s struggles as a Jewish Slovak during the Nazi occupation, his involvement with the Communist party and eventually him being all but shoved out of the country. However, it did this through the diminishing of distance between the audience and performers. Early on, Miriam called upon the audience, asking if anyone knew any Slovak and could come onstage to help her and her two musical maestros with a dance sequence. Realisation dawned that it was slightly too convenient that there were three Slovaks in the audience with a natural talent for playing violin, flute and clarinet. Already the audience has been usurped by performers; the performer/audience boundary had been blurred. Before we knew it, Miriam had the whole audience partaking in a recreation of one of her grandparents’ renowned dinner parties of the 1950s, mingling in the ‘lounge’ (which was also the stage) and sipping prosecco with the cast.
The stage took on a domestic, comfortable feel with sofas surrounding a large table that was centre-stage. A band area with electric piano, synths and space for the Slovak musicians occupied the left-hand-side and microphones and a projector were also made use of, adding a theatrical dimension to the homely space, perhaps reflecting the personal colliding with public performance for Miriam. We were seated cabaret-lounge-style around tables, our programmes bearing the appearance of menus. However, through both us and the performers moving between stage and audience, as well as the performers using their real names and slipping in and out of roles, the theatre space became something shared and intimate.
The Slovak we were greeted with at the start allowed us to share Miriam’s dislocation from her grandad, trying to connect with him through his autobiographies that were written in a difficult and out-dated form of Slovak. Although Miriam slipped into English after introducing herself in Slovak, with a translation from her fellow performer, the many different mediums and forms of language then explored suggested a continued search for a valid way of communicating with him. Fragments of Laco’s cabarets, comedies and autobiographies were amalgamated with elements added by Miriam, such as voice recordings of and about Laco, dance and changes in costume or appearance, and the varied and well-orchestrated instrumental and vocal music composed by performers Thom Andrewes and Will Gardner.
It seems Miriam does find a shared language. It isn’t Slovak, it’s something that we all as audience and performers shared throughout the evening. It is also what brought Laco and Miriam’s grandmother, Agi, together in a time of despair for their people and their culture. During a period where anti-Semitism was reaching its peak in Slovakia, Laco and Agi fell in love, accused of being happy and laughing while the world around them was falling apart. However, the success of Laco’s comedic cabarets rescued him from being sent to a concentration camp, the need for his radio writing allowing him to survive. This laughter followed Laco’s story, but also reverberated throughout the theatre, as members of the audience and cast read out just a few of thousands of Laco’s jokes, carefully typed out on A6 paper to imitate those left scattered around his apartment.
The show was brought to an end with all of the performers and audience joining Miriam in singing Will Gardner’s joyous reimagining of a song written by Laco: “Can you imagine a world where we just need laughter to set us free?” Although as an audience we shared many moments throughout the evening, this statement, shared with Miriam and with all of us, from beyond the grave by her grandfather, seemed to express a deeply positive and moving sentiment. There is something intimate and truly freeing about sharing a good laugh.