Elfriede Jelinek’s postmodern piece Sports Play hits London just in time to comment on the Olympics and the sporting world, be it in a fragmentary and peculiar fashion. It’s great to see this oft-neglected Austrian writer’s work in the UK, and it stands as another great example that there’s much theatre in the wider world that we would do well to see more of. At Chelsea Theatre.
Like much of Jelinek’s work, Sports Play eschews plot in favour of a series of closed scenes, moments that highlight our struggle with sporting prowess and achievement through her vibrant and burbling language. It’s rife with linguistic and comic trickery which flows endlessly from the performers. In this production, seven voices (including a representation of the author’s own) speak of the search for perfection and excellence, drawing conclusions that remove sport from the realm of entertainment and ask more searching questions – often placed within a tableau or shorter movement piece.
Jelinek famously has no compunctions about her text being chopped and changed to befit the given production (something many of our European colleagues are much happier to do than British writers), and Vanda Butkovic has found her own way into the text by placing her performers onstage with a huge pile of fluff – I don’t know quite what it was, but it variously became a bed, a sofa and a representation of muscles when stuffed down a shirt. It’s a wonderful device, useful in many ways, and adds a wonderful extra dimension to a piece that can drag a little – Jelinek’s voice is fascinating, but relentless, and after two hours I found myself struggling to take every word in.
However, over its course there was much to be seen – each performer gets their moment to shine, although it’s their ensemble work that defines what makes the piece such a success, with the energy being seamlessly picked up and passed along. Moments such as Nina Hatchwell’s over-analysed fitness video, Delia Remy’s mother lamenting her sports-playing son, Tom Lyall and Matt Ray-Brown’s businessmen using sport as an analogy for business, and Giorgio Spiegelfeld’s monologue in praise of body-builders (Arnold Schwarzenegger in particular) merge together into a cohesive whole; a quirky, funny and charged look into sport from the outside that, somehow, manages to define it in terms of gender, sex, poetry, commerce, family and death. This is accessible even to those with no interest in sports at all, and I firmly place myself in that camp!
It’s not easy watching, with much of the language hard to take in and the piece running a little long, but this is the kind of European drama that manages to be more interesting and incisive than the classic English ‘well made play’ – a format we’re still obsessed with, as Jelinek implies in a recent interview and I firmly believe. There’s a wealth of international theatre that a British audience will never see because too many production companies don’t dare risk something so postmodern and risqué on the highly commercialised British theatre circuit, and Just a Must deserve much credit for doing so. We are now seeing playwrights like Howard Barker, who was always more respected outside this country than in it, being performed at the National Theatre, so maybe this is the beginning of a new wave of theatrical internationalism – if the productions are all of this quality, and bring such understanding to the sometimes impenetrable texts, I can’t wait.
In the meantime, this piece is only on for a short time, and I really do suggest you see it. It’s unlike much of the theatre you’ll see in this country, and is also excellently performed and staged. It does go on a little, but apart from that it’s a lovely look at the sports world from an outside eye, asking the questions the TV presenters can’t within the current Olympics coverage. If the packed opening night was anything to go by, this will be popular – go and see it!