On Monday and Tuesday night, January 6 and 7, you will have a last chance to see Daniel Hrbek’s poignant play “The Good and the True” at Švandovo divadlo in Smíchov.
Performed in English, the play is about actress Hana Pravda and athlete Miloš Dobrý, both Holocaust survivors. Though they never met, they followed the same path through the death camps and lived to write about it in memoirs that are both heartrending and optimistic.
Yes, optimistic. Thanks to a (sometimes black) sense of humor that stood up to the darkest of moments, they survived horrors beyond description and went on to show that happiness was possible again.
Living proof of this is British actress Isobel Pravda, Hana’s granddaughter, who plays her in the piece.
“The play would just not have any sense for me without Isobel,” says Hrbek.
It was Hana, who worked with leading European, American and Russian directors during her lifetime, who taught her granddaughter the basics of acting.
“She was able to see my passion for acting and nurture it,” Isobel recalls. “One time, she had me pretend I’d lost my dog in the park. I had to persuade imaginary strangers to help me look for him. She kept telling me, ‘You can’t act this. You have to really believe your dog is lost.’ The fact that I didn’t even own a dog at the time didn’t make it any easier.”
Hana, who lost her entire family and her beloved husband Saša Munk in the Holocaust, emigrated to England with her second husband, George Pravda, founded a family and pursued a satisfying career acting and directing.
Miloš married his beloved Zuzanka, whom he’d met in Terezin, and went on to represent Czechoslovakia in handball.
Director Daniel Hrbek says that more than half the people who come to see the play are between 16 and 25 years old – a good thing.
“We have a tendency to push out the unpleasant things,” he says. “But it’s important to keep coming back to them, over and over again, but in a way young people can accept. Those Communist teachers used to force it down our throats and it just led to shock.”
Hrbek, who is Jewish, lost several family members in the Holocaust. He says it was important for him not to “parasite on their experience.”
“I often get hives when I see the Holocaust represented in art. The reality itself was so horrible that it needs no artistic embellishment,” he says.
He produced the Czech version of the play (called Šoa) on a shoestring budget, deliberately.
“Every year Švandovo divadlo stages a few productions production for no more than 5,000 crowns, which we perform three times. Then we let the audience vote which one they like best. Šoa won and, so far, we’ve had 50 repeat performances.”
If anything, the minimalist scene – railroad tracks, a pile of old suitcases, and a few props borrowed from earlier plays – adds to the strength of the message.
“I wanted the testimonies themselves to take center stage, without a lot of distracting special effects,” Hrbek says. “My goal was to tell the story in the most authentic way … The minimalist scene and absolutely stark props ensure that nothing distracts from the style and substance of the story.”
He succeeded brilliantly. Hana and Miloš’s voices speak out clearly, without self-pity and with a lightness gained, perhaps, from having survived hell.
“Hana never lost that lightness – the ability to put things in perspective,” Isobel recalls. “Whenever I was in a deep dark depression she would tell me: ‘My dear, don’t take it all so seriously.’ What she was telling me was: ‘Life is precious – be happy.’”
Since its premiere in January 2013, “The Good and the True” has played venues all over Britain and in Europe. On January 8, Hrbek and the cast will head to New York to showcase the play in hopes of a tour of the U.S. to follow.