Director Michal Vajdička and dramatic adviser Daniel Majling have staged a production of The Death of Stalin at Dejvice Theatre. It is a wicked farce based on a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin which, in turn, was inspired by the historic power struggle that ensued after Stalin’s death in 1953. On stage, a sometimes truly absurd mummery transpires conducted by an orphaned Kremlin politburo, which is portrayed by the ensemble of actors with zest and ingenuity in a seamless performance. It is led by the incredibly expressive Jaroslav Plesl as Nikita Khrushchev.

Perhaps the most chilling thing about it all is that, however much it uses monstrous hyperbole, this wild and at times very absurd comedy pretty much truthfully depicts what actually happened. After Stalin’s death, the Kremlin ruling elite were at each other’s throats in an effort to eliminate one another, with Khrushchev eventually clinching the victory. It was quite similar after Brezhnev’s death, when only the third successor, Gorbachev, finally managed to hold on to power. What comes across as overly exaggerated fiction are actually the bare facts, for example, after Stalin had a stroke, everyone around him was so terrified they dared not even call a doctor – after all they were thin on the ground, Stalin had already liquidated most of them at previous occasions.
The strength of the text lies in the thoughtful layering of absurd situations which show many aspects of the horrible fear of the dictator, starting with the scene in the concert hall, where the horror-stricken director (Vladimír Polívka) performs incredible stunts in order to comply with Stalin’s wish to obtain a sound recording of a musical performance that has just ended. Michal Vajdička not only accentuates these various manifestations of fear, but also portrays the Kremlin crew as a set of primitive gangsters, criminals who abuse their power, but, when it comes down to it, are just pathetic cowards who, as such, feverishly ruminate on how to hold on to the reins, which is partly why the direction purposefully maintains an atmosphere of chaos, constant uncertainty and latent twists and turns. After all, the politician as a gangster is an old theme that even Bertolt Brecht played with. 

Pointed caricatures in an extreme comedy

Set designer Pavol Andraško skillfully “stuffed” the small stage of the Dejvice Theatre with wooden panelling that evokes the pomp of the governmental fortresses of the time. Simultaneously, this has created a space that seems to have no escape routes, or has them, but not everyone knows them, which works repeatedly in the production. The conference room turns into a backstage area of the hall where Stalin’s funeral takes place, the audience sees the reverse of his large portrait, and the Marshal’s eye can then be used to spy on what is happening at the catafalque.
Katarína Hollá dressed this gang of Kremlin comedians in horrible high-waisted trousers and ill-fitting jackets and overcoats. They look witless and they keep on drinking. It's a truly ridiculous menagerie: Khrushchev (Jaroslav Plesl) with the remnants of his hair and a sneering expression; Beria (Tomáš Jeřábek), slimy and cocky till the very end; Molotov (Pavel Šimčík), a wilful wimp who is excised from the gulag list at the last minute but still doesn’t understand anything, or rather doesn’t even want to; Malenkov (Lukáš Příkazký), a smug oaf who puts on a white field marshal’s uniform right away but it doesn’t help him much and General Zhukov (Petr Vršek), a down-and-out drunk who announces himself by the jingle bell-like ringing of his medals, but the others are afraid of him because, unlike them, he doesn’t cower in terror.
And then the ladies: Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Klára Melíšková), yet another alcoholic wreck on the brink of insanity, who is barely able to say a comprehensible word (which, unfortunately, Melíšková overplays a bit more than is necessary). However, her performance with the fur around her neck, which comes alive in her sick mind and wants to strangle her, is absolutely brilliant. She throws the boa at Khrushchev, who beats it to death against the wall. And then there’s the mysterious and seductive virtuoso Maria (Anna Fialová), who has actually set the whole thing off.
From the start Vajdička stages an extreme comedy and the characters are also conceived as pointed caricatures, ridiculous and embarrassing. They are tragic clowns, they act and look like that even with their alcoholic noses, and their spinelessness, arrogance and obtuseness which assuredly leads them to betrayal and manipulation. But this sarcastic mockery is also greatly entertaining, and the verbal sabre rattling comes off wonderfully in this theatrical adaptation, helped along by brisk pacing and vigorous commitment. The sarcastic and vulgar remarks are apt and complete the picture of primitives in power, who, in the end, are nothing more than ridiculous puppets perpetrating evil. Being able to laugh at such bastards is very liberating. /.../

When Khruschev bangs his shoe on the table

It’s a display of situational jokes and comedic ingenuity, such as when Lukas Příkazky’s Malenkov insists that Beria can’t pin a thing on him because he was somewhere else from the others when Beria threatened them. In the final section of the play Khrushchev’s intrigues escalate. A very nice touch is when he bangs his shoe on the table – an allusion to the refined behaviour he once displayed at the UN. Plesl alternates hysterical fits with icy calm and insidious ingratiating talk, then screams like a madman again. We Lost Stalin in Dejvice showcases the criminal gang from the Kremlin of yesteryear, but this political satire has a more general validity, and it inevitably prompts every viewer to wonder what it looks like in the Kremlin today and what it will look like the next time when the present Politburo changes. And, what’s more, from a global perspective, it’s not just the Kremlin we’re dealing with...

Jana Machalická, Lidové noviny