The Brno City Theatre has launched the Czech premiere of the musical “Matilda” based on the famous book of the same name by Roald Dahl, one of the world’s best-selling authors. Directed by Petr Gazdík, the family show aspires to be a spectacle for the auditorium for all ages. On stage, however, it is the children who win in this demanding production, led by the lead actress Maruška Juráčková. Her performance inspires respect beyond the quantity of text, the quality of her singing, and her command of movement. To be fair, however, the children’s roles are alternated three times, and these performers have undergone the same training.
The children in the Brno musical Matilda function neither as an irresistible adhesive aimed towards the audience’s feelings, nor as automatic emotion grabbers for the defenceless viewers. The company of schoolchildren here is really an even and legitimate pendant for the performing adults. In this proportion and balance between big and small is where I see one of the greatest charms of a three-hour title that works magic by other means as well. Without such skilled children, Brno's “Matilda” would simply be a sugar-coated theatre in which the little ones are just cute little cotton candy or a sweet addition to the show in which they perform. It would be a production in which the kids would irresistibly hop around on stage but have no say in the serious theatre of the big ones, simply functioning as decoration whose cuteness could mask or patch up holes in the libretto and direction. Gazdík’s production admirably emancipates the child actors in the organisation of the theatrical action, relying on their natural energy and not forcing them into adorable but artificial antics. It should be pointed out that Dahl’s story and Dennis Kelly’s script are already devoid of sentimentality, but they can evoke strong emotions and do not draw the audience in via emotional blackmail.
Before the audience unfolds the story of Matilda, who is extremely talented and intelligent despite her problematic family background. In addition, she has the unusual magical gift of telekinesis, able to move an object with her thoughts. Finally, she's a little girl with special powers who decides to stand up to everyone who is making her life hell – especially the cruel headmistress Trunchbull and her heartless parents. There was a popular film adaptation of this imaginative story, the one from the 1990s, and more recently, Netflix has won back audiences with a musical adaptation. Matilda is now playing in Brno in its Central European theatrical premiere.
Theatre people know well that in the final form, investments of various kinds are worthwhile. Before I evaluate the visuals and the actual execution of the piece, I'd like to point out the large audition: out of three hundred children, the producers selected twenty-seven for nine roles, each with three alternations. The children then went on to attend a ten-month theatre school with the actors who arranged dance, singing, and acting lessons for them. And it definitely shows in the result, as the synergy between the performers' two age groups simply works here.
Gazdík underlines the same themes on stage as in the book: even if you are born into a bad and dysfunctional family, you have to face the obstacles; reading and education is a functional defence against the stupidity and malice of your environment; cruelty overcomes kindness and compassion; and children’s honesty, directness, sincerity, and effort win over the malice and limitations of adults.
The Brno production is also, of course, an expected narrative show, but it is not didactic, although it mainly strives to entertain and dazzle. The colourful set by Petr Hloušek, who has surrounded the stage with a labyrinth of a huge library with many shelves and windows, serves this purpose. And just like there are many crooked things and people in Matilda’s story, you won’t find a single right angle here. The set seems to lurch around the perimeter of the playing area, with plenty of room in the middle for spectacular choral numbers and choreography. It's these children’s numbers that Carli Rebecca Jefferson has choreographed to extraordinary effect and efficiency, and the mass performances by the schoolchildren are a great asset to the production. To this can also be added a really brisk and lively musical staging in which, for example, Matilda's long and demanding singing piece inspires admiration among the younger and respect among the older audience. This time the musicians are seated in a covered orchestra pit, the music rolling along at precise tempos under the baton of Dan Kalousek, and the performers deliver it to the audience without a hitch. Eliška Lupačová Ondráčková’s costumes are based on British school uniforms, with the adults’ hyperbole underlining their characters. Matilda’s superficial and ordinarily prim mother is garishly and defiantly dressed as if from a carousel, much like her con-artist father with his Elvis shirt. The stage is dominated by the overbearing teacher Trunchbull, with her oversized breasts and silhouette of a muscular manwoman; although this former hammer-throwing athlete bears the Olympic rings on her chest, the noble Olympic ideals are wasted on her, as she views children as simply worthless worms.
As has already been said, the small ones are equal partners with the big ones. Marie Juráčková as Matilda offers a truly authentic and convincing portrayal of a fearless little girl who is not afraid of anger or unkindness in her family and school. According to the original cast, the nasty Trunchbull lady is also played here by a man. Milan Němec manages to pull off this despotic bitch character very well, as does the super-sweet Miss Honey played by Kristýna Daňhelová. The superficial mother as Ivana Vankova and her husband Jiří Ressler are prescriptive parents we love to hate. Gazdík and his actors do indulge in a few obligatory theatre-prescribed tricks (spinning a pupil by her braids and throwing her into space, telekinetically sliding a cup across a table), but Brno’s Matilda is mainly a tribute to the theatre and the children in it. The production balances the message, the fun, and the irresistibility of the small actors in its sometimes slightly overwrought vocabulary (for those who enjoy Czech linguistic delectables). It is an enjoyable short-lived romp as well as a showcase for a sturdy, thoughtful, and crafted musical production and work with school-age actors.
Municipal Theatre Brno
Dennis Kelly – Tim Minchin
a musical based on the book by Roald Dahl
Translated and directed by Petr Gazdík
Musical staging and conductors Dan Kalousek, Ema Mikešková
Stage by Petr Hloušek
Costumes by Eliška Lupačová Ondráčková
Choreography by Carli Rebecca Jefferson
Choirmaster for adults: Dan Kalousek, Karel Škarka
Choirmaster for children: Jana Suchomelová
Trick effects by Jan Vaidiš
Linguistic cooperation: Kateřina Vižďová
Production by Zdeněk Helbich
Dramaturgy by Klára Latzková
Written from the first premiere on 21 January 2023