Playwright Stuart Mentha: author of highly anticipated new play ‘False Friends’ (debuting at Prague Fringe Festival)


The 12th annual Prague Fringe Festival begins on Friday evening in the Czech capital. As always, the fest offers a wide range of theatre from all around the world. Prague-based playwright Stuart Mentha, who had success with his debut Déjà Vu last year is also back. Friday sees the premiere of his new play ‘False Friends’. He told me more about it at Czech Radio this week.

Stuart Mentha, photo: archive of Stuart MenthaStuart Mentha, photo: archive of Stuart Mentha I also asked him how he first came to the Czech Republic.

“I’ve been in Prague for almost four years and I came over because of a girl as is often the case and I ended up staying here longer than I expected. I fell in love with the city and I continue to enjoy living here. I think it’s fantastic.”

Did you also live in other parts of Europe before moving here?

“I did, I lived in Turin, Italy, where I was studying literature and art and culture for four months and then I travelled around Europe, backpacking, before settling here. I feel very comfortable here, very much European as well as Australian. My mother is Dutch, she moved to Australia when she was six, but I had that background and that definetly influenced me.”

You made your debut last year at the Prague Fringe Festival with your first play Déjà Vu, which was a big hit. One of the things that I read about the play is that you use as a departure point the ‘ordinary’. For you as a writer, do you enjoy twisting the ordinary in ways that are unexpected?

“Absolutely. What I wanted to do was create something that was very surreal and abstract that people would think was completely absurd and would think could never happen in real life. And I wanted to send a message that it was not as absurd as real life and that’s part of the twist in the play as well. These oranges... at first you think they can’t possibly have a ‘reason’ and I wanted it to be a dreamscape in which these oranges are everywhere. They come out of teapots and they come out of pockets, and so on. But then by the end of the play the audience realises just ‘why’ these oranges are there. I don’t want to give away the ending, of course.”

'Déjà Vu', photo: archive of Stuart Mentha'Déjà Vu', photo: archive of Stuart Mentha That is one of the pleasures of writing this kind of work, isn’t it? To keep the audience in the dark for a certain amount of time...

“It is. I was watching an interview with Tom Stoppard and he was saying that the skill of good playwriting is that you have a bag of information but that you leak only a little bit at a time to keep them entertained and to keep them wanting more information. That is definitely what I aspire to do as well, to trick people a little. I think people enjoy being tricked to a degree in films or theatre: people want twists and they want hidden information and it’s all about hitting the right balance in how you hide and reveal information...”

Especially since the more movies we watch, the more stories that are told, going from a linear A to B to C often just doesn’t cut it anymore...

“Absolutely. I really want to change that and I try to because I myself get very frustrated with theatre or film stories that go in that very linear fashion. So I try to change that and with Déjà VU there were actually 23 scene changes in 55 minutes, which was kind of crazy and people told me that I was crazy when I first told them the idea! But I went ahead with it anyway. The whole thing is just little bits & pieces of scenes that makes sense at the end when they have all the information. At the end, when the audience has all the pieces they can put it all together themselves and that’s what I love to do.”

Who are the characters in Déjà Vu?

'Déjà Vu', photo: archive of Stuart Mentha'Déjà Vu', photo: archive of Stuart Mentha “There’s George, he is sort of English or Australian and there are two women: Ann and Fran. Anna and Fran are both Czech and Ann is George’s wife. At the start of the play, in the first two scenes it is shown that they are a married couple but that they are having troubles. But by the third scene George meets Fran, who is adamant that she is George’s wife. Yet, George doesn’t remember anything about this and is saying to her that she’s crazy, a stalker who think he is her husband, or a figment of his imagination. From then on it gets more and more mixed up who actually is his wife and he is trying to work out whether he is having an affair and so on and of course the oranges keep popping up.”

You played the part of George: how do you enjoy acting in your own play?

“I actually get very nervous. Before the premiere of Déjà Vu the director grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me and said ‘It’s going to be okay!’. I was very nervous. But once I get on stage I find this adrenaline and it’s incredible. I have never been one for dangerous sports, rock climbing or things like that... for me the thrill is getting on stage. There is something equally scary and exciting about it.” What are specific comedic elements that you enjoy putting into your work?

“I definitely like to play with language. I feel that that is my main skill: using words, playing with words, flipping them around, creating double meanings, as all writers do. But I am also very interested in slapstick and I am trying to incorporate more physical humour as well as using more silence as well as text. That’s a big lesson for me.”

You were saying you had that case of nerves... I imagine there must be similar thoughts going through your head about whether the audience will laugh or laugh at the ‘right’ moments.

'Déjà Vu', photo: archive of Stuart Mentha'Déjà Vu', photo: archive of Stuart Mentha “That’s true. When I put on Déjà Vu that was something that I hadn’t experienced before and I remember the first show we had a really amazing audience, amazing feedback, people were really loving it and laughing at everything. They were even laughing at things I hadn’t expected them to laugh at! I wondered ‘why are they laughing?. The second night was a little bit different: they laughed at different things and so on. And sometimes you would have an audience that didn’t laugh as much but applauded louder at the end than an audience that had cracked up during the whole thing. So now I try and forget what people ‘should’ laugh at. I try and put that out of my mind.”

Your new play at this year’s Fringe Fest is called False Friends: if I just paraphrase, it is about an Australian who... moves to Prague... to be with his girlfriend... and he is soon harassed by an alcoholic grouch, a hypochondriac divorcee, and a delirious young woman, all three of them are dead and the Australian doesn’t speak a word of Czech. So that strikes me as a wacky recipe or mix right there...

“It definitely is. The play is also half in Czech, half in English and there will be surtitles for the whole play. So there are these three characters who are dead, two who are alive and two languages going on. The ghosts only speak Czech and the Australian only speaks English. They try and communicate with him to try and finish their ‘unfinished business’ and he’s trying to keep it from his girlfriend so that she doesn’t know and think that he’s crazy. That turns out to be a very different task for him.”

I really like the signature images for your work: who is the photographer?

“The photography was done by Ashe Kazanjian and she did the images for Déjà Vu also. I am really happy with the photos she did. Déjà Vu made it onto the cover of the Prague Post, which was great. The photo this year has a lot of energy and I think it sums up the show quite well.

“This new play is more of a straight comedy than Déjà Vu, which was a tragic-comedy. But it is still very dark. One of the ghosts, for example, forgets that he is dead and he keeps trying to commit suicide in various ways to finish what he started. Another character is an alcoholic and can’t drink anymore and he keeps reminding the other one that he’s dead. So there is frustration about that and when they finally meet the Australian, it’s chaotic.” (laughs)

'False Friends', photo: archive of Stuart Mentha'False Friends', photo: archive of Stuart Mentha The Prague Fringe has been around for a long time: do you think that it is one of the venues for more cutting-edge theatre in the city?

“I do. The Fringe is in its 12th year now and every year there are around 40 performers who come from all around the world to be a part of it. A lot of the shows are acclaimed that have won awards and so on. It’s just incredible. I love the festival, not only as a performer but as a an audience member. I am absolutely in love with it. The smallest venue is Kavárna 3+1, which seats around 20 people or so, and the largest is Divadlo Na Prádle which has seats for 120. There are all kinds of shows: some are more intimate and personal storytelling and there are big shows that are audiovisual productions. There is something for everyone and the calibre of the performances is fantastic.”