'Little Otik' is topping the bill at the National Theatre of Scotland this season. The play is an adaptation of Czech animator Jan Švankmajer’s film ‘Otesánek’, which is in turn an adaptation of a Czech fairytale. The story? A childless couple carve a baby out of a tree stump, only to look on in horror as it starts to develop an appetite for human flesh. The Scottish theatre’s choice sparked controversy when it was unveiled earlier in the year. On the eve of the play’s final performance, I asked director Matthew Lenton what had attracted him to the tale of Little Otik:
“In the film, there was a story that I found really exciting to do with the journey that the parents go on, and the baby, and the kind of hole that they begin to dig themselves when this fantasy, what starts off as a lie, begins to become reality. So, that was really the starting point for me. I think a lot of people are really devoted to Švankmajer and his work, and I am not a Švankmajer aficionado. And so for me, as with most of the things that we start, the most important thing was to find the story.”
This story, 'Otesánek', is an old Czech fairytale. Did you find in it things that reminded you of old Scottish fairytales, or old Anglo-Saxon fairytales?
“Not at all. I didn’t think about that at all. The film uses the fairytale as a starting point and updates and modernizes that fairytale. It interprets it for a modern age. And I think what we have tried to do is the same thing, but with the film. But, the fairytale aspect really didn’t come into it for me, I didn’t think about it, and I didn’t want to create something that felt like a fairytale – I wanted to create something that felt real. Although, having said that, obviously it’s not a realistic story, but it inhabits a space that is somewhere between reality and absurdity.”
This is the headliner in the National Theatre of Scotland’s season. And when that was announced, a lot of critics responded with bafflement and called it a very controversial choice. Were you meaning to be controversial when you made this choice?
“No, I think it isn’t controversial choice for me, and it isn’t a controversial choice for the National Theatre of Scotland, nor is it a controversial choice for modern audiences who are interested in watching a new kind of theatre. I think it is only a controversial choice for critics because, broadly speaking, they are fairly dull, and have fairly limited imaginations, and tend to react to something like that if it is not yet another production of Shakespeare or yet another production of a classic.
“Audiences who have seen the show have responded amazingly to it. It’s gone down a storm in Scotland and we’re just in Wales at the moment where it opens tonight in Cardiff. And the reviews have been good as well. But that is not my main concern, my main concern is making a good work of art, that both challenges and entertains audiences, and I think that this is what this show does.”
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