Legal Aliens are an international company, dedicated to telling European stories at a time when others might be tempted to shy away. The result of this determination is their Translating Europe series, which opens with the English premiere of Petr Kolečko’s Poker Face.
Translated by Eva Daníčková, the play tells the story of Jana (Lara Parmiani), a hugely successful international poker player, who in her youth may or may not have got pregnant by the writer, revolutionary, and later first president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel. The resulting child was Pavlína (Daiva Dominyka), now a young woman and in a relationship with the idealistic Viktor (Mark Ota), who wants to start a revolution of his own, if only he had the funds…
Considering the play was written by a Czech playwright, in Czech, (presumably) for a Czech audience, the story and its context are surprisingly easy to understand for British viewers. Although, inevitably, we may not catch every reference in Becka McFadden’s production, even someone with no knowledge at all of Czech history or politics – or poker, come to that – can make sense of what’s going on, and the family drama that unfolds between the characters could almost be happening anywhere.
At the centre of the story is Lara Parmiani’s Jana, whose poker face remains in place even away from the card table, in her troubled, brittle relationship with her daughter. Yet we also meet a younger, more emotional Jana, who longs for news from her absent father (Arnošt Goldflam, on screen) and looks forward excitedly to a meeting with her adored Havel. Lara Parmiani skilfully embodies both versions of the character, so that even as we dislike the woman she’s become, we can’t help but feel – if not sympathy, then at least understanding of the events that have brought her here.
Pavlína, played by Daiva Dominyka, is the polar opposite of her cold-hearted mother; sensitive and romantic, she’s struggling to understand who she is and where she fits within her family and her society. As her boyfriend Viktor, Mark Ota probably has the closest to a comedy role within the play; a skilled speaker, he knows how to turn on the charm and deliver a good soundbite, and even his darker scenes are shot through with a surreal humour that’s as entertaining as it is slightly bewildering.
The use of video is effective, if occasionally a bit frustrating – this is particularly the case in the opening scene, when Arnošt Goldflam, the man we later learn to be Jana’s father, speaks at length in Czech. There are subtitles, but positioned as they are at the bottom of the screen, reading them involves a fair bit of neck craning for anyone not sitting in the centre of the front row. The later footage of Havel’s funeral works really well though, playing silently in the background and looming over the family’s dysfunctional attempt at a Christmas celebration.
Poker Face may be set in a foreign country, and it may make reference to events we’re not all that familiar with, but that doesn’t make it any less relatable. At a time when it’s becoming all too common to regard anyone not from our own country as inherently different, this play offers a timely reminder that while we may not speak the same language or share the same politics, at the end of the day we’re all human beings. And while that might not be an especially new or surprising message, it’s nonetheless one that – increasingly, it seems – needs repeating.
Poker Face is at the King’s Head Theatre (Sundays and Mondays) until 31st October.