By Vaclav Havel
Directed by Sam Walters
Venue: Orange Tree Theatre
Date: Thursday 16th October 2008
The set was a country garden. There was a pergola beside me with ivy trailing around it, a stone arched doorway far right, more bits of shrubbery round the walls, and a female nude in the stonework over the entranceway. A swing hung down towards the stone arched doorway, there was a round patio table with metal chairs in front of us, and a wooden bench to the left. The floor was part stone flagged, part brown carpet, which may represent dead lawn.
The play was about a Chancellor who has left office, and how things change once he’s no longer in power, especially as his political opponents are now in charge. Vilem Rieger, played by Geoffrey Beevers, is a middle aged man who had massive popular support when he took office, but now his legacy is coming under scrutiny. He has a long-time companion Irina, who herself has a ‘friend’ called Monika, and he lives with them and his mother in one of the official residences. A couple of former aides are helping him to pack up his things, although he feels he should be allowed to carry on staying in the house. His mother, known only as Grandma, potters about, making unfortunate comments, and there’s also a manservant, Oswald, who’s so old and rickety he should really be retired. Along with this group, there are Rieger’s two daughters, Zuzana and Vlasta, Patrick Klein, a member of the opposition party now in power, who manages to make a miraculous climb up the greasy pole right to the top in the course of the play, some journalists interviewing the great man now he’s no longer so great, and a political scientist Bea, who’s simply drawn to power and is willing to do the usual sort of things to latch on to the top dog. She starts off being attracted to Rieger, then drops him like a hot potato when Klein takes over. And before I forget, there’s also Vlasta’s husband Albin, who says little but is still scolded for being a chatterbox, and who streaks across the stage at one point, completely nude. He’s also wheeled on in the same state, having spent the night in the garden. And there’s a gardener who basically comes on to announce the various political changes in the country, like the gardeners in Richard II.
In fact, this play deliberately references other plays, specifically The Cherry Orchard and King Lear. Oswald is clearly Firs, the old servant who gets left behind when the family leaves, and who lies down on the sofa to die – Oswald does much the same thing. Both plays have a cherry orchard, but while the orchard in Chekov’s play is only being chopped down at the end, this orchard is being chain-sawed from a much earlier point. The King Lear references are abundant, as when Rieger finds he no longer has any influence, and is not only going to be booted out of the house, but may find himself in even deeper trouble. He ends up having to back the new regime, who have adopted his slogans and buzzwords, even though it’s clear they don’t intend to do anything about them. It was interesting to see that Irina, who seemed to be an older version of Bea, only staying with Rieger because he was powerful, actually stays loyal to him until this point, when he throws away his principles and supports the new power elite, specifically Klein. Once he does that, she leaves with Monika, although it’s possible Klein and Monika might develop a ‘special relationship’ themselves.
There’s also a Lear connection with the daughters. Zuzana is confident her boyfriend (French?) can put them up for a while, but later we hear that he’s been arrested on suspicion of something or other. Vlasta starts by offering her father a place to stay in their flat, then changes her mind as the pressure mounts. It may have been Albin’s (Albany) disagreement with that which led to her telling him to shut up as he was talking too much, and presumably triggered his bizarre behaviour.
There’s a load more stuff going on as one of the former aides plots to get himself into a good position in the new government, while the other worries about accounting for paper clips and a bust of Gandhi. Klein keeps turning up, each time with a more impressive job, until he’s finally made it to the top. He buys the residence, and plans to chop down the orchard and build a condo complex with facilities such as pubs, restaurants, shops, cinemas, and, of course, a posh brothel, located in the grand old house itself. He’ll be living in one of his other villas by then, as he’s cannily snapped up a job lot going cheap as the incoming party tries to balance the books. There’s also a lot of references to the Gambaccis, a Mafia-like family with fingers in more pies than they have fingers, if you see what I mean. All in all, this play gives us a complex and absurd picture of a country going to the dogs once a new party takes control, despite having had a good, if ineffective, leader for many years.
The autobiographical aspects are enhanced in this production because the author himself reads some entertaining notes during the performance – a disembodied voice telling us about the writing process, what the author intended at this point, how an actor should say a line, and generally giving us a humorous take on the whole process of writing a play. There’s a lovely spell when the stage has been left empty, and after quite a long pause, Havel talks about the difficulty of judging just how long to leave the stage unpeopled before the audience think the play’s finished and start leaving. Although I found his delivery a bit monotonous, I did enjoy his comments; the long boring bits were worth listening to for the punchlines.
I found myself enjoying this much more than I would have expected. I thought it might be a bit dull, but I now realise that Vaclav Havel probably wouldn’t know how to do dull. Although it obviously referred to Czech politics (Patrick Klein has the same initials as the chap who succeeded Havel), there were a lot of echoes of our own political scene, with Tony Blair having left office not so long ago. In the post-show chat, there were a couple of contributions from Czech ladies; an older woman who had lived through much of the massive changes that country has been through, and a younger woman who confirmed that she saw the play as essentially Czech in nature. She reckoned non-Czechs wouldn’t be able to get as much out of it, but even so, this production was apparently funnier than the original done in the Czech Republic.
There were only a few of the usual questions, what with these comments and questions about the nudity, etc. Someone asked about Irina being such a bitch, but I think the general feeling was that the characters all had some redeeming qualities, and that they weren’t just heroes and villains. I am definitely looking forward to the rest of the Havel season now.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me