By Vaclav Havel, translated by Carol Rocamora and Tomas Rychetsky
Directed by Sam Walters
Orange Tree Theatre
Thursday 13th November 2008
This play was part of a double bill, and came after, and was much funnier than, Protest. This was a view of those people who bought into Western materialism, Czech style, in the 70s.
A couple, dressed like 70s hippies, welcome Vanek to their flat for a ‘private view’. The husband, Michael, has gone to a lot of trouble to do it up to their exacting standards, everything except feng shui from the sounds of it, and they want their best friend to see the results before everyone else. His wife, Vera, is very supportive of her husband, and even found the scimitar proudly displayed on the wall to our left, which was just what Michael had wanted. They ply Vanek with drink, and in between showing off various items they’ve bought and boasting about their amazing young son (precocious enough to ask, do frogs drown?), they attempt to do a makeover on Vanek and his wife’s lifestyle, despite his protestations that he and his wife are fine as they are. Michael and Vera even go so far as to assume Vanek will want to watch them making love, as they’re so good at it and he obviously needs some tips.
These are the friends from hell, and there’s some lovely repetition that goes on with the husband asking if he’d like some music, the wife offering some unpronounceable (and probably unpalatable) snack, and then the clock doing its weird musical thing, which both Michael and Vera ignore, but Vanek reacts to. This cycle, interspersed with increasingly desperate attempts by the couple to make Vanek’s life better, gradually build up to a point where Vanek has to tell them to lay off, at which point Vera goes ape-shit, throws his flowers back at him, and tells him to get out if he doesn’t want to be there. He has to make a choice now, and although I would probably have decided differently, he opts for peace at all costs, picks up the flowers (he’s right beside us at this point), puts them back in the vase, and sits down to enjoy some more of their company. With his acquiescence, they’re back to being charming again, and so it goes on, though mercifully we’re spared the sequel by the lights going out.
It was a more interesting and enjoyable play than this description gets across. I liked that another actor was playing the Vanek character this time, indicating that he is an everyman type. The performances were all excellent, which brought out the very dry humour. I suspect I didn’t get all of it, but I still found it good fun, and again I notice that a group of pieces has been arranged to end with the funny one (cf Glaspell Shorts).
During the interval, the set was completely transformed. Using the same basic items, we ended up with one of the black leather chairs in front of us, the large chest to the left of it with a gramophone, the other black chair in the corner, and the drinks trolley along from that. Opposite us was the table, sporting two candlesticks and a small vase, and flanked by two upright chairs. In the middle, on the diagonal, was a big crazy-paved oblong fire pit, with a bear-skin rug this side of it. Four special items hung from the centre of each balcony; an icon in a niche, an icon painting, a clock, which played an unusual tune at odd moments, and a scimitar.
The post-show brought out some interesting points. Apparently Vanek was used by other writers once Havel had created him, so he has a bigger life than just these plays. Since he had such a big cast for the whole season, Sam Walters decided to cast three different Vaneks, and the general feeling on this seemed to be positive.
The moral dilemmas of the first play were discussed in some depth, and covered all of the points I had thought of and a few more. We were asked whether we thought Stanek should have signed the petition or not. I voted for, but wasn’t entirely happy with that; I didn’t think he “should” have, though it might have been the more courageous thing to do. Either way, the complexities of the situation came across even more, and I can only respect those who went through such times, regardless of their choices.
The second play was also appreciated, but there was less to say about it. The choice Vanek makes at the end was commented on; apparently that’s the choice many Czech people would make to keep the peace with friends. One other point from the first play – Vanek removes his shoes, and that’s a point of etiquette to remember if I’m ever in the Czech republic (and a number of other European countries as well, apparently). Although hosts will tell their guests they don’t have to take their shoes off, DO NOT BELIEVE THEM. It’s a huge social gaffe to keep shoes on in someone’s house, and they won’t be your friends if you do.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me