Protest – November 2008


By Vaclav Havel, translated by Carol Rocamora and Tomas Rychetsky

Directed by Sam Walters

Orange Tree Theatre

Thursday 13th November 2008

This was the first of two playlets today, both by Vaclav Havel. It’s a two-hander exploring the reasoning of those who avoid taking a stand against tyranny and oppression, or despotism, as it’s referred to in the play. It’s not one-sided though, as the character of Stanek, who could come across as a cowardly chap who wants others to fight his battles for him, is given some thought provoking speeches which certainly made me aware that he was in a much more complex situation than any I’ve experienced.

The story is very simple. Vanek arrives at Stanek’s house which appears to be in the country. Vanek has spent some time in prison for his dissident behaviour, and has only recently been released. Stanek is a successful writer who gets his work on TV, but he’s obviously had to make a number of moral compromises along the way, and not just in terms of his work. His daughter is pregnant by a musician, one of the current rock stars, who has been arrested for telling some improper joke at a concert – they didn’t tell us the joke, sadly, but I do remember some reference to a penguin, which always gets a laugh. Stanek wants Vanek’s help to stir up some sort of protest so that the young man will be released. He says he’s done all he can behind the scenes, but without result so far. Vanek already has a petition with him about that very thing, and has brought it with him in the hope that Stanek will sign it to add weight to the 50 signatures already obtained. The meat of the play is Stanek’s deliberations, out loud, of the pros and cons of signing.

Vanek is a very blank character, which gives Stanek every opportunity, and even the need to express himself to us. For people living under that sort of oppressive regime, the choices may have been limited – as in, to sign or not to sign – but the ramifications were amazingly varied. Apart from the obvious consequences of losing his job and his son not being allowed to go to university, there was the factor of his son’s respect for a man who would speak out on such a matter, the possibility that by upsetting the authorities they might take a harder line, and a somewhat complicated consideration about his name being so unusual in the world of dissidents, that it might distort the intention of the petition altogether. It made sense when he was explaining it, but I’m not sure I can get it down clearly. The idea seemed to be that when there was such a tight-knit group of protesters, the usual suspects if you will, adding his name would be a political statement that the equilibrium had changed, that  even non-dissidents were now getting involved in these matters. In effect, no one would talk about the release of the rock star, because they’d all be too busy talking about his signature and what that meant for the political climate. In this reasoning, his signature could do more harm than good.

While this might seem like the sort of equivocating spin that many politicians come up with nowadays (I was strongly reminded of Timon Of  Athens, and the ridiculous excuse given by the third chap he approaches for some financial assistance, i.e. I’m so upset that you came to me last that I won’t give you anything!), but Vanek’s reaction, which indicated an understanding that these were valid points, made me realise that we were being shown deeper aspects of political manoeuvring than I’d seen before. I got the impression that Vanek, having been through the jail experience, understood all the nooks and crannies of these arguments, and judged no one for their choices.

As it turned out, a phone call came after Stanek decided not to sign, from his daughter – the rock star had been released and was with her. Perhaps the negotiations behind the scenes had worked after all. I was certainly more aware with this play that the possibility of influencing the authorities in private could be a useful tactic, rather than the opt-out that we smug liberals often consider it.

There were also some interesting points in the early parts of the scene, where Stanek appeared to be trying to get some idea of just what Vanek had told his interrogators in prison, and I even wondered just how safe it was to give any information to him, as he might have been willing, or even planning to use it to his own advantage. This makes me much more aware of how difficult relationships must be in those circumstances; if I could have those passing thoughts during a fifty minute play, what must it have been like for those living permanently with such doubts?

Now I’ll describe the set; starting from where we sat and going clockwise, there was a big, square black leather easy chair in the middle of the row, and the next side had a long wooden chest with some sort of radio on it. Across the far diagonal was a dark wooden table, richly carved in a middle European style, and adorned with a typewriter and other desk accoutrements. The chair was of the wheeled variety, and a much more modern design. Further round, roughly opposite us, was a drinks trolley, and to our right another black leather chair with a small chest this side of it. There was a large rug with an asymmetrical geometric pattern on it filling the centre of this space.

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

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