By Vaclav Havel, translated by Jitka Martinova
Directed by Sam Walters
Venue: Orange Tree Theatre
Date: Thursday 20th November 2008
This set was more complicated than the first: three cast iron style patio tables with matching chairs (very lightweight – I checked) on three sides. A wooden bench with metal ends sat across the far left entranceway, and a picnic rug filled the rest of the space. There was a thermos flask and some odds and ends (sun tan lotion, hair gel, razor) by the rug. A canopy had been put up over the entrance far right from us.
Mind you, the set was a lot less complicated than the play. Surreal doesn’t begin to cover it. The same scene kept repeating, many characters shifted and changed, different stories were presented to us, and the whole performance became like a merry-go-round, with the horses spinning faster and faster until we were almost dizzy with multiple possibilities. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I found it enjoyable and interesting to watch.
To begin with, various actors came on, stood in their positions, and then sat down. The lights were partly up for this. There was also some music playing, and that was used each time the scene changed. The actors went through the same routine for each scene change as well, with most of them changing their positions. Initially, there was a man, Kubik (Stuart Fox), seated with his back to us, just to our left. To his left, a woman, Rachel (Paula Stockbridge), was sitting at the far table, knitting. I confess to being curious about what she was knitting, and occasionally my thoughts were more on that than the play. However, along from her, on the bench, sat Orlov (James Greene), while Pechar (Paul O’Mahony) sat on the picnic rug, sunning himself. To our right, sitting alone at his table, was Kotrba (David Antrobus), who never spoke, and rarely got involved with anyone else. There’s also Tetz (Mike Sengelow), who dashes on, catching a ball, the sporty type, and who sits down next to one of the characters, Orlov I think first time round.
Other characters come and go. Liza (Esther Ruth Elliot) dashes on and off stage regularly. She’s dressed up in a fancy frock, carrying some flowers, and looking a bit distracted. Orlov usually tries to intercept her, insisting that they had a relationship many years ago in Paris, which she denies. As the hurdy-gurdy of the play cranks up its madness, however, we even get to see a scene in which she accosts Orlov, claiming they’d known one another, and he denies all knowledge of her. There’s also Pecharova (Rebecca Pownall), who seems to be the wife of Pechar, fussing over him, insisting he wear a jumper though he wants to sunbathe, bringing him tea which he doesn’t want, and talking about his possible liaison with another woman. This other woman, Milena (Faye Castelow), is the waitress, who regularly brings on some orange juice and offers it round. She seems to be having a relationship with two different men, both of whom are Pechar. With each scene change, Pechar becomes the other man in this triangle, so we get to see the relationship develop with two men in one. It’s totally surreal, but surprisingly watchable and entertaining. Pechar also has a piece of repeated business, and I think it comes at the end of each scene. Milena, or possibly Pecharova, goes off in a huff, and Pechar seems to become aware of everyone watching him, including the audience. He looks around – he’s kneeling at this point – looking mortified at being the centre of attention, and then looks at Kotrba and shrugs. Thanks to Paul O’Mahony’s performance, this worked very well.
Dlask (Philip Anthony) brings on a bottle of wine and two glasses, and joins one of the other characters to share some wine and have a chat. Kunc (Robert Austin) appears every so often and spends some time whispering in Kotrba’s ear; they both have a good laugh at whatever it is that he’s said, and then he leaves without talking to anyone else. Then there are the director(s) of the hotel, or institute, or whatever else this place represents. Drasar (Jonathan Guy Lewis) and Kraus (Christopher Naylor) take it in turns to be director, while the other one gets to be henchman. Each director comes on, accepts the warm response from the guests(?) and staff(?), then searches for a piece of paper with increasing degrees of panic. They find a small scrap of paper in one pocket, not much bigger than a credit card, which seems to be all they need. They then make a little speech, which includes statements ranging from the philosophical (e.g. unity is strength) to the banal (the light in the downstairs toilet has been fixed). Each statement is greeted as if it were a most important pronouncement, and with each scene we get a different assortment of choice statements, each delivered as if it were the most important thing in the world.
As the characters become more and more mixed, with lines being said by anyone in any order, the whole group stands up and starts dancing. With fewer women, the men have to cut in from time to time. Eventually, the dance stops, the actors stand still, and the lights go out. End of play. It made sense at the time, though describing it makes it seem really weird. Actually it was weird as well, but perfectly in keeping with the rest of the play.
The fun was in the performances, and the way these little cameos built up a larger picture without mapping it out too clearly. I got a sense of people having to be careful about revealing too much of their past, of having to change stories depending on who they were talking to, of reinventing themselves on a regular basis depending on who was now in power. Yet still the standard relationships were there, struggling to maintain normality when everything has gone horribly wrong. There was a subtle sense of menace in the air – characters talked about Kubik having missed some event, and how this would affect him. It was an intriguing play, which had a bit too much repetition in places for my liking, but which I still enjoyed overall.
There was the usual post-show chat, but I find I’ve forgotten most of what was said. There was some confirmation of the way Havel and many other writers chose to use surrealism to mask anti-government writing – if they couldn’t understand it, they couldn’t ban it. I suspect that’s what makes some European drama inaccessible to me – you had to have been there. The amount of beer being drunk in the first play (Audience) was commented on; apparently the timing of each bottle and glass was tricky, but turned out to be crucial to the scene. I do remember there were some long anecdotes by people who had been to Czechoslovakia, which seemed to have very little to add to the experience of the discussion, at least not as much as the actual Czech folk who contributed to the earlier talks, so perhaps that’s why I don’t have a lot more to say here.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me