Audience – November 2008

6/10

By Vaclav Havel, translated by Carol Rocamora and Tomas Rychetsky

Directed by Geoffrey Beevers

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 20th November 2008

The set was an office in a brewery. There was a table in the middle of the stage, surrounded by crates and metal barrels, and there were two chairs. The place looked rough – there was an old style radio (old even in the 70s) next to a barrel on our side of the table, and a small ball of twine sat on the barrel itself. To the far left, the door had the usual nude pictures, and a sign above the door said something like if you’re full of beer, you’re full of cheer.

The first of two plays, Audience concerned a meeting between Vanek and the foreman of the brewery he’s working in. When the lights go up, the foreman is snoozing, face down on his desk. When Vanek knocks, he wakes up and invites Vanek to come in and sit down, which he does, eventually. The foreman also offers him a glass of beer. Vanek is a reluctant drinker – we learn he prefers wine – but he does manage to drink a little. He also manages to get rid of a fair bit into the foreman’s glass when he’s away relieving himself. The foreman puts away more than enough for the both of them, though, as he keeps reaching into the crate beside him for another bottle. This became quite funny, and before long he had to disappear through the little door. Sounds of water in various forms, and then he’s back again, adjusting his flies and pulling down his apron. This became the major structural motif for this play.

Verbally, there was a cycle of repetition of what Vanek liked to drink, stories about the brewery, and warnings about Vanek’s relationship with another writer. Gradually, as the foreman became increasingly drunk, the pressure he was under to report on Vanek and his activities was revealed.

After too many beers, the foreman falls asleep, and Vanek puts him back in his chair, the way he was at the start, and leaves. We then get a reprise of the opening, with Vanek knocking on the door, the foreman waking up, etc. This time, Vanek seems more confident, and readily drinks the first glass of beer he’s offered – perhaps he’s learning? – and that’s where the play ends.

This was lovely little piece which showed us the effects of living under a repressive regime. The wariness about saying too much too openly, the recourse to alcohol to deaden the senses, the need for others to conform so as not to cause problems for those around them, all these came across very clearly as we went through another little repetitive dance. Along with the humour, and seeing just how human these people are to remind us that this can happen anywhere, this made for a very enjoyable opening play.

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

Private View – November 2008

6/10

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

Protest – November 2008

6/10

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 ilovetheatre.me