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The Theatreguide.London Review

Vaclav Havel Season (Leaving, Audience, Mountain Hotel, Protest, Private View)
Orange Tree Theatre      Autumn-Winter 2008

The Orange Tree Theatre's links with Václav Havel, playwright and former Czech president, stretch back to February 1977, when its founder and artistic director Sam Walters first scheduled a double bill of two of Havel's gently subversive Vanek plays, Audience and Private View, followed by several more premieres and revivals.

Things got close up and personal in 1989 when Sam and his actress wife Auriol Smith rattled their keys as a pair of right-on Brits in a lively throng of protesting Czechs milling around Wenceslas Square.

They then shared a privileged head to head encounter with the hero of the hour in his tiny Prague flat before donning defiant 'Havel for President' badges as a gesture of solidarity with the popular Czech campaign for democracy and freedom. The rest is history.

Wind the clock forward two decades and the Orange Tree took the challenge and opportunity to stage the English language premiere of Havel's latest published play, Leaving.

About a deposed Czech head of state, it is a surreal comedy which with rare foresight he had begun writing before the Velvet Revolution swept him into high office.

Havel produced the final draft in the bitter years following his undignified ousting from Prague Castle by cold-hearted bureaucrats in the service of a new Czech administration.

As a result the play and its central character bear the bruises of small-minded officialdom with petty squabbles about who paid (the state? or the president?) for various works of art and minor items of domestic and office paraphernalia.

As the opening part of this Václav Havel repertory of plays the compact Richmond venue has staked its all on this one production, fielding a very large cast.

Indeed so numerous is the acting company that curtain calls are divided in two to accommodate all the actors for their bows on the tiny stage.

But what of the play? It is no secret that both critics and Richmond audiences have found problems in coming to terms with a surreal comedy which laboriously deploys the dynamics of Chekhov's Cherry Orchard to structure a story of a first family and its retinue, forced to depart from their familiar hearth and home.

At the close, Chekhov-like, it leaves a tough talking upstart in charge -a president in waiting as it happens, but theatrically speaking a tree-felling thug.

And as a tangential add-on to the central plot, the ousted incumbent, a figure of farce in Geoffrey Beever's performance, goes gaga as the Czech equivalent of King Lear.

The play then offers a variety of disconnected departures into surreal fantasy in which sycophants, still spouting political rhubarb, are displaced by bopping disco nightmares while a male streaker boldly shows us his willy for no obvious dramatic reason except perhaps to recapture our attention.

If this raises doubts about Havel's present and future as a playwright of substance, the second offering in this Havel season confirmed my impression that his best work came when he was up against a ruthless communist regime, a situation that taxed him to find subtle ways of expressing his resistance and discomfiture, coupled with a notable ability to coin the telling phrase.

This second strand in the season, a double bill, opens with Audience, a two-hander set in a brewery, one of the Vanek trilogy, based on his own experiences as a proscribed playwright, which was originally written to amuse his friends in private performance.

Vanek, a self-effacing Havel figure, played with jaw-clenched taciturnity by David Antrobus, has been temporarily relieved of his menial barrel-rolling duties, to spend a matey drinking session with Robert Austin's Foreman.

The older man, a devoted beer drinker, finds the persecuted writer a living link with the glamorous world of actresses, but emerging from what is essentially a monologue, the play demonstrates the power of mute dissidence to provoke others to declare and justify their political hypocrisies, their fears and their follies.

Austin plays the role with muscular strength and good humour, capped with bitterness, but at this in-the-round theatre one could not help noticing a sizeable minority of the audience opposite zizzing off to dreamland during a wordy coda.

Thirty two years after it was first written, Mountain Hotel, a surreal romance in the middle style of Christopher Fry, has even less to justify this first British performance.

It makes an overlong contribution to the double bill, but it did not help that - from where I sat - half the stage action was masked by an actor plonked down on a garden chair and blocking the view.

Like ten characters in search of an author (or plot), a group of long-term hotel residents while away a boring afternoon in tangential chit-chat. There is no observable deepening or development beyond the occasional touch of farce as chaps go in pursuit of girls.

Eventually they all lose hold of their own appointed roles and start speaking each other's lines, which most of the audience found amusing.

I would like to think it was not just because they are pretty women, but I particularly admired the performances of Paula Stockbridge as an aristocratic blonde hooker with several admiring clients, and the utterly delightful Fay Castelow, making her impressive theatre debut as an elfin waitress, a performance that reminded me a little of the early days of Geraldine McEwan; a lively, lovely face that should soon win her further roles on stage and television. Talent spotters should make a note of the name.

With the third offering, the Havel season completes the Vanek trilogy, featuring another two actors playing the faceless, laconic playwright whose presence is simply as a lay figure to show up the vagaries of Czech social and political behaviour.

Funniest of the series is Private View in which our hapless hero is made to squirm uncomfortably as a Prague couple, 1970s 'beautiful people' in flared trousers, try to impress him with their yuppie lifestyle and sexual athletics, including a brief but enticing flash of bare bosom to emphasise the point.

The play could be seen as a one-joke trifle, but Stuart Fox and Carolyn Backhouse give drolly observed portrayals that drive the comedy forward from small beginnings, through mounting excess to, as it were, post-coital deflation and surrender.

Finally and largely thanks to a virtuoso performance by Jonathan Guy Lewis, the unmissable event of this very mixed Havel repertory is Protest, written in 1978.

Lewis gives a wry portrait of a Czech television producer who, chummy at first, manages to weasel his way out of adding his signature to a samizdat petition in support of a jailed radical pop star.

At close quarters Lewis makes every word and gesture, every swill of his brandy glass, add to a telling portrayal of shiftiness, an utterly compelling demonstration of 'naturalistic' acting that both conceals and reveals this fine actor's superb technique.

John Thaxter

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Review of Vaclav Havel Season - Orange Tree Theatre 2008

 

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