Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Opened 1 November, 2008

The Orange Tree’s 30-year involvement with Václav Havel has culminated this autumn with the UK première of Leaving, which Havel began writing before the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and finished after he left office as president of the Czech Republic in 2003, and which happens to be about a president leaving office. The fanfares were muted slightly when it turned out not to be that terrific a play. Before it returns returns in December, the theatre presents two double bills of Havel’s 1970s work, of which this is the first.
Audience (1975) is the first of the semi-autobiographical “Vanek” plays. In it Vanek, a dissident playwright assigned by the state (as was Havel) to work in a brewery, is called to an interview in the boss’s office. The latter, growing progressively drunker on his own product, offers Vanek a cushier position in the warehouse if he will help out by writing up surveillance reports on himself. Robert Austin enjoys slurring a series of repetitious platitudes, though he may take less pleasure in getting through the better part of a dozen bottles of stage beer inside 45 minutes (especially, as when I saw him last Saturday, after a matinee performance as well). David Antrobus as Vanek has little to do except keep a straight face.
If Audience shows the absurdity of state bureaucracy, Mountain Hotel (1976) widens the canvas. A variety of guests and staff converse in a hotel garden, in a series of increasingly bewildering scenes. One man appears to be competing jealously with himself to seduce the hotel maid; a woman is repeatedly distressed by an elderly count’s protestations that she was his beloved in youth, but more disappointed when he stops; the hotel director and his flunky swap roles and badmouth each other. A scene may follow a previous one in chronology, or precede it, or repeat it with the lines assigned to different characters. It’s all a matter of silly formulae, Havel suggests, whether it be office politics, personal relationships, memory, identity or life itself... for it is hardly surprising when the broadest metaphor of all comes into play. Sam Walters’ production bounces along such that, as lines come round more and more often sounding ever sillier, one wants to join in the daftness.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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