Audience and Mountain Hotel
Václav Havel, translated by Carol Rocamora and Tomas Rychetsky (Audience) and Jitka Martinova (Mountain Hotel)
Orange Tree, Richmond
The Orange Tree's tribute to the play writing former President of the Czech Republic continues with a pair of plays from the mid-1970s, when Václav Havel was a mere outlawed playwright with little in prospect but a menial job and the constant fear of arrest.
In such a climate, it is not surprising that he resorted to an elliptical style in an effort to get messages to his audiences that would pass the scrutiny of any censor or secret policeman who happened by.
It seems strange to reflect that the Berlin Wall was brought down close on 20 years ago and with it the seemingly all-powerful Communist bloc.
That political change has made a play of this type into a record of times that we must all be grateful are consigned to the historical dustbin.
Audience has the feel of a regurgitated conversation, mildly rewritten for comic effect. It features banned playwright Vanek, a Havel surrogate who will also be seen in the final two plays of the season, and the foreman of the brewery where he works to make ends meet.
Both are to an extent stereotypes of their period and location. The bluff, good-natured foreman played by Robert Austin wants nothing more than an easy life and his dozen bottles of beer.
His bemused companion would prefer to be left alone to write but life behind the Iron Curtain wasn't like that. Informers are everywhere and as we see, it would be all too easy to join their ranks. In the meantime, a playwright must make a crust and in Vanek's case, rolling barrels represents a generous opportunity.
The foreman drunkenly repeats himself, offering friendship and promotion in exchange for s meeting with a once glamorous actress. David Antrobus as the meek intellectual ducks glass after glass of beer and turns the other cheek, presumably awaiting the revolution that might at least make him a performed playwright, if not President of his country.
There is though a sting in the tail of what had, up to that point been a simple, if metaphorical tale.
Mountain Hotel is clearly of the same ilk with much obfuscation and repetition. With a larger cast, it is however more like a minimalist orchestral piece or carefully choreographed dance than a violin sonata.
On one level, it is an observational work largely built up from the kind of inane conversation that one might expect to overhear in the garden of a Mountain Hotel. However, Václav Havel owes something to Pinter here and is far more subtle and playful than acting merely as a chronicler, so that the work soon begins to resemble Proust or Chekhov gone mad.
Once again, repetition is used with minor variations until the farcical final scenes. Old men pontificate and bore; a woman maternally prepares her husband for an affair with a pretty maid who has her sights set elsewhere; a writer takes care over his words; and most intriguingly, the two actors from the first play utter no word between them, Mr Antrobus playing the silent observer and Mr Austin telling wordless but patently hilarious jokes.
For an audience in a society where sinister observers abounded, the constant presence of these genial fellows on a hotel terrace would have been chilling, as are a pair of seemingly ordinary men in suits.
The hotel is intended as a microcosm of the society in which Václav Havel spent so much of his life uncertain about freedom, let alone the chance to see his plays performed in his own country. It complements Audience, addressing similar issues but on a larger canvas.
While these two short plays, with a combined running time of 2½ hours, are less accessible than Leaving, which ironically returns to play around them, they help to build a view of a great, under-performed playwright and yet again, London should be grateful to the Orange Tree's Sam Walters for his adventure in launching this season.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher