The Increased Difficulty of Concentration

Václav Havel, translated by Vera Blackwell
Gate, Notting Hill
(2003)

This wonderfully absurd allegory can be read on many different levels. It can be seen as a farce, as a portrait of a dissolute, but extremely well-educated man, as a post-modern science fiction story or as a comment on life under Communist rule behind the Iron Curtain.

It has to be seen in context. It was first produced during the "Prague Spring" in April 1968. This was the seven-month period during which Alexander Dubcek became First Secretary and began to introduce reforms including freedom of expression to Czechoslovakia. Sadly, by August, the Soviet tanks had rolled into the country to reintroduce much tighter controls over political and cultural activities.

Havel is a writer-politician and was instrumental in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 after which he became his country's president. This is an awful lot of baggage for one short play to carry.

The main protagonist, Dr. Eduard Huml, is a social scientist with a particular interest in the nature of happiness and, it appears, provoking affairs with young women. He is superbly played by an energetic Martin Wenner, who stays on stage throughout. His commitment to the part is made apparent by his shirt, sweat-stained long before the end.

The play primarily looks at Dr. Huml's relationships with four women, his wife (Cate Hamer), mistress (Catherine Cusack), secretary (Jo Theaker) and a visiting social scientist (Katherine Parkinson). He is very much an unreformed male in his grabbing after flesh but this changes as he openly discusses wife and mistress with each other, using identical language.

Dr. Huml has agreed to take part in an experiment with a malfunctioning machine (a remodelled NCR cash register for this production) that apparently has Artificial Intelligence and will distil his essence. This might well be the playwright's comment on the nature of the Communist political machine.

Time flows more backwards than forwards, but is never completely linear and sometimes a scene will follow the one after it in chronological terms. This is Theatre of the Absurd but somehow has deeper meaning.

The comedy in Simon Godwin's production, introduced by Adrienne Quartly's bells, whistles and what sounds like a barrel organ, is rich. It is both verbal and physical and the timing rarely misses. This means that, on occasions, Martin Wenner appears in two places simultaneously in the best traditions of farce.

The Increased Difficulty of Concentration works on many levels and in particular as a comic depiction of the nightmare that its playwright suffered at the time. Things were to get worse for him, as he served several years in prison.

It will appeal to all those with a love of the absurd; or scientific and philosophical experimentation, not to mention the politicians amongst us.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher