Private View and Protest
Václav Havel, translated by Carol Rocamora and Tomas Rychetsky
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
The Orange Tree's final pairing in their Havel retrospective reintroduces Vanek, the autobiographical intellectual already seen in Audience. Adventurously, or - depending on taste - confusingly, three different actors play him, one in each of these short plays.
Together, the trilogy builds up a picture of the cat and mouse Czech life under Communist rule and of the difficulties suffered by the man who would be President.
Following Audience, Protest is another two-hander that still has resonance thirty years after it was written, despite subsequent political upheavals behind the no longer extant Iron Curtain.
The self-effacing Vanek (in this case, Christopher Naylor) visits his old friend, Jonathan Guy Lewis as Stanek.
They represent polar opposites within the writing community. Vanek has recently been released from prison after signing Charter 77. By way of contrast Stanek, who looks like a cross between Havel and Lech Walesa, has become a writer for TV and lives comfortably on the proceeds. In other words, he has sold out and, judging by his shifty behaviour, might well be a spy.
The crux of the 50 minute long dialogue and debate is the question of whether Stanek will risk his comfortable lifestyle by signing a Protest petition seeking the release of a pop star who spoke too forcefully.
The ethical question is spiced up by the revelation that the prisoner is also the father of the writer's prospective grandson.
The debate may go on a little too long but poses a number of questions that must have seemed deeply significant at the time and would test any one of us today. If speaking out lands a writer in prison, is it acceptable to stay silent and enjoy the fruits of a career denied to your more principled colleagues?
We know Václav Havel's answer but most viewers will not know how they would have reacted had they been put in this unenviable position.
Michael and Vera (Stuart Fox and Carolyn Backhouse) represent a particular type: selfish, opinionated and wealthy.
The couple, immaculately togged out in 70's chic by designer Sam Dowson, could patronise for Czechoslovakia and spend the duration attempting to laud it over meek Vanek, this time played by Mike Sengelow.
Their apartment is a monument to kitsch, as are their shallow lives. Where their visitor has gone to prison for his principles and now works shifting barrels in a brewery, they have money to burn and demonstrate it by importing antiques and records from Switzerland.
There is constant irony in Private View as the home team spend 40 or so minutes boasting about their own achievements and trying to tell Vanek how he should live. They even, in a moment of supreme embarrassment, offer advice on squiring his wife.
This play makes its point in a lightly comic way, capitalising on issues raised in the more politically charged Protest, without achieving the same weightiness as that play.
Although they are a little uneven in quality, anyone seeing these five works will surely hope that Sam Walters, who directed this pair with his usual deftness, will seek to bring back more works by this great playwright in coming seasons.
For those that have not yet seen any of this crop, all five are available starting at 11 in the morning on the next couple of Saturdays.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher