Velvet Havel

Miloš Orson Štědroň
Theatre on the Balustrade
Rich Mix Studio

Since its foundation in 1958, Prague’s Theatre on the Balustrade has been a small theatre that has gathered an international reputation. They pay a very fleeting visit to London with this production as part of the Czech Centre’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which itself celebrates the politician and dramatist who helped lead that revolution and became the last President of Czechoslovakia and first President of the Czech Republic.

This is no platitudinous hagiography but a lively, satirical, cabaret-style musical by composer Miloš Orson Štědroň (who leads the band) that puts rather more emphasis on Václav Havel’s liking for beer and pretty women than on his political career or his plays.

Petr Jeništa, as Václav’s gay uncle Milos, acts as MC in a format that (when it remembers to do so) presents scenes being shot as part of a movie. Though there are scenes with young Václav in prison for his political activities (including the co-founding of Charter 77), it treats the serious with humour.

Dita Kaplanová plays his long-suffering wife Olga, always his staunch supporter, a nicely understated performance, while Anežka Kubátová in a red dress represents all his other lady loves.

Miloslav König, first seen in a rubber face mask of the older Havel, lying on his bier as the others gather round him, strips off the mask to become a boyish, guitar-playing Havel, full of charm. I’m not quite sure whom Vojtech Vonrácek is supposed to be—he spends most of the time dressed up as a tree but he certainly sings well!

Yes, it is really quite zany. A pleasant enough 90 minutes of humour, though Czech-speaking audience members were clearly laughing more than I was (though there were English surtitles), so you probably needed a better knowledge of Havel’s publicly private-life to get its full effect.

Jeništa, white-suited and white-gloved, makes it feel like prewar Berlin cabaret, a very carefully controlled performance that is sending up its own extravagance and that double layering is the key to the whole show.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton