Esther Ruth Elliott
Johnathan Guy Lewis
The Orange Tree deserves much credit for championing the work of the dissident Czech playwright Vclav Havel for more than thirty years.
It is fitting therefore that this theatre should stage the English-language premiere of his new play (translated by Paul Wilson) as the opening of its Havel season.
Leaving is Havel’s first play since the Velvet Revolution of 1989 that ended the Soviet-dominated era led him to become President for 14 years. Although he wrote the first draft before those momentous events, he has only completed it since leaving office, and the piece surely reflects his own experiences at the top of Czech power politics. Unfortunately, although the play is undeniably amusing and occasionally thought-provoking, it does not live up to the expectations of such a theatrical event.
The rather thin story revolves around Dr Vilem Rieger, the former Chancellor of an unnamed country, who has to come to terms not only with the end of his career but also losing his state villa where he resides in comfort with his family and entourage. With the new government which has ousted him using both bribes and threats to try and persuade him to endorse its corrupt commercial policies, Rieger’s future and legacy are suddenly thrown into doubt and confusion.
As a statesman advocating democracy and tolerance, freedom and fairness, Rieger has a reputation to defend but perhaps his principles are merely platitudes and he will compromise out of self-interest? This political turmoil is matched by personal upheaval, as a flirtation with a young female admirer causes his long-time companion to walk out, while a sexually indiscreet letter from his archive has somehow fallen into the hands of a tabloid newspaper.
There is much to like in this political farce, though it lacks the satirical edge of Havel’s earlier work. There are interesting political points about the dangers of rampant market capitalism taking over from communist totalitarianism but they make little impact in a lightweight entertainment that is like Kafka without angst or Pinter without menace.
As before, Havel writes in the style of the theatre of the absurd, with surreal moments of humour jostling with mysteriously murky politics, but the play seems a bit too complacent without a real sense of anything important being at stake. The intermittent recorded comments by Havel himself (in a marvellously lugubrious voice), where he asks the actors not to overact or dissects the play’s weaknesses, are very funny in themselves but this distancing device encourages us not to take anything seriously.
In addition, the allusions to King Lear (the protagonist retiring from power and being denied a home by his mercenary elder daughter, a parody of the storm scene in which Rieger goes briefly mad while quoting Lear’s lines) and The Cherry Orchard (the sound of cherry trees being cut down as the estate changes hands) are half-baked. The situations are superficially similar but Havel’s parody, while witty enough, touches on none of Shakespeare’s tragic intensity or Chekhov’s elegiac ennui, so that the references just seem to be tacked on.
Sam Walters’s lively production is rather broad at times but he has elicited some decent performances from his cast. Geoffrey Beevers makes an amiably nave Rieger, capturing well the ex-Chancellor’s benign blandness, as well as his shallow vanity his clichd speeches about the importance of being nice to one another are beautifully done. Carolyn Backhouse plays his partner Irena as a control freak with brittle charm, interrupting his press interview and running his household dictatorially, and Rebecca Pownall gives his adoring fan Bea a wide-eyed disingenuousness.
Auriol Smith is disarmingly dotty as his doting mother, and James Greene amuses as his tipsy but faithful retainer Oswald. David Antrobus lends a sly slickness to his former secretary’s former secretary Victor, while Robert Austin, as Rieger’s nemesis the Deputy Minister (and later Vice Prime Minister) Klein is more pantomime villain than Machiavellian manipulator.
Leaving probably has too many characters, and is almost certainly too long for such a relatively slight work, but the play is full of delightfully quirky humour. It will be interesting to compare it to the two forthcoming double-bills of Havel’s work from the seventies, when he was writing in a very different kind of society where political jokes were taken very seriously.