Audience/Mountain Hotel @ Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

directed by
Sam Walters and Geoffrey Beevers
The Vclav Havel season at the Orange Tree continues with a double bill of plays from the mid-1970s.

Unlike Leaving, Havels disappointing new play given its British premiere here in September, Audience and Mountain Hotel were written during the Czechoslavakian Communist regime though neither was staged then due to Havels dissident sympathies and they show the playwright more seriously involved with politics and society.

Audience is the first of the Vanek trilogy (the later two plays will be performed at the Orange Tree in November), named after the protagonist who is an alter ego for Havel himself. Like Havel, Vanek is an intellectual in trouble with the authorities, who is forced to find hard manual work rolling barrels in a brewery. When he is unexpectedly summoned to the office of the Foreman, he is initially suspicious but it seems his boss wants to offer him a better job in the warehouse. However, it gradually emerges that the Foreman wants a favour in return.

Though the dialogue is naturalistic, the influence of absurdist theatre is shown in the way that we the audience as well as Vanek are kept in the dark about what is going on, and when we eventually decipher why the digressive Foreman who becomes increasingly drunk wants to talk to him the ridiculous side of totalitarianism is revealed. In a surveillance society where informing on colleagues, friends and family is normal, everyone is under pressure to conform to the party line just as a means of making a living.

This production by Geoffrey Beevers (who played the lead role in Leaving) is thoroughly entertaining though it probably overstates the humour there should surely be more of a sense of menace in the background, with its mention of Kafkaesque secret police and Big Brother-like repression. The performers make a good double act, with David Antrobus as the anxious, embarrassed Vanek, not wanting to anger his boss but wary of compromising his principles, and Robert Austin as the class-conscious Foreman, by turns matey, sentimental, depressed, aggressive and self-pitying as his moods vary with the number of bottles of beer he consumes. However, this piss-up in a brewery could do with a bit more sober reflection.

The political implications of Mountain Hotel are less obvious in a surreal comedy of manners which seems to be more about the absurdity of existence than of a particular form of society. A group of disparate guests in a hotel garden indulge in fragmentary, desultory conversation, usually in pairs, which becomes increasingly meaningless as they swap places and even identities. Divided into five short acts, the play has a musical, fugue-like quality rather than a linear plot, ending with the characters dancing as if in a dream.

This enigmatic play, more reminiscent of Ionesco than Pinter, resists simple interpretation. Does the hotel represent Czechoslavakian society or the transience of life itself? Are the hotel managers who read out both banal regulations and clichd platitudes to the deferential guests a political despot or a God-like figure? This is a very stylized piece, full of recurring rituals and repeated lines, delivered by people who more and more resemble robots or puppets, without real individuality or autonomy. It is also very funny, as things spiral out of control in farcical fashion, to ultimately unsettling effect.

Director Sam Walters conducts proceedings with aplomb, marshalling his large cast with a tight orchestral grip. Paul OMahony alternates as two men chasing after flirtatious maid Faye Castelow, encouraged by his over-solicitous sister/wife Rebecca Pownall. James Greene is a mysterious Russian count who claims to have had an affair in Paris with the flower-bearing Esther Ruth Elliott. Paula Stockbridge changes her account of her family background as often as her sexual partners, the tracksuited.Mike Sengelow gives health advice to all and sundry, Philip Anthonys card-player tries to latch on to new friends, while Stuart Foxs blocked writer prefers to keep himself to himself. As the managers, Jonathan Guy Lewis and Christopher Naylor should be in charge giving a sense of order but by the end the piece of paper they read from is blank.

Read the musicOMH review of Vaclav Havel’s Leaving.

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