Protest/Private View @ Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

cast list
Christopher Naylor, Stuart Fox, Carolyn Backhouse, Mike Sengelow, Jonathan Guy Lewis

directed by
Sam Walters
The Orange Tree’s fascinating Vclav Havel season concludes with the remaining two plays from the ‘Vanek Trilogy’, featuring Havel’s eponymous alter ego, written but not staged in the late 1970s during the time of Czech Communist rule.

Although written later, the longer, more substantial play Protest is performed first.

Vanek visits his friend and fellow-writer Stanek, in his study in the smart house where he lives in a plush part of Prague. While Vanek has just come out of prison for his political activities, Stanek has been prospering as a commercial TV dramatist.
Now Stanek wants Vanek to sign a petition for the release of an anti-government pop musician who has made his daughter pregnant but it turns out Vanek already has already started a petition.

What follows is a superbly subtle piece of sophistry as the self-deluding Stanek comes up with bogus reasons for not signing himself while maintaining his moral dignity he wasn’t asked to sign originally, he can do more good ‘behind the scenes’, his high-profile involvement in this protest may be counter-productive.

Written just after Havel himself was released from prison for signing Charter 77 (and covering some of the same ground which Tom Stoppard explored in Rock’n’Roll), Protest goes right to the heart of the political dilemma of the time, where people had to choose between activism and passivity, commitment and acquiescence.

In two nicely understated performances, Christopher Naylor’s naively idealistic Vanek is the blank screen on which Jonathan Guy Lewis’s Stanek projects his own guilty conscience as he opts for enjoying a comfortable lifestyle over campaigning for human rights.

While the absurdity of Protest lies in the protagonist’s false reasoning, Private View is more stylistically indebted to Theatre of the Absurd, with Havel giving a much lighter treatment to a similar theme of individuality versus conformity. Here, Vanek is invited to a ‘private view’ of the trendy design-led flat of his friends Michael and Vera, which they show off like gallery owners to a client.

Not only do the couple want to parade their ridiculous arty collection of Turkish scimitar, gothic Madonna and confessional box, they also want to boast about their apparently perfect magazine-supplement shopping-and-sauna lifestyle of family bliss and sensational sex and they want Vanek to embrace the same materialistic values. But when he politely refuses to be drawn into their shallow hippie consumerism, they beg him to stay it seems they desperately need someone else to make them believe they are happy.

While there is some overlap with Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, with its hilarious satire on 70s-style faux sophistication, Private View is really about the tacit choice people make between trying to reform society and giving their house a makeover. Politics is not mentioned directly, but the subtext is clear. Mike Sengelow plays Vanek with just the right amount of baffled embarrassment, while the very funny Stuart Fox and Carolyn Backhouse as the ‘right-on’ couple increasingly resemble automatons as they repeat lines as if pre-programmed, unable to behave like free-thinking human beings.

Both shows are beautifully directed by Sam Walters, with excellent design by Sam Dowson. This double bill is the most successful of the three Havel shows at the Orange Tree, revealing the playwright at the peak of his powers and proving that he still has much to say to us today.

Read the musicOMH review of Vaclav Havel’s Leaving.

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