Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Leaving, by Václav Havel

Last Thursday I attended the English language premiere of Václav Havel’s newest play, Leaving. This is the play that Havel was writing during the Havel Festival and I flatter myself by saying that I see influences of the festival in his newest work. Havel flatters me in showing one clear bit of influence – I am in the play! I had read the play of course, but I had almost forgotten that my name is among those listed in the Gambacci firm (Gambacci is a villain, but I try not to take it too hard). Havel told me during the reception after the show that he wanted to include my name in order to acknowledge my work on the festival. Would I be exaggerating if I said it was worth doing the festival for that alone? A bit maybe, but not much. A tiny footnote worth of immortality.

Having said that, I can hardly be objective about the play, but I will say that I was impressed by Orange Tree Theatre’s production. I had not imagined the play in the way they presented it – a very British political satire – but it worked in a way that was different from any I expected. Havel mentioned to me that the production in Prague had been much different – more like a tragic opera. But different, he added, does not mean worse, and any good playwright must let go of his play and hope that it can sustain multiple interpretations.

I hardily agree.

As for the shades of the festival – perhaps it is that I see so many shades of HaveI’s earlier plays, as well as the very deliberate influences of The Cherry Orchard and King Lear (both quoted verbatim in the text). The play concerns a lifetime politician forced to leave his villa (surrounded by cherry trees) after he loses his position as Chancellor. As in many of Havel’s plays, there is an ambitious deputy working against him behind the scenes. In this piece, he is named Klein, thus encouraging the rumor that the character is a stand-in for Havel’s political rival and the current Czech President, Václav Klaus. Of course, he also resembles most of Havel’s antagonists. The protagonist, Rieger, is also similar to many of Havel’s protagonists. In particular, the play reminds me of Largo Desolato (in relation to women), The Memo (political machinations), Mountain Hotel (more in setting and feel) and Garden Party (it even deliberately recalls the chess metaphor used in that play). And it wouldn’t be a Havel play unless it had a "hubub" somewhere near the climax (a surrealistic point where the various characters appear and repeat characteristic lines) and ended (spoiler alert?) with a sincere speech that throws away every value the protagonist has.

I have to mention that the actors were all skilled and the theater (the only permanent theater in the round) was beautiful. Sam Walters, the director of Leaving and the Artistic Director of the Orange Tree, has been doing Havel’s work in London for 20 years, and will continue with a small Havel Festival of his own, producing the Vanek plays as well as a production of Mountain Hotel.

Scanning the internet, I see the British press has reacted favorably to the production, on the whole, though there are definitely some reservations. You can see some of the reviews at The Guardian, The Independent, and The Times. In Prague, the play received wholehearted raves--of course there it was also probably the most important theater event in over a decade, not to mention an important political event.

Even at the London production, I spotted some MPs among the other VIPs. It's exciting to have theater that engages politics so directly without ever becoming polemical. But then, that is one of Havel's fortés, and one reason why I am so enthusiastic about his work.


Kasheri said...

Your name is in the play? How awesome is that?!

RLewis said...

Your man's got a B-day coming up... 72... ! just fyi...

Theater of Ideas said...

Yes, I had noticed. I always remember his birthday since his 70th, since that was the kickoff day of the Festival.