The Vaclav Havel season at the Orange Tree has been one of the year’s highlights. The third programme – and you can see the latest play and the two 1970s double-bills on three upcoming “Havel Bonanza” Saturdays – comprises Protest and Private View, two of the Vanek plays which show the beleaguered writer under the insidious cosh.
In Protest, the struggling playwright Vanek (Christopher Naylor), newly released from prison, is summoned to the home of a successful television writer Stanek (Jonathan Guy Lewis). Much to Vanek’s surprise, Stanek implies he wants to protest against the imprisonment of a dissident pop musician; Stanek’s daughter is expecting the musician’s baby.
It so happens that Vanek has his own petition in his briefcase and edges towards asking Stanek to sign it. The dialogue spirals into a wonderfully supple argument by Stanek as to why he shouldn’t, and how not signing such a petition in fact helps the protest even more than if he did. The play is a comic masterpiece in microcosm of how we play our own consciences against the tugging demands of survival and pragmatic concern.
Once again, the playing in Sam Walters’ production is pitch perfect and deftly comic, delightfully devoid of self-awareness. The screw is tightened in Private View as the plainly dressed Vanek (this time played by an even blanker Mike Sengelow) is assailed by the consumerist materialism of Michael (Stuart Fox) and Vera (Carolyn Backhouse) in their newly furnished flat stuffed with antiques, artefacts and gewgaws.
Live like us, they say, don’t mess with the Communists, come to the sauna. Michael and Vera are hilariously satirised as a “perfect married couple” offering not only chic canapes such as “groombles with woodpeak” but even sexual incentives to stay away from “troublemakers” in the pubs. Vera exposes her breasts, Michael nibbles her ear, Vanek gawps dumbly.
In both plays, the message is clear: don’t think you can make a difference, go with the flow, let history take its course. But as Havel himself so heroically demonstrated, and Vanek is his alter ego, you can only take so much. And passive resistance leads to deadly conformity. These plays sharply lay bare the tragedy and tyranny of political acquiescence.
- Michael Coveney