The Orange Tree season dedicated to the plays of Vaclav Havel, who stood down as president of the Czech Republic five years ago, starts with his first drama for twenty years. Leaving is a rueful farce with elements of King Lear and The Cherry Orchard, interspersed with semi-serious recorded comments of the playwright himself, warning actors against pulling faces, or apologising for a “boring” interlude demanded by the logic of his own play.
The central character, the former chancellor Vilem Rieger (a smilingly ruffled and good-humoured Geoffrey Beevers), is reluctant to leave his villa and orchard but is offered a deal if he supports the new leadership. It is a measure of the play’s playfulness that we never really know what Rieger thinks about anything. He toys with the journalists from “The Keyhole” who are on hand to record his departure, and he dives into the undergrowth with a predatory academic (Rebecca Pownall) the minute she reveals her intentions of writing his biography.
His long-term mistress, former make-up artists Irena (the slimly provocative Carolyn Backhouse), bitches on the sidelines with her morosely critical best friend Monika (Paula Stockbridge), while the crumbling old retainer Oswald (James Greene) scatters cinnamon into everyone’s drinks -- at Havel’s specific instruction -- and Rieger’s former secretary (Stuart Fox) starts removing piles of books and frets over the future of a huge golden bust of Ghandi.
Whereas many of Havel’s earlier plays are brisk satires on management, industrial relations and free speech in a repressive society, Leaving is a teasingly autobiographical comic commentary on the conflict between ideas of private liberty and public democracy.
Paul Wilson’s translation and Sam Walters’s free-wheeling production fully honour Havel’s high spirits in moving back to theatre from politics: the real-life French minister Jack Lang, one of Europe’s great artistically innovative sybarites, is toasted in his own champagne, and the incoming deputy prime minister Klein (Robert Austin) is represented as a capitalist thug who will replace the cherry orchard with a casino and massage parlour.
Yet Havel remains uncensorious to the point of exasperating neutrality, and Rieger even toys with the idea of serving as an adviser to his own former adviser (a slyly pragmatic David Antrobus) before bidding farewell to his own house and gazebo and exiting with Ghandi. His old mother (Auriol Smith) potters about while his younger daughter Zuzana (Faye Castelow) stays glued to her computer screen and waits for her mobile to ring with Beethoven’s “Ode to Freedom” jingle.