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Sam Walters On ... The Orange Tree & Vaclav Havel

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The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond has staged more plays by Czech playwright and politician Vaclav Havel, who died on Sunday, than any other UK venue.

Here, artistic director Sam Walters tells us more about how the association came about, and describes what it was like to meet Havel after so many years working on his plays. 

Sam Walters: The three big events in the life of the Orange Tree Theatre are the beginning of the venture on the last day of 1971, the opening of the new theatre in February 1991 and our involvement with the plays of Vaclav Havel in 1977.

Our 2008 production of Vaclav Havel’s new play Leaving was the high point of a relationship that began over 30 years ago and of our many Havel productions it was the first that the author himself saw. Our recent staging of The Conspirators was our twelfth Havel production.

Like most of the best things in life, our association with Vaclav Havel and his plays was initially a matter of chance.

My attention had been drawn to the 1976 autumn edition of Index on Censorship, in which there was a translation of the first of the Vanek plays. I liked the play and quickly discovered that there was a companion piece and that translations were being prepared for BBC radio in which Harold Pinter was to play the role of the semi-autobiographical character of Vanek.

As chance would have it, not only were the plays available for the stage, but we were generously allowed to premiere our stage productions before the planned radio broadcast.

So we scheduled Audience and Private View for February 1977. Then on 1 January “Charter 77” burst upon the world and our author, one of the first three designated spokesmen for the Charter, became overnight the most famous living playwright in the world. Vaclav Havel and the events in Czechoslovakia were the big political news of the moment and we found ourselves caught up in Czech politics and made the decision to respond.

I immediately decided to follow the double bill with The Memorandum. In these days of forward planning such a reaction to the immediacy of events would, alas, be far more difficult. The Memorandum, which had been published in the UK and presented on both BBC Radio and Television (imagine a play by an obscure Czech playwright on BBC1 today?!), had not been produced on the stage.

The productions aroused considerable interest. The critics descended upon us and the room above the pub was packed. We plastered the walls up to the theatre with daily news cuttings about Czechoslovakia and found to our delight that we were acting as a little bit of a centre and a focus for the many concerned Czechs in London.

With input from our new friends (including Veronica Hyks, now responsible for our excellent audio-described performances) we created a documentary, which we called A Faraway Country and presented it at lunchtimes during the run of The Memorandum.

We also presented a lunchtime production of Guardian Angel. And throughout everything we were collecting signatures on a petition protesting at the treatment of our beleaguered author and his colleagues. Sixty or seventy of us, with Tom Stoppard at our head, and even accompanied by a political journalist or two, marched on the Czech Embassy to deliver it. They refused it. But we swiftly moved round into the tourism section and managed to thrust the list of signatories over the counter.

The next year we produced the British Premiere of The Increased Difficulty of Concentration and in 1980 there was a third Vanek play, Protest, and we produced it, as was intended, in a double bill with The License by Pavel Kohout.

Again we staged a documentary created by our arts council assistant director Anthony Clark (who returned to us this season to direct Next Time I’ll Sing to You). This documentary was a dramatisation of the trial of the Committee to Defend the Unjustly Prosecuted (the VONS trial) when Havel was given a four-and-a-half year prison sentence. The documentary, performed at four Sunday lunchtimes during the run of the double bill, involved a reading of part of Havel’s essay The Power of the Powerless which was read in turn by Peggy Ashcroft, Bernard Levin, James Saunders and Tom Stoppard.

And there was, of course, another petition. Somehow in the mid 1980s we missed doing the British Premiere of Largo Desolato (that happened in Bristol) but in 1987 we did do the London Premiere with Geoffrey Beevers as Leopold Kopriva and Auriol Smith as his wife Suzanne, who both 20 years later, appeared in Leaving.

Meeting the man himself

Sometime during these years, Havel’s translator Vera Blackwell, an exiled Czech, had expressed worry that his letters to her would be destroyed and never reach her. Would I act as an intermediary? If he addressed letters to me they might get through. I willingly agreed, relishing the thought of entering the world of John le Carre. I waited and waited. At last a letter arrived. It had clearly been opened and stuck together with inadequate sticky paper. As it was addressed to me I felt free to open it. It was in Czech of course, but instead of beginning “Dear Sam”, to put ‘them’ off the scent, it began “Dear Vera”, which I rather thought gave the game away. I never received another.

I always rather hoped that the Czech authorities would consider us subversive enough to monitor our Havel supporting activities and so when my elder daughter was to visit Czechoslovakia with the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, I visualised her at Prague airport being whisked off by the powers that be and returned home. Headlines for a day. This did not happen, however, and she was able, unmolested, to take the reviews of all our productions along to Havel’s flat.

My opportunity of meeting with Vaclav Havel happened a year or two later when in 1989 I was awarded a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. Part of my travelling grant was to be spent in Prague visiting our playwright. On Friday 17 November a student demonstration was broken up by the police. I arrived in Prague on the Tuesday evening. Instead of a furtive visit to his flat under the watchful eyes of the secret police, my first view of Vaclav Havel was in Wenceslas Square as he addressed half a million people and played the leading role in changing the history of his country.

As in 1977, once again Vaclav Havel had led me into heady times. I was introduced in debates at theatres, rattled my keys in Wenceslas Square and gate crashed press conferences, where on one occasion I found myself sitting next to Michael Simmons, the Guardian’s Eastern European correspondent, who was to write a book about Havel, The Reluctant President, and who I have known ever since.

When my wife Auriol Smith arrived to join me, through the good offices of the theatre director the late Jan Grossman, despite the pressure that he was under, we got at last got to meet him in his flat. He apologised that he was so busy and said “we are in the middle of a revolution and we are amateurs”. He knew of our small theatre and was grateful for our productions and support of him and his colleagues. We all then moved to the final gathering at the Magic Lantern Theatre, which had been acting as a headquarters of the Civic Forum and the venue for the packed press conferences. It was then that we acquired our “Havel for President” badges.

In 1990, with Havel now installed in Prague Castle as his country’s President, we presented the British Stage Premiere of Redevelopment. This was the final new production in the room above the pub before we moved from over the road into our current theatre. And having moved himself from imprisoned dissident to President in a matter of months, it was also the last full length play that Vaclav Havel would write for 20 years.

In the new theatre we returned to The Memorandum in 1995 and in 2003, the year that his Presidency of his country came to an end, we presented the British Premiere of Havel’s version of The Beggar’s Opera - the only one of his plays to have been staged in Czechoslovakia between 1968 and 1990, albeit for only one secret performance.

In 2007, we are asked by the Czech Centre and the Czech Embassy to host a celebration of the 30th anniversary of Charter 77. We are delighted and honoured to do so.

There were a number of distinguished chartists, as well as people from this country who were involved in the events. The presence of President Havel, who had just spent time in America, was not expected. But then suddenly we were told he was to be here. So after 30 years of the theatre’s association with his plays Vaclav Havel was not only to visit the Orange Tree Theatre, but to perform here.

The evening opened with the first few pages of Audience being read by Havel and Pavel Landovsky, the actor and fellow Chartist. It was a wonderful occasion, and a right and proper climax to our long and fruitful association.

This is an edited extract from Sam Walters' programme notes for The Conspirators, which received its UK premiere at the Orange Tree in September.


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