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Mountain Hotel & Audience

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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The interesting season of Vaclav Havel plays continues at the enterprising Orange Tree with a double bill from the 1970s. Interesting, enterprising ... oh dear, that sounds like a trumpet for something best avoided. I’ll be telling you next that the season’s “worthwhile.”

Well, it jolly well is. Havel is a wonderful writer and we should be so lucky to sit here enjoying his plays without having had to suffer, as he did, under Communist censorship and vigilantism, let alone spend four and a half years in prison. Admittedly Havel himself then had a few perks as President of former Czechoslovakia. But he’s one of the great heroic figures of our times, and these plays show how prescient, cunning, witty and brave he was in periods of fear and repression.

And they are deftly, spiritedly presented at the Orange Tree in lovely productions by Sam Walters and Geoffrey Beevers.  Mountain Hotel, a British premiere translated by Jitka Martinova, is a Pirandellian farce set in a forest resort, where tourists play word games with each other across five scenes of accelerating surrealism, exchanging phrases and finally characters. Two grey-suited authority figures pass enigmatically through. The company fragments and re-forms in a strangely moving “valse macabre”.

The guests include a blocked writer (Stuart Fox), a Russian count (James Greene) who’s convinced a dashing, hollow-eyed diva (the extraordinary Esther Ruth Elliott) was his lover in Paris, a knitting, displaced aristocrat (Paula Stockbridge) who retires upstairs with a different man in each scene, and a pair of conspiratorial gigglers who say nothing.

These last two are played by Robert Austin and David Antrobus, who appear in the bill’s opener, Audience, as the foreman of a brewery and the stoically disgruntled writer Vanek, reduced to rolling barrels in the cellar. This gem of a two-hander, premiered at the Orange Tree thirty years ago,  uses repetition as an accumulation of institutionalised threat, punctuated by the foreman’s comical lurching offstage to the loo, bladder bloated with his own bottled beer. The actors pitch this momentum, and the subterranean rumble of big trouble, with absolute precision.

The foreman turns into an interrogating bully. “Are you in cahoots with Kohout?” is a brilliant phrase in the translation by Carol Rocomara and Tomas Rychetsky, a reference to Havel’s comradeship with Pavel Kohout, a fellow dissident and founding member of Charter 77 in the bad old days.

- Michael Coveney


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