With rare foresight, Czech political hero Vaclav Havel began writing his play about a deposed head of state before the Velvet Revolution swept him into high office. But he completed it in the bitter years after being ousted from Prague Castle by bureaucrats in the service of a new administration.
Following shortly after a Prague first performance, the Orange Tree makes fringe theatre history with its ambitious English language premiere, the cast so numerous that curtain calls are divided in two.
Cheers then for achievement, but what of the play? Havel uses the dynamics of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard to structure his story of a family and its retinue forced to depart from a familiar home, leaving an upstart in charge - Robert Austin as the thuggish president-in-waiting - and their forgotten ancient servant.
He overlays this with parallel quotes from Shakespeare’s Lear to show the deposed incumbent going mad, but the result is less tragicomic than a reminder of those domestic moral fables Priestley wrote in his later years. He also slows the pace with authorial comments on the art of playmaking that in Sam Walters’ complex production, boom in the voice-over of Havel himself.
Geoffrey Beevers as the deposed president is more a bemused figure of farce than a toppled man of authority, his world turning into combination of two-faced sycophants, political rhubarb, bopping nightclub nightmares and a male streaker.
But there are strong performances from Carolyn Backhouse as his Thatcherite mistress, Paula Stockbridge an eye-catching woman of mystery, Auriol Smith delightful as the ex-president’s long-suffering mother, and a suave secretary played with smiling unction by David Antrobus.
This is an important cultural occasion, but is likely to be overshadowed by the upcoming revivals of Havel’s earlier oeuvre.