To mark the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, a show about Vaclav Havel, the former Czech Republic president and playwright, will be performed in London to coincide with a celebratory festival in the capital. Francesca Peschier reports on exciting times for Czech arts
Theatre in the Czech Republic is not very political, at least when compared with Hungary, Poland or Russia, says Dora Vicenikova, artistic director of Prague’s Theatre on the Balustrade (Divadlo na Zabradli). However, the Czech Centre has chosen to bring a very political-sounding show from her theatre to London for the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.
Czech Velvet 1989 will mark the anniversary of the collapse of what was then Czechoslovakia’s communist regime – it was called ‘Velvet’ due to its lack of violence – with a London performance of Velvet Havel, a long-running comic musical that shines a light on the personal life of writer and activist Vaclav Havel.
Havel was a playwright who became the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia and later, in 1993, the first president of the Czech Republic. Velvet Havel has been playing in repertory at Divadlo na Zabradli since 2014 with outings in Slovakia and Poland, but its appearance at Rich Mix’s Studio this month will be its UK premiere.
Directed by Jan Fric, with music by legendary Czech composer Milos Orson Stedron, Velvet Havel is a light-hearted skewering of the president’s life, his romantic entanglements and love of beer, theatre and cigarettes. Its motivation, says Vicenikova, was to show Havel “in his dressing gown”.
Vicenikova wanted Stedron, who had previously curated musical biographies of other Czech icons including composer Antonin Dvorak, to avoid creating a “monument to Havel”. Instead, Stedron was to reveal the face of the politician at home. Such is the celebrity and significance of Havel in his home city that the makers were unconcerned with the facts, instead purposefully, as one Czech critic put it, removing “Havel’s golden halo”. And it’s a style that has paid off: on its premiere, the show scooped five of the major Czech Theatre Critics’ Awards, including best new play and show of the year.
There is no analysis of Havel’s philosophical leanings in Stedron’s cabaret, and those without previous knowledge of Havel’s life may struggle to grasp his impact on Czech culture, even with the English surtitles. Instead, the musical plays out moments of his life in exaggerated hyperbole. Characters appear through swathes of cigarette smoke on a sloping set, designed by sculptor David Cerny (a personal friend of Havel’s) as if each carrying their own personal haze machine.
Stedron places as much focus on Havel’s uncle Milos, a film-maker, as Havel himself. “He emerged as a key figure in Havel’s life,” says Stedron. “Openly gay, out of his time and a huge influence on Havel.” Dressed in white, Milos appears as an impresario emcee throughout the show, guiding his nephew and encouraging bohemian hedonism.
Havel’s complex relationships with women are also central. His long-suffering, working-class wife Olga, played by Dita Kaplanova, is the maternal counterfoil to Stedron’s juvenile Havel. Meanwhile, Judith/The Muse (Anezka Kubatova) is a femme fatale amalgamation of all of Havel’s love affairs.
At times it seems incongruous seeing this revered figure of the revolution reduced to a man-child, pawing after a short skirt, but Stedron argues it was all part of Havel’s everyman charm. “His marriage to Olga was one of convenience that kept him grounded,” he shrugs. “But women were drawn to Havel’s childishness. This part of him is never examined due to him being so iconic.”
This year is also Divadlo na Zabradli’s 60th anniversary. The theatre began as a warehouse heated by a single stove, growing into one of Prague’s main spaces for Czech-language drama, including translations and new writing. Currently in its sixth season of repertory under Vicenikova, the theatre maintains a central company to cover each season of up to 17 shows.
In spite of regular surtitled performances, the audiences remain 90% Czech and pleasingly multigenerational. “This is a good time for Czech theatre,” enthuses Vicenikova. “We are subsidised by the local council and have recently been through a huge reconstruction with a whole new entrance. The economy is strong, we have an exciting new generation of directors, and people are interested.”
A walk around Prague is a constant theatrical treasure hunt with more than 40 theatres in the capital city alone. They range from the traditional black light shows – illusionary spectaculars with lashings of UV, typified by the theatre of the same name – cabarets, puppet shows including the National Marionette Theatre (its production of Don Giovanni has run for more than 4,000 performances) to the gold-roofed National Theatre (Narodni Divadlo), the only centrally state-funded theatre in the Czech Republic. “But we are not political,” Vicenikova says. “There are political statements happening in small-scale theatre, mainly in basements. But not in the big theatres.”
‘There are political statements happening in small-scale theatre, mainly in basements. But not in the big theatres’ – Dora Vicenikova, artistic director of Theatre on the Balustrade
Yet theatre was both a practical tool of resistance and carried important symbolic capital in the Velvet Revolution. The actor and revolutionary Vlasta Chramostova proclaimed what would become one of the revolution’s slogans to a rally outside Vinohrady Theatre: “If not now, when? If not us, then who?”
A few days later on November 28, 1989, in the home of the Magic Lantern Theatre, the Civic Forum, headed up by Havel, cracked a bottle of champagne to officially mark the end of Communist rule.
1. Musical satire The Madness of George Dubya by Justin Butcher. Spawned sequels A Weapons Inspector Calls and Guantanamo Baywatch.
2. Moira Buffini’s Handbagged explored the relationship between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher.
3. Jamie Lloyd’s blockbuster take on Evita, which returns to London’s Barbican in July 2020.
4. The Mandela musical is in the works with South African team Greg Dean Borowsky and Shaun Borowsky. Madiba the Musical toured Australia with a French creative team earlier this year.
5. Assassins runs at Nottingham Playhouse and Watermill Theatre, Newbury, until November 16.
Havel died in 2011 and his reputation remains lionised in Czech imagination – although some of the younger generation may be less familiar with his theatrical career, says Jitka Sloupova, custodian of the Vaclav Havel Library and his literary agent. “My hairdresser had no idea that he’d written plays,” she says.
Having started at Divadlo na Zabradli as a stage hand, Havel wrote his first play for the theatre in 1963. Mixing theatre of the absurd with political satire, The Garden Party mocked nonsensical bureaucracy.
More works followed, including The Memorandum and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, written during the Prague Spring’s window of liberalism.
That short-lived attempt by then first secretary Alexander Dubcek’s attempt to introduce “communism with a human face” was brought to an abrupt end with the invasion of Soviet tanks in 1968. Along with other members of Charter 77, the group that had petitioned the communist government for human rights and freedom, Havel and his writings were blacklisted.
Although Havel’s works were banned during the Soviet crackdown, they continued to be performed both abroad and secretly in the city in what was called ‘living room’ performances, held clandestinely in artists’ homes.
After stepping down from the presidency in 2003, Havel returned to drama with the semi-autobiographical Leaving, which had its UK premiere at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. Although Leaving was Havel’s first new play in 20 years, there was a theatricality to his time in office. This was reflected both in his flair for the dramatic – including commissioning the Rolling Stones’ lighting designer to illuminate Prague Castle – and in how his background informed his style of governance.
“Many of the things that made Havel a great statesman were connected to his roots in theatre,” says Sloupova. She describes how although Havel was inherently modest and shy, he thought, and ran rooms, like a theatre director.
“His brain was working all the time,” she says. “He knew how to organise people and get the best out of them. He threw a good party and knew how to connect people together to get things done. He was pedantic and organised in everything he did… well, apart from his love life.”
General director: Dora Vicenikova
Spaces: Striped Hall (180 seats), Eliade Library (55 seats)
Number of productions: 15 in the repertoire now, four to five new productions per season
Audience figures in 2018: 231 performances; 26,528 tickets sold; 21 on tour
Staff: 50 full-time, including actors
Box office income 2017-18: 5,598,000 CZK (£188,455)
Funders: Prague City Council, individual sponsors/donators. The Ministry of Culture participates on some projects
Key contacts: Alexandra Polakova: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Velvet Havel is on at Rich Mix Studio, London, on November 21: richmix.org.uk. The Czech Velvet festival runs from November 1-29 at venues including Rix Mix, Regent Street Cinema and UCL: czechcentre.org.uk