The great funeral of Havel, a grey-haired Casanova who smoked too much,’ says Uncle Miloš, with the pomaded hair and white evening suit of a 1930s matinee idol, who steps over to awaken Havel, lying in state, with a cigarette.
The stage is then set for a fast-paced musical, absurdist exploration of Havel the man in search of truth and ideals, the dissident and improbable politician, his loves and his humanity with all its flaws. We’re in the 1960s when Olga his wife, managing to smoke four ciggies at once tucked into her fingers, sings her story ‘I don’t display them like buns in an oven’ while a younger woman cavorts with her husband, who confides, ‘You’d never imagine how difficult it is to unbutton a bra – I’ll have to ask Olga.’
Slapstick comedy, philosophy and music continue to collide in an entertaining elision of scenes. ‘National pride is a great luxury for a small nation’ says Havel as he envies the Poles of their greatness. Olga settles into a deck chair, as a tree announces he’s universal and takes on the role of Salman Rushdie telling us that Havel’s ‘the only president not afraid to meet me.’ The tree then becomes the Dalai Lama with a water pistol. Olga is always at hand to provide sanguine advice to her husband, ‘Don’t soil your pants with all your understanding.’ Havel’s in prison discovering that prisoners don’t even have the right to joke. ‘Trust and love must prevail over hatred and lies’.
Velvet Havel (Writer/Composer Miloš Orson Štědroň, 2014) was presented by the Prague based Theatre of the Balustrade where Havel developed his talents as a playwright in the 1960s but was forced to leave in 1968 after his activities in the Prague Spring brought him under the surveillance of the secret police and a number of stretches in prison – the longest nearly four years between 1979 and 1983, which was documented in letters to his wife later published as Letters to Olga (1989). None of this deterred Havel, whose Civic Forum party played a key role in 1989 Velvet Revolution and the subsequent break-up of the Warsaw pact countries.
Štědroň’s tale takes us on Havel’s Journey to becoming the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia in 1989 and subsequently President of the Czech Republic in 1993. When his womanising finally catches up with him –his lover reveals her pregnancy and Havel dreams of Olga looking after everything. His hopes for domestic harmony are dashed when the Tree emerges as Hans Kaspar who says he’s won the heart of the doggedly patient Olga and his lover has had an abortion – he’s too much of a child to be a father.
Havel remains a much loved hero of the Czech Republic for his courage as well as his common humanity. As the result of a popular on-line petition Prague Airport was renamed the Václav Havel Airport Prague in 2012.
There was a lot of laughter and cheers emanating from the audience during the performance which unsurprisingly was sold out at Rich Mix. Velvet Havel is a well-deserved winner of five major Czech Theatre Critics’ Awards and is part of a month long celebration by the London Czech Centre marking thirty years since the Velvet Revolution.
- Velvet Havel: http://london.czechcentres.cz/programme/travel-events/velvet-havel1/
- Miloš Orson Štědroň: http://www.orson.cz/content/text/cz/?zivotopis
- Theatre of the Balustrade http://www.nazabradli.cz