Václav Havel has a long association with the Orange Tree. The theatre mounted its first production by the Czech writer and erstwhile president in the late 1970s and has gone on to stage a range of his plays, including several premieres, in the ensuing years. It’s appropriate, then, that the theatre’s 40th anniversary season should commence with a play by Havel: in this case, a 1971 work here receiving its first-ever British production. The Conspirators was the first play that Havel wrote as a “banned” playwright, following the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet forces, and it takes as its focus the complexities and ironies of a post-Revolutionary period.
Set in an unspecified country, the piece opens following the fall of the brutal dictatorship of one General Olah. The situation is a precarious one: the arrest of the new Prime Minister’s Permanent Secretary, Stein (Alister Cameron), who’s accused of being a “fanatical follower of the dictatorship,” has led to student demonstrations, and the fledgling democracy is already looking decidedly fragile. With rumours rife that Olah is in fact still alive, and preparing to mobilise his supporters, a concerned group made up of the State Prosecutor (Christopher Ravenscroft), Major Ofir (Paul Gilmore), the Head of Censorship (Kieron Jecchinis), the Chief of Police, Colonel Moher (David Rintoul), and the wealthy widow Helga (Lucy Tregear) meet to discuss their options. Their decision to set up a Revolutionary Council leads to its own set of problems, however, not least the pressing question of who will be its chairman.
The premise might suggest an evening of worthy-but-dull political debate, but the mischievous Havel has a few delightful tricks up his sleeve. He’s a writer who’s unafraid of sharp changes in tone, and his anarchic humour - not all of it exactly highbrow - erupts at the most unexpected of moments. Energetic injections of farce (plus some rather unexpected S&M encounters) punctuate the political machinations, and the production gets funnier as it goes along, with running gags and repetitions adding up to some priceless comic moments in the second half. Aided by a strong translation by Tomas Rychetsky and Carol Rocamora, Sam Walters’s production proves thoroughly adept at navigating these shifts in mood. The approach is sometimes heavy-handed - Vincent Brimble’s Prime Minister praises the country’s prison system as we listen to the sounds of a man being tortured, for example - but the occasional lapses of taste and subtlety generate their own meaning and momentum. While some may quibble with the lack of specific context - the production certainly invites us to “insert contemporary parallel here” - Havel’s approach avoids getting the play bogged down in historical data, instead allowing us to ponder the tensions and paradoxes inherent in any post-Revolutionary situation. The playwright piles irony upon irony as the manipulations and betrayals mount up.
The production also benefits from the sterling efforts of its large cast. Paul Gilmore and Kieron Jecchinis deliver wonderfully funny performances as the mild-mannered Major and the silly Censor respectively, while David Rintoul makes a strong impression as the bullish, whip-wielding Colonel. Lucy Treager is also good value as the manipulative Helga, a woman who swaps sexual partners and allegiances with hilarious rapidity. Best of all, though, is Christopher Ravenscroft, as the ageing, disappointed Prosecutor, frustrated with his “homebody” wife (Claire Vousden) and lusting hopelessly after his secretary (Mona Goodwin). The role could simply result in a crude caricature of a performance but Ravenscroft invests it with his customary sensitivity and nuance; he’s an actor who seems to bring a touch of soulfulness to every part he plays.
At times it seems that Havel doesn’t quite have his material entirely in his grasp. Some promising roles and plot-lines sadly go to waste - I expected to see more of James Corscadden and Jill McAusland as Helga’s son and niece, for one. And the rather abrupt ending lacks a bit of punch and definition. The quirkiness of The Conspirators may not be to all tastes, but this is a lively and thought-provoking evening that gets the Orange Tree’s 40th season off to an excellent start.
The production runs for 2 hours 25 minutes and is booking until 1st October. Further information at the Orange Tree website.