by Nastazja Somers
When I leave Velvel Havel by the Czech Theatre on the Balustrade, I burst out laughing every few minutes. I am walking on air. Air that is filled with ideas, pictures, smells, but above all, this air is home. It’s a revolution of sorts.
I sit down to write this and I realise I don’t know where to start. I would like to think that everyone knows who Vaclav Havel is but after years of living in the UK I know better than this. So, let me begin here:
Vaclav Havel was a theatremaker and a revolutionary. This year, aside from celebrating 30 years since first free elections in Poland, 30 years since Rendszerváltás in Hungary, and 30 years since the fall of The Berlin Wall, we are also celebrating 30 years since the Velvet Revolution. I want you to know this happened and remember it. Theatre company Divadlo Na Zábradlí wants you to know that revolutions are messy and complicated because people are messy and complicated.
Directed by Jan Frič, Velvet Havel is a collage of sorts. It’s a non-linear selection of pictures, songs and moments from Havels’ life that not only bring us closer to understand its complexity, his relationship and beliefs, but also give British audiences a great taste of Eastern European sense of humour. This production is messy, hilarious, but above all it allows you to laugh – at yourself, at your heroes or even at specific moments in history. The piece is collaborative and the whole cast, together with a band of musicians, own the stage and unashamedly do not take themselves too seriously. The musicians supports the production with some great tunes.
Miloslav König as the young Havel brings so much idealism into the role and his relationship with his wife Olga, played by Dita Kaplanová. It is incredible to watch. The Czech Republic’s First Lady Olga Havel deserves just as much time and nuance as her husband and this production highlights how much of Vaclav’s achievements were down to a supportive and non-conformist woman by his side. The master of the ceremony, or if you wish the master of the production, is Vaclav’s uncle Miloš Havel. Played by Petr Jeništa, the character is delightfully camp and anyone who grew up in Eastern Europe will be reminded of all the wonderful comic characters on children’s telly whilst watching him. He is the good uncle, even if slightly troubled.
Special mention has to go to Vojtĕch Vondráček, who multiroles, although always in the costume of a tree. Perhaps this sums up this production perfectly – yes, there is a man dressed as a tree, and yes he plays Salman Rushdie. And yes, Vaclav gets to meet his fellow Polish revolutionaries, and yes they exchange books and talk nonsense and cheer and scream when Grotowski gets mentioned. You might not get it, but oh my, to us Eastern Europeans seeing that on a British stage it means the world.
I loose track of how many productions I see per year. The shows I’ve seen in 2019 have generally been disappointing, but Velvet Havel reminded me why I do what I do. What a shame this production played for only one night. It might be messy, crazy or even confusing, but what isn’t? People aren’t just historical figures who once led revolutions and now have airports named after them. We are all a multitude of complexities. We all speak in different forms.
Velvet Havel runs through 21 November in London.
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