Havel’s new play premieres in Prague

'Odcházení', photo: Jaroslav Prokop

Last-minute rehearsals before the long-awaited world premiere of Václav Havel’s latest play at Prague’s Archa Theatre on Thursday night. Leaving or Odcházení, is the first play the former Czech president has written in more than two decades. It tells the story of a high-ranking politician who leaves his post and sees his world fall apart. The play is inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear and Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard and is about the passage of power from one generation to the next. The former dissident insists that it is not based on his own experiences, as he started writing it way back in the 1980s, not knowing at that time that he would one day become the president of Czechoslovakia, and later the Czech Republic.

Václav Havel,  photo: CTK
The staging of Leaving was preceded by months of difficult negotiations. The play was originally to be staged by the National Theatre. However, Mr Havel withdrew the play after the theatre refused to cast his wife Dagmar in the lead role, which he said had been written for her. The production was then taken up by another prestigious theatre, Divadlo Na Vinohradech, but it soon backed out of the talks citing limited finances. Neither did Havel come to an agreement with the theatre he is most closely associated with, Divadlo Na Zábradlí, which he said was too small for his play. The challenge of producing the play was finally taken up by the small, avant-garde Archa Theatre.

All appeared to be going well, but by an unexpected twist of fate the expresident’s wife Dagmar will not appear in the lead role as planned. Just two weeks ahead of the premiere she said that much to her regret she was having to give up the role for health reasons. She was replaced at the last minute by another well-known actress, Zuzana Stivínová, who will star in the play alongside Havel’s longtime friend Jan Tříska. Leaving premiers on Thursday night but journalists who attended the dress rehearsal a few days ago are already full of praise.

Havel’s latest play has already been translated into English and a number of other languages. Following the premiere in Prague, it will appear on stages around the world. The first foreign premiere of Leaving will take place in London’s Orange Tree Theatre on September 26.