Sam Walters and Václav Havel: theatre on the political stage

Sam Walters, photo: David Vaughan

Sam Walters is one of Britain’s most acclaimed theatrical directors and during his four decades as artistic director of The Orange Tree Theatre in south-west London, the theatre has enjoyed an unrivalled reputation. In today’s Czech Books, he talks to David Vaughan about his very special relationship to the work of Václav Havel.

Sam Walters,  photo: David Vaughan
Thanks to Sam Walters, The Orange Tree Theatre has probably staged more productions of Havel’s plays than any other theatre outside the Czech Republic, and the success of these productions reminds us that Havel the playwright is a great deal more than a historical curiosity. The theatre’s association with Havel goes back to his dissident days in in the mid-1970s and it began with productions of Audience and Private View, two of the plays featuring that typically Havellian writer-protagonist, Vaněk. Over the years the theatre has put on a total of twelve different Havel productions, including such classics as The Memorandum, a surreal farce about a new language that is imposed to make an office run more efficiently, and Redevelopment, that revolves around an ill-conceived high-rise development scheme. In 2008 Sam Walters also directed the first English-language production of Havel’s last play, Leaving. During a recent visit to Prague, he talked to me about this fruitful artistic relationship.

“It started by chance. At the end of 1976 my attention was drawn to a publication called Index on Censorship, which at the time took a great interest in what was happening in Eastern Europe. At the back of this particular autumn edition was the first of the Vaněk plays, Audience – although at that time it was called Conversation.”

This is the famous Havel play set in a brewery. In the Czech Republic it is probably the best known of Havel’s plays.

“Yes, it is the first of the Vaněk plays – that semi-autobiographical character. I liked the play and discovered fairly quickly that there was a second one called Vernisáž – Private View – that went with it. Translations were being prepared for it to be done on the radio, with Harold Pinter playing the Vaněk character. And I asked if I could do them on the stage. Permission was very kindly granted before it had been done on the radio for us to put on these two plays as a double bill. Then, just as we were in rehearsal, Charter 77 hit the headlines and suddenly Václav Havel became the most famous living playwright in the world – overnight – and we were doing his plays.”

What impact did that have on the production and on the reception of the production?

Václav Havel,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský
“It had a tremendous impact on both – and on the theatre. I thought that I should follow up this coincidence. So we did the double-bill of the Vaněk plays and we followed it with The Memorandum, and I then organized the creation of a documentary about Czechoslovakia. We called it A Faraway Country, echoing Neville Chamberlain’s infamous speech of 1938. We got very involved in Czech politics and organized a petition. Havel was being arrested. His big prison sentence was to come later, but he was certainly being beleaguered and interrogated and so on – and put into jail for various periods of months, as were others involved with the Charter. So we organized a petition with the audiences when they were coming to the theatre and we marched on the Czechoslovak Embassy with Tom Stoppard and generally got involved in Czech politics. You can feel sometimes in the theatre that you’re involved on the peripheries of life, that dressing up and pretending to be other people isn’t a serious way for people to conduct themselves, but suddenly you find that what you are doing is involved with something on the political stages of the world. You think that maybe what we’re doing has got some importance. So we just got very involved.”

The flip side of that is the danger that you forget about Havel as a playwright. Everybody’s talking about politics in Czechoslovakia, but the focus is taken away from the substance of the plays and what they’re saying in themselves.

“I’ve just been at a conference on staging Havel and my contribution was exactly that. Can Havel be properly assessed as a playwright without us being aware of who he was as a man, what he did and what he achieved and what he stood for? Clearly that is a problem. And to go back to your earlier question, of course the very fact that he was in the news did mean that the critics poured in to see the plays, which they then wrote about with great praise, all the time, of course, relating the plays to his life and to him as a man and to what was happening politically in the country. So what you said is certainly true.”

What were these productions like? Did you try to create the atmosphere of Europe behind the Iron Curtain at that time – in the late 70s – or did you go for a more universal approach?

Film version of 'Odcházení'
“I think a more universal approach, and certainly in the Vaněk plays the settings are fairly straightforward. It’s an office in a brewery with the brew master interrogating the Vaněk character and trying to get him to spy on himself. And then it’s a room in a house in Private View, where Vaněk calls. So there’s nothing that we did in the productions to say that this is from Eastern Europe. And the same is true of The Memorandum. That is about the universal imposition of an office language and although clearly anyone in Czechoslovakia would have seen it as the imposition of a political system, it could be the imposition of any officialdom. That’s what is so good about his plays, that they are specifically about the world that he was living in, but they have a universality that is beyond that. So The Memorandum is a play about any imposition of a system that dehumanizes people. It doesn’t have to be about communism. It’s the same with Redevelopment. People are always redeveloping things. Architects are always knocking down buildings. They’re always saying that things have got to change, that we’ve got to put this under new management, we’ve got to knock that down to create the new, modern facilities. Although it is probably an allegory about a political system being imposed, it isn’t only that. It has a wider inference.”

Another interesting example is in the Havel radio play, Guardian Angel, which we produced at Radio Prague a few years ago. It has a character who knows absolutely everything about the playwright he comes to visit. This seems very relevant to today’s age, when there is so much information out there that is being gathered and can be gathered. Probably even more than in the 60s when he wrote the play you can find yourself in a situation where other people know more about you than you know yourself.

“And the Edward Snowden revelations recently have made that only too apparent. Even people like me, who are not terribly au fait with the modern media, have things popping up on their computer and receive emails. Just because I once bought something online from somebody, I’m now pestered constantly because they know about me. Clearly some of these plays are going to become more relevant.”

And Havel is one of those writers who point to the dangers of what seems at first sight relatively harmless – like a new language to make the office work efficiently. It sounds okay, but the other side of that is Orwell’s Newspeak.

“Absolutely. I’m very interested that you raised the question as to whether the political side of Havel’s life obscures our proper evaluation of him as a playwright. Maybe it does at the moment and maybe as time passes his qualities, which I think are tremendous, will come out. And it is worth remembering that he’s funny. We forget what a theatrical playwright he is, what fun his plays are and what fun there is in them. So I think that they will live as time goes by. They will become more and more relevant and they won’t lose their power as plays. He’s a wonderful writer.”

'Citizen Havel'
There’s an excellent documentary film about Havel [Citizen Havel] that follows his life as president. One of the things that I realized from watching this film is that theatre was part of all his life. Whenever he was making any kind of public appearance, he was obsessed with minute details. In this film you can see him deciding exactly who’s going to sit where, who’s going to talk when, what the main subjects are going to be – and this is during his career as a politician. He was a theatrical man through and through.

“Yes. Perhaps we’re wrong to think that it’s his political life that is overloading or obscuring his writing life. Perhaps it’s his writing life that overloaded his political life. And another thing that’s extraordinary about him is that from 1968 till probably 2008 he was never involved in the rehearsals of his plays. Has another playwright managed to sustain such a writing life and career without any hand-on communication with actors and directors in a proper rehearsal room? There may have been readings of his plays underground and so on, but he wasn’t allowed to practise his playwriting. I did pick up from someone at the conference that he was quite an interventionist playwright, that there are notebooks of the notes that he wrote for actors when The Memorandum was first done in the 60s at the Divadlo Na Zábradlí [Theatre on the Balustrade], and that he really knew precisely what he wanted. He had that directorial side to him as a playwright, but he wasn’t able to exercise it for decades.”

And you put on the first English production of his last play Leaving – Odcházení – [2008] which in a very Havel way does mix up Havel the politician and Havel the playwright, because it is all about a politician who has left politics, just as Havel himself had at the time. That must have been fun.

“It was. And it was the only time, of course, that I was able to discuss any of his plays with him. My wife Auriol Smith and I came over to have a discussion with him about the play, which was very good. And then he came to see it and I think he liked it.”

What insights did he give you when you were talking about the play?

“I certainly had a particular question about the moment when the author’s voice comes over, telling the actors what to do or criticizing what they’ve done throughout the play. And I think he had put something in about everybody freezing statically on the stage while that happened. The first thing he said when we sat round the table was: ‘Oh, by the way, you can ignore that because I’ve changed my mind.’ And I thought: ‘Ah, that was the big thing I was going to talk about, but it’s already gone.’ But I was very pleased about one thing at the meeting. I asked if he could possibly record the voice for us, because this is the voice of the author and it would be very nice to have him doing it – in English. I think his voice was used in the Czech production. And after a certain moment of reluctance he agreed. So it was very nice when we did the play to actually have him coming over the sound system, instructing the actors. It was great fun to do the play and as always when doing his plays, particularly in 1977 and then again in 2008, one felt a slight weight of responsibility. Particularly in 1977, here was a playwright who I felt I needed to do as well as possible, so that his plays could be seen by English audiences at a time when he himself was in prison, beleaguered and persecuted in his own country. It gave one a sense of responsibility. Of course the same was true when I did Leaving and knew that he was going to come over and see it. I thought: ‘After all these years he’s known we’ve done his plays and now he’ll come and see how we do them.’ I desperately wanted him to approve.”

Václav Havel,  photo: Tomáš Adamec
And now, two-and-a-half years after his death, there’s another kind of responsibility. There’s a responsibility towards his legacy.

“There is, and that’s going to be perhaps the most difficult in a way, because there must come a time when young people may feel in this country and maybe in our country that he was writing about things that have gone, time that has passed. This is yesterday’s situation and he’s a playwright of a few years back. What relevance has he got to us now? I think that, if people do feel that, I think time will mend that. Time will make people want to turn back and as we think about this particular period in history, not just for Czechoslovakia, but for all the countries that were under communist or other dictatorial rule in the 20th century, his plays will be seen as a very vivid picture of the times.”