Václav Havel - "Leaving", but also returning
In this week's Arts, a look at the first new play by former Czech president Václav Havel in twenty years. "Leaving" - about a politician's painful adjustment to a new life after leaving politics - opened at Prague's Archa Theatre on May 22nd, marking a return to the stage for Mr Havel, a world-renowned playwright when he entered politics in 1989.
"I was interested - and indeed am still interested - in the more general, existential side of things. I was interested in how come when someone loses power, that person also loses the meaning of life? How come power has such charisma for some people that its loss means the collapse of that person's world?"
"I think it's a very contemporary play. It's very well written. It's one of the best plays he has ever written. I think it's a really, really great play, which has very important connotations to our lives right now. What I like about the play is also how it is written, the way how he works with text and how he also intervenes with his own comments."
The most controversial character is Rieger's nemesis Vlastík Klein, the former deputy who becomes chancellor at the play's end. Klein is an unpleasant, calculating figure surrounded by a coterie of shady businessmen, who orders the cherry orchard to be cut down to make way for a shopping mall, casino and brothel.
Some believe Vlastík Klein is a clear reference to one man - Mr Havel's real-life successor Václav Klaus. The two politicians have frequently clashed over the years, in particular during the controversial privatisation schemes of the 1990s, a period that led Mr Havel to coin the phrase "mafia capitalism". But Jitka Sloupová says we should treat the apparent similarity between Vlastík Klein and Václav Klaus with just a pinch of salt:
"May I make a gossip?! Because as far as I know from the author, it was not inspired entirely - or not in the first place - by Václav Klaus. This character is based on another politician and on some personal experience with another politician, and it also has some connotations in the names, but it's a theatre figure, theatre character, not a living person."
There is of course one person missing from the production - Mr Havel's wife the actress Dagmar Havlová, who pulled out of the play just three weeks before it was due to start on health grounds. She's been replaced by another member of the cast, Zuzana Stivínová, who's done an admirable job of learning the part at very short notice. Václav Havel wrote "Leaving" with Dagmar Havlová in mind for the main female role, Rieger's girlfriend Irena, and indeed it was partly his insistence that she play the female lead that led to the collapse of talks on staging the play at the National Theatre. Jitka Sloupová once again:
"It would be very, very interesting I think to have Mrs Havlová in the play, but I think Zuzana Stivínová is one of the most interesting actresses as well. She has a similar charisma as Dagmar, as you may have noticed. Of course the presence of Dagmar Havlová in the play would bring some other meanings and probably more charisma to the character, but I think it hasn't had any crucial influence on the play."
"The play's called Leaving, and by that I mean 'leaving' in the most general sense of the word. Time passes, everything that happens never happens again, yet at the same time everything that's happened cannot 'unhappen'. So all these moments pass us by in our lives, things 'leave', yet at the same time new things 'arrive', and of course some things 'return'. And in the last few weeks I've had the sense of returning, of returning not only physically to the theatre but also returning to my very beginnings as a playwright in the late 1950s and early 1960s."