Václav Havel - "Leaving", but also returning

'Odcházení', photo: Jaroslav Prokop

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.

Václav Havel,  photo: CTK
"Leaving" is one of the most keenly awaited plays to hit the Czech stage in recent years. Václav Havel actually began writing the play back in 1989, but set it aside to concentrate on more pressing matters - leading a revolution to bring down Czechoslovakia's communist regime. Now, five years after stepping down after two terms as Czech president, Mr Havel is back. At a packed press conference a few days before the premiere, the 71-year-old dramatist explained the inspiration behind the play:

"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?"

David Radok,  Václav Havel,  Ondřej Hrab,  photo: CTK
"Leaving" tells the story of Vilém Rieger, the former chancellor of an unnamed country fighting eviction from his lavish government villa at the hands of his shady deputy, Vlastík Klein. The villa is located in a large orchard of cherry trees, and the play is scattered with references both to Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and to Shakespeare's King Lear, two plays that both deal with the theme of a loss of power. Ondřej Hrab is the director of the Archa Theatre:

"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."

David Radok et Jan Tříska,  photo: CTK
An example of Václav Havel's intervention as "The Voice", heard here imploring the characters not to overact. It's an amusing device, but it's not just Havel's dialogue or David Radok's skillful direction that sparkles; the use of scenery and props is also highly impressive. At one point the protagonist Rieger - played by Jan Tříska - writhes on the ground, his clothes soaking wet from a highly realistic downpour, in a very clear nod to King Lear. At moments like that it's hard to decide whether "Leaving" is a comedy or a tragedy. Jitka Sloupová is Mr Havel's theatrical agent:

Jitka Sloupova
"I think it's both, and it depends in a way on the people who stage it, which look they take into the play. David is a very good director, not only good but I think he is a very deep artist - his vision is rather bleak, rather dark, and I think he's not far from what the core of the play is. It's quite a dark play, but at the same time very, very funny."

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."

David Radok and Václav Havel,  photo: CTK
And perhaps Dagmar Havlová shouldn't give up hope - Václav Havel has revealed he is already working on an idea for his next play. For now though, the focus has shifted to how well Mr Havel's return to the stage will be received. For Václav Havel himself it seems that "Leaving" is a very welcome return indeed:

"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."