Vaclav Havel's new play deals with power - and leaving it

Václav Havel, photo: CTK

It was a standing ovation for the new play by former Czech President Vaclav Havel in Prague last week. His first play in more then 20 years is about the leader of a country who leaves politics after many years in power and has to adjust to a new life. And if you think that sounds a little like Havel himself - you would be right.

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."

An e170xample of Václav Havel's intervention is "The Voice", 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:

"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."

Václav Havel has revealed he is already working on an idea for his next play. It seems that "Leaving" is a very welcome return indeed.