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Everyone loves Havel's Leaving
By Kristina Alda / Prague Daily Monitor / Published 28 May 2008
Vlasta Chramostová, Zuzana Stivínová and Jan Tříska after the premiere of Leaving 22 May.
Vlasta Chramostová, Zuzana Stivínová and Jan Tříska after the premiere of Leaving 22 May.

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Critics and audiences have greeted Václav Havel's long-awaited play Leaving with standing ovations and unfettered praise. Some have called it one of Havel's best efforts.

Leaving, Havel's first play in more than 20 years, premiered last Thursday at Prague's Archa Theatre. An English version will open in London this September.

Although inspired to a degree by his two terms as Czech president, Havel has downplayed Leaving's autobiographical nature. "I was interested in the more existential side of things," he said at a press conference last week. "I thought it was interesting how when someone loses power, he can also lose the meaning of life."

Inevitably, many reviewers have focused on the more concrete issues explored in Havel's play, namely his attack on some of the uglier aspects of this country's headlong transformation from a socialist state into a free-market democracy. "It takes an uncompromising, knowing look at the greed and excess that followed the fall of communism a period that tends to be mythologized in the West," writes Andrew Parvus in Time magazine. "As an icon of that revolution, no one is better placed to reconstruct it."

Writing in the Guardian, Kate Connolly agrees, saying the play is a "clear critique of how the seedier sides of consumerism have secured a strong foothold in the Czech Republic since its Velvet Revolution".

Set in a governmental villa in the middle of a cherry orchard, the play contains references to Shakespeare's King Lear and Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, both of which also deal with the loss of power. The protagonist, Vilém Rieger, is a chancellor in an unnamed country, trying to cope with the process of leaving his post and losing his political clout. Vlastík Klein, an ambitious deputy and political rival, eventually boots Rieger from the villa, buys it and turns the site into a shopping mall and a brothel.

Although some of the characters bear more than a subtle resemblance to contemporary Czech politicians – the character of Klein is interpreted by some as a caricature of former PM and current President Václav Klaus, with whom Havel has had a strained relationship over the years – Havel insists he is not aiming at specific people.

The Times' Robert Boyes notes the Klein character bears "not only the initials of Václav Klaus but [is] also played in a way that recalls the president's manner".

Havel began writing Leaving in 1989, but he put the play aside when he entered high politics. He completed it in 2007, four years after leaving the presidential post.

The play is directed by David Radok and stars Jan Tříska, Zuzana Stivínová, Vlasta Chramostová and Bořivoj Navrátil. Originally, Havel's wife Dagmar Havlová was to play the lead female role, which Havel had written specifically for her.

In fact, casting Havlová was one of the playwright's conditions and it was the main reason why Leaving wasn't produced by the National Theatre. Just three weeks before the premiere, however, Havlová pulled out of the project, citing health reasons, and was replaced by Stivínová.

Reviewers seem to agree that the last-minute switch has not harmed the play. Stivínová and Tříska's acting has received praise, and so has Radok's direction.

Právo's Radmila Hrdinová calls Radok's approach "an example of respectful and inventive work with text, where ideas serve the author, rather than the presentation of the director". "Radok intercepts Havel's rational absurdity with a poetic, dreamily surreal atmosphere, which lends the characters and the action an intimate, human dimension."

According to Kateřina Kolářová, writing in Mladá fronta Dnes, you can tell that the director is someone who mostly does operas. "It's a perfectly composed piece of work, thought out into the last detail. Radok leaves nothing to chance. The lighting, the movemnt of the characters, the use of music – it all has its exact place and meaning."

This perfectionism can have small drawbacks, Kolářová notes. "The overall effect... is practically flawless, but it's a little cold, maybe too studied," she writes. "Especially in the second half, the production acquires a sort of a Chekhovian tragic tone instead of Havel's grotesque one." Part of this may be due to Radok's decision to drop some of the more ironic intimations from the script, Kolářová says.

Other reviewers have suggested that the character of the Voice, wherein Havel himself (pre-taped) interjects at certain points of the play, functioning as a sort of Chorus, reprimanding actors, for instance, not to overplay their parts, can appear clumsy at times.

According to Hospodářské noviny's Petr Fischer, this device seems distracting in the first part of the play, unnecessarily slowing down the pace, but becomes more natural as the play enters the second half.

For the most part, however, critics have found few flaws in Radok's production, lauding especially its elegance and seamless transition from comedy to tragedy. "The production moves from the light, intentionally almost operetic tone into deep, dark waters, and the conclusion is almost icily existential, with everything ending in a wild, psychotic "massacre", writes Jana Machalická in Lidové noviny. "This theme, man in the peripetia of his time, is always so tempting for authors, but here it's explored in a new way and the direction is just as fresh."

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