Writer and Music: Milos ORSON Stedron.
Director: Jan Frič
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Or, Everything You Want To Know About Václav Havel, And A Little Bit More! One of the most interesting facts about the Czech President and playwright is that he was a heavy smoker – Chesterfields, this irreverent cabaret suggests – and to add some authenticity to the show the actors have received special permission to smoke real cigarettes on stage! In this day and age, it’s a decadent decision and, as such, fits right into this show’s old-school aesthetic.
Playing for one night only, Velvet Havel is part of Czech Velvet 1989-2019, a month long festival of talks, films and performances celebrating the fall of communism in the old Czechoslovakia and the creation of the Czech Republic. Of course, Havel was the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic. A hero he might be, but this show by Theatre on the Balustrade also shows Havel as a womaniser and an idealist. But finally it also shows Havel as a man fiercely protective of freedom.
The stage is set like the corner of a film studio; metal chests litter the stage, all with ashtrays atop while an array of ladders, lights and super-troupers are huddled on either side. Indeed, some audience members thought there was no set and plonked their bags and coats on some of the boxes. But if the stage is untidy, the conceit is rather neat. Havel’s uncle Miloš Havel was a famous film director and here in Velvet Havel he directors a biopic about his nephew. The elder Havel looks like a cross between the Master of Ceremonies from the film Cabaret and Dirk Bogarde’s Aschenbach in Death in Venice, his hair crimped to perfection.
Just in the same way that movies are not filmed chronologically, episodes from Havel’s life are presented out of order. We see him in office, in prison, on tops of mountains swapping books with the Poles, and there are many scenes with his wife Olga, cruelly but comically sent up by the cast for her working-class origins. As Miloš, Petr Jeništa, arch and camp, runs the whole show, putting people in their places before lighting their cigarettes for them; at one point Olga sucks on four cigarettes at a time. As the eternally youthful Václav, Miloslav König is perfect, eager and a bit dim, but always ready to belt out a song. His insistence that Czechs are only interested in football, beer and DIY is greeted with applause by the many Czechs in the audience. Dita Kaplanová, resembling Olga a little too closely for comfort, is hilarious as the Czech Republic’s patient First Lady.
But the funniest of all is Vojtĕch Vondráček, who as a reluctant extra on set plays a multitude of roles while dressed as tree. A telephone conversation between him as Salman Rushdie and Havel is the highlight of the evening, with his impression of Bill Clinton coming a close second. With a band of three and some stage hands who wander around the crowded space, Velvet Havel is frenetic, but fun, and the fact that it’s performed in Czech with English subtitles does not impede the enjoyment at all.
It would be interesting to see one of Britain’s political heroes given this kind of cabaret treatment, but who would those heroes be? In Britain we turn our heroes into villains very quickly, but this crude look at Havel’s life is also full of respect because his idealism was always paved with the best intentions.
Reviewed on 21 November 2019