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Audience/Protest
Etcetera Theatre, London


David Bowden

Audience and Protest are two short one-act plays by the celebrated Czech playwright Vaclav Havel. The two works barely stretch over an hour, but they raise important questions about the role and freedom of artists in a political context.

Havel has been a key figure in Czech public life for the past half century. As one of Czechoslovakia's leading dissident intellectuals, he became the president of the country's first post-Communist government. Allowing for very different circumstances, Britain's closest equivalent may well have been George Orwell, but minus the poor health and with a much higher and more varied output. After the failure of the 'Prague Spring' in 1968 - when revolutionaries tried to overthrow the Communist regime, only to be beaten into submission by the Soviet military - Havel became a notorious political dissident and formed the forefront of the intellectual renaissance of the country that gave us Franz Kafka and Milan Kundera, amongst others.

Written in 1978, Audience and Protest deal with the travails of Havel's alter-ego Ferdinand Vanek - recently released from jail for anti-government activities. In Audience he is stuck in the bleak office of the foreman of the brewery where he has been forced into menial labour. The tedious bureaucracy and constant paranoia of life under the Communists have driven the foreman to alcoholism and to the brink of insanity - he is prone to bouts of rage and despair.

In a bleakly humorous half-hour, reminiscent of the work of Samuel Beckett, Havel uses endless repetition of dialogue and action in order to build up a sense of the claustrophobia with which the Czech people were forced to live. He does provide a small glimmer of hope though: Vanek refuses to compromise his principles and inform on his colleagues, despite the promise of promotion, and while the play ends with the same conversation that it began with, it is Vanek who sits in the foreman's seat, and vice versa. This time when asked how life is treating him he responds honestly, rather than with an apathetic platitude: things are not 'OK', but a 'bloody mess.'

In Protest, Vanek has escaped the hellish office to visit the comfortable, middle-class home of one of his friends. He is hoping to convince his old friend Stanek to sign a petition renouncing the regime. However, while Stanek is outwardly different to the foreman, he is very much the same - indeed, they are played convincingly by the same actor, James Hedges. Stanek realises that his support could be crucial to the resistance, but he has grown pessimistic from the failure of the earlier revolution, and is fearful of losing his job and being sent to prison (like Vanek). Havel here demonstrates how the cloying nature of restrictions of freedom of speech and thought are spreading uniformity across all sections of society but slowly eroding their basic humanity (Stanek drinks too much too).

The point of these two brief set-pieces is to show the responsibility of the artist to fight social ills. While many plays carrying this message can often be seen annoying pontification, it must be remembered that Havel backed up his rhetoric with real action and brave defiance. Protest sets out a dilemma that he himself must have faced, both personally and from other intellectuals. Following the collapse of Communism it might be tempting to dismiss this viewpoint as irrelevant and outdated. There is an admirable attempt in Audience to counter this criticism: the scattered crisp packets and over-filled in-tray reminds us that this could be any menial office job anywhere, swamped down by petty bureaucracy and constant check-ups.

The acting of Hedges and Laurie Tallack (as Vanek) is impressive and never allows the performance to slip either into meaningless misery or to see the plays as comic parodies. This is certainly more inspiring and enjoyable than the self-congratulatory and faintly loathsome political activities of certain contemporary celebrities (I'm looking at you, Bono). However, at a time when we are seeing a resurgence in political writing and a growing re-appreciation of Orwell, it is pleasing to be reminded that enjoyable theatre and socially-conscious polemic are not mutually exclusive.


Till 18 April 2004.

 
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