Page last updated at 12:53 GMT, Thursday, 22 May 2008 13:53 UK

Art mirrors life in new Havel play

By Rob Cameron
BBC News, Prague

The premiere of a new play by the former Czech President Vaclav Havel at Prague's Archa Theatre signals a long-awaited comeback to the stage.

A scene from Vaclav Havel's play, Leaving
The symbolic cherry trees are under threat in the play

Mr Havel was a world-renowned playwright when he entered politics in 1989, and Leaving - about a politician's painful adjustment to a new life after leaving politics - is his first play in 20 years.

Vaclav Havel has also been away from politics for five years, but the 71-year-old playwright, former dissident and ex-president can still draw a big crowd.

The small, subterranean cafe at Prague's Archa Theatre was packed with TV crews, photographers and reporters as Mr Havel appeared at a press conference before Thursday night's premiere, to explain the inspiration for Leaving.

Vaclav Havel
How come power has such charisma for some people that its loss means the collapse of that person's world?
Playwright and former President Vaclav Havel

It is his 19th play and, according to the critics, one of his finest.

"It is built on an archetypal experience of a world that is collapsing, of collapsing values, the loss of certainty," he told the assembled crowd.

"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?"

It is a question Mr Havel - president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992 and of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003 - might well have found himself asking since leaving office.

Cherry orchard

But Vaclav Havel denies that Leaving - an absurdist comedy with strong tragic elements - is purely autobiographical.

He points out that he began the work in 1989, and had completed two-thirds of it before events - in this case leading a popular revolution to bring down Czechoslovakia's communist regime - forced him to set it aside.

Instead, Mr Havel says the play was "enriched by my personal experience".

Leaving tells the story of Vilem Rieger, the former chancellor of an unnamed country, struggling to come to terms with his reduced role in life.

Mr Rieger's former deputy, Vlastik Klein, seizes power and forces him to move out of his luxurious government-owned villa.

Mr Klein, surrounded by a coterie of shady businessmen, orders the orchard of cherry trees to be cut down to make way for a shopping mall, casino and brothel.

Echo of reality

The play's references to Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and Shakespeare's King Lear are less controversial than the character of Vlastik Klein, whom some see as a thinly disguised reference to Mr Havel's arch-rival and successor as president, Vaclav Klaus.

As prime minister, Mr Klaus oversaw a controversial period of privatisation during the 1990s, and the two politicians were frequently at loggerheads.

Again, however, Mr Havel denies the character is explicitly based on the current Czech president.

Vaclav Havel's theatrical agent, Jitka Sloupova, says one should not make too much of what appears to be contemporary references in Leaving.

"His basic approach to politics has never changed," Ms Sloupova told the BBC.

"I think he is the same person as he was 20 years ago and he writes almost the same way," she said.


Leaving premieres in Prague on Thursday 22 May. The foreign premiere is scheduled for 19 September at London's Orange Tree Theatre. Productions in Slovakia, Germany and the US are also planned.

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