The Conspirators, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, September 2011

In April 1968 Soviet tanks rolled into Vaclav Havel’s home-town of Prague, and in 1971 he wrote this play about the difficulty of replacing a dictatorship without getting something worse. In the meantime, Colonel Gaddafi came to power in Libya, a land once controlled by a colonial power like the fictional country of this drama.

The Colonel, all photos by Robert Day

At the start, the prime minister’s secretary, Stein is held at police headquarters under the Colonel, a brutal and cunning man with a taste for sadism, both sexual and otherwise. Off-stage noises are heard: yelps from the torture room, presumably by Stein, and student demonstrations for his release. The prime minister, a gentleman in tailcoat and top hat, is a serious, ineffective and perplexed man, worried about the treatment of Stein’s medical conditions, and apparently unable to see the underlying plan of havoc presaging a crackdown that will see him out of office. As Stein caves in he gives them whatever wording they want in his confession, but the Colonel laughs at him and asks why he’s lying. No way could he come up with all this stuff on his own. He’s protecting a conspiracy — who are they?

Lucy Tregear as Helga

Yet the title of the play refers to a real group of conspirators, including Lucy Tregear’s charmingly sexy Helga, who enjoys relationships with both David Rintoul’s brilliantly erratic Colonel, and Paul Gilmour’s schlemiel of a Major, who heads the chiefs of staff, and can be persuaded to do anything stronger minds make him think is a good idea. These stronger heads are Helga and Christopher Ravenscroft’s carefully nuanced state prosecutor, Dikl, while comic relief is provided by Kieron Jecchinis as the censor, with his vulgar scoffing of sandwiches, occasional quaffing of brandy, and general stupidity. Other witty moments are a sado-masochistic scene between Helga and the Colonel, producing gasps from some audience members, and Dikl’s incompetent attempts to gain feminine support and sympathy, first from his secretary then from Helga with whom he once had an affair.

The Conspirators

Among the amateurish conspirators not even Helga can control the Colonel, whose forceful rhetoric seems unassailable, “Whom do we serve — the government or the people?” And, “Isn’t it better to protect the law — even if it means breaking it?” This play is surely drawn from Havel’s frustrations at the machinations of third raters whose incompetence leads to a power imposed from outside.

Yet this is neither Czechoslovakia nor Libya, and the Colonel talks of having lived in the jungle fighting the colonial power. The indeterminacy of location is a slight flaw and Havel considered it one of his weakest plays, but Sam Walters’ production does it very proud indeed, and the acting was excellent. Moreover, these performances coincide with rolling dramas going on in Libya and Syria, making this a theatrical experience well worth seeing.

Performances at the Orange Tree continue until October 1 — for details click here.

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