May 23, 2008 / 12:41 PM / 11 years ago

Standing ovation as Havel returns to theatre

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Vaclav Havel, former anti-communist dissident and Czech president, won a standing ovation and praise from critics at the premiere of his new play, marking a successful return to theatre after two decades.

Former Czech President and playwright Vaclav Havel (C) acknowledges the applause of actors and spectators after the world premiere of his latest play "Leaving" at Archa Theatre in Prague May 22, 2008. REUTERS / David W Cerny

Havel’s “Leaving”, inspired by Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard”, depicts a former ruler whose world falls apart after he leaves office. It is his first new play since 1988.

Its release last year caused a literary sensation in the Czech Republic. Preparations for the stage debut filled the media as talks with two top theatres collapsed, and Havel’s wife abandoned a role written especially for her.

Havel, who swapped a prison cell for the presidency within months during the 1989 Velvet Revolution that ended communism in the Czech Republic, said he wrote most of the play before he entered politics.

But he said his 13 years in office, during which he was bewildered by unfamiliar ceremonial functions and clashes with political opponents, gave him extra inspiration.

“The play is evidence that Havel retained an admirable ability of self-reflection,” said daily Lidove Noviny after the premiere in Prague’s Archa Theatre on Thursday.

“It can even be said that his time in top politics even sharpened his eye, and his self-irony grew to become at times devilishly biting.”

The play follows the fate of a former chancellor, evicted from a government villa by a successor resembling unscrupulous politicians from the early post-communist years.

Czech newspapers have speculated Havel lampoons his right-wing successor and long-time rival Vaclav Klaus, but aside from a few ironic allusions to the post-communist transition, the play mostly avoids present day politics.

Havel, 71, said he was interested in the existential dimension of the crumbling life and relations of a former top official.

The author himself plays a role. On a pre-taped voiceover, he ponders where to take the plot next and chastises performers for overacting.

He ends by telling the audience to turn their mobile phones back on and repeats the catchphrase of his ascent to presidency after the peaceful Velvet Revolution: “Truth and love will overcome lies and hatred”.

The play was directed by David Radok, an opera director whose father Havel worked for as an assistant in the 1960s.

“After all the humbug, it is a relief to say: ‘Leaving’ directed by David Radok is good production,” said daily Mlada fronta Dnes.

In September, the play will be performed at London’s Orange Tree Theatre.

Editing by Alison Williams

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