Vaclav Havel was a hugely influential man, not just in theatre, but in office: eventually becoming the president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, 26 years after the publication of the first of many mutinous plays, and less than 10 years after being imprisoned for ‘subversion’ against a despotic communist state. By consequence it can come as little surprise that Spitfire company have chosen to adapt Audience, a semi-autobiographical account of the writer’s time in a brewery, as they take their measure of Czech theatre to the Fringe. A visual treat and a slick performance, Antiwords does everything necessary for an introduction to Havel but also turns the master of ‘subversion’ on its head.
The route into the work is ingenious: taking Havel’s beer-saturated words, Havel’s intoxicated characters and adding a vial of anarchic feminism, polluting the froth with an inky humour. The play becomes a ludicrous account of two actresses – interchanging roles as if trying on suits – who drink an impressive amount of beer on-stage as they don the oversized bronze craniums that allow them to play men. The women remain silent, but viscid male dialogue in Czech blasts through a loudspeaker while a translation flashes up on the backdrop. As a device this is a delicate and inventive touch, but instead of projecting single lines onto the wall in time with the speaker’s voice, whole blocks of text garble the effect and degrade the momentum of the play.
That may well be intentional because movements are repeated and speeches replayed, giving the performance a stiff, fragmented feel as small sections come to a halt… before starting over. Barely a minute goes by without some absurd interruption like a spontaneous dance to patriotic popular songs of the age, led, like everything in this play, by the comically virile brew master. His cheerful, but domineering characteristic is portrayed excellently by both members of the cast, while his counterpart, the writer Vanek, sits awkwardly, reacting with despair to his boss’ attempts to make the subordinate comfortable enough to talk. This clunky and unbalanced interaction creates a steady flow of laughs, as does the regular part-removal of the mask; necessary for the cast to keep drinking and reminding the audience of the fun the women are having. It’s a deliberate liberation, satirising both the country’s famed rate of beer consumption, and the way that women aren’t, and especially weren’t expected to behave in such an openly debauched way.
Antiwords might seem slightly sparse, and if it is moronic to want more words from a play named to the contrary, then a more developed plot might have worked to its advantage. Yet the magnetic charm of Antiwords lies somewhere in its radicalism; you see through everything until everything becomes a charade, ‘worth shit’ as the brewer insists. Words lose their meaning and heads swell as alcohol takes hold: this play speaks with a wry cynicism and it says: “Drink!”