To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Velvet revolution the Czech Centre brings to London a portrait of the first post-1989 Czech president presented as a modern-day musical in a multi-award-winning production from the cult Prague Theatre on the Balustrade. The play follows the life of Vaclav Havel, playwright of the Theatre of the Absurd, who thanks to the absurdity of real-life becomes the first Czech president.

Premysl Pela, the director of the Czech Centre London which is bringing Velvet Havel over for its UK premiere says: “We are delighted to present Velvet Havel to the British audience at the same time as we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Vaclav Havel was the core part of the process which brought democracy to the Czech Republic.”

Vaclav Havel was a legend during his lifetime and an iconic figure of the 20th century. However, hidden behind the celebrated facade was the dramatic genius, the persecuted dissident, the man of truth and ideals, but also a lover of good beer and pretty women. Infused with gentle irony, Velvet Havel, a bold cabaret-style musical which combines stylized live music with strikingly contemporary ideas from Havel ́s literary legacy, is about the life and work of a man with a unique personality.

The Theatre on the Balustrade has close ties with Havel; it was where he worked in the 1960s as a stagehand and where his play The Garden Party (1963) was staged. His skill to naturally drop politics into his plays made him famous in intellectual circles, contributed to the later imprisonments, but also brought him to Prague Castle as the first post-1989 Czech president.

A winner of five major 2014 Czech Theatre Critics’ Awards (The Best Show of the Year, Best New Play, Best Music, Best Actor, Best Actress), this playful contemporary musical presents at full throttle one man ́s daily struggle for truth and ideals, strips bare his fears, and reveals his loves and all that was so deeply human about him. It is as much a light-hearted comedy as a serious 90-minute drama. Philosophical contemplations are balanced by playful songs from the acclaimed Czech composer Milos Orson Stedron, performed by a live band, which mixes styles from swing to rap. It is through these tunes that the play’s characters are given a voice, a chance to have their say concerning the thoughts and actions of Vaclav Havel.

The play’s storyline, which skips freely back and forth throughout time, maps Havel’s public, as well as his private life (including his life-long friends, family relations and love interests), focusing on political activities and their outcomes – such as imprisonment following his decision to become a spokesman for the famed Charter 77. As the characters’ glittering musical performances intermingle with quotes from Havel ́s timeless literary legacy, the play reveals the deeply humane-nature behind the celebrated facade of one of the greatest men in modern history.

As one theatre critic stated: “They take Havel’s golden halo away. Had he written it himself, it would probably have looked like this.”

The Prague Theatre on the Balustrade this year celebrates its own 60th anniversary. It began in a dirty warehouse which was heated by a stove close to the stage but quickly became a well-established and well-loved theatre known for staging Absurdist plays.

Part of Czech Velvet 1989 – 2019; Festival of Arts, Music, Film, and Theatre organized by the Czech Centre London

Director: Jan Fric
Music: Milos Orson Stedron
Cast: Petr Jenista, Miloslav Konig, Dita Kaplanova, Anezka Kubatova, Vojtech Vondracek Band: Milos Orson Stedron, Pavel Fiedler, Jan Svamberg
Duration: 75 minutes without interval
In Czech with English surtitles
Tickets: £20

Czech Centre London

The Czech Centre’s mission is to actively promote the Czech Republic in the UK. Our program covers visual and performing arts, film, literature, music, architecture, design & fashion, science, and innovation. As well as hosting our own events, the Czech Centre offers support for other groups organizing Czech related initiatives in the UK. We also seek to further enhance cultural and professional relationships between the UK and the Czech Republic through curatorial visits, media tours, and artistic residencies; initiating and fostering creative dialogue among artists, scholars, scientists & innovators. The Czech Centre London opened in 1993 and is part of a worldwide network of 24 Czech Centres operating in 21 countries and on three continents. The Czech Centre is a member of EUNIC.

This article originally appeared in Central and Eastern European London Review on September 18, 2019, and has been reposted with permission.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.