In a leafy corner of south west London lives a theatre that has been revered for its discovering of new productions and revivals of oft-neglected classics. Begun in 1971 by Sam Walters, the now longest serving artistic director in the UK, it is also London’s only theatre-in-the-round, that is to say where the audience surrounds the stage (and on church pews, no less, when it first opened). Forty years on, its reputation precedes it. Walters continues the theatre’s abiding principles and in that time it has earned itself the distinguished epithet, “a pocket-sized National Theatre” by the Guardian’s theatre critic, Andrew Billington. It is, of course, The Orange Tree.
It is only fitting, then, that to mark its 40th birthday season, it should open with the UK première of a play that not only harks back to the year of its birth, but comes from the pen of a writer it would ultimately champion and that it hoped would exemplify their founding principles during the wave of ‘alternative’ theatre of the era. And, considering its subject matter, it’s surprisingly resonant today.
Directed by Walters, The Conspirators is a political satire by Václav Havel; playwright, essayist, poet, dissident and the last President of Czechoslovakia, who wrote it while in prison, smuggling it out of the country by passing it to German agent in the men’s lavatory.
A revolution has taken place, the dictator has fled, the new government is in power. The prime minister’s secretary is under arrest and demonstrators fill the streets amid concern that the ideals of the revolution are about to be betrayed. Chiefs of the police, the army, the law and the intelligence services, aided and abetted by Helga, a rich and attractive widow known to them all, decide that action must be taken to protect the fledgling democracy. They must form a new, secret, Revolutionary Council, then hear there is indeed a ‘conspiracy’.
“It was an accident that resulted in us presenting our first Havel play as Charter 77 burst upon the world,” says Walters.
“Our relationship with him and his plays has developed over 40 years and we are intensely proud to have presented in 2008 the first production outside Prague of Leaving, the first play he had written since being engulfed in politics, and for which he visited the Orange Tree Theatre. I first met Havel on my visit to Prague in 1989. Instead of a furtive visit to his flat under the watchful eyes of the secret police, I found him in Wenceslas Square addressing half a million people and played the leading role in changing the history of his country. It is now right and proper that our 40th anniversary season should open with another Havel production. The Conspirators was the first play he wrote as a banned playwright after the Russian invasion of 1968 and the introduction of ‘normalisation’ and this is its first UK production. Written in 1971, the year we opened in the room above the pub, this is a wonderful celebration of both the importance of Havel and our 40 years.”
The 40th anniversary continues with a season that reflects the best of the Orange Tree’s commitment to staging new writing and neglected gems. In October, new work from Orange Tree favourite David Lewis, How To Be Happy, stands alongside an extraordinary and all-but-forgotten 1963 piece by James Saunders, Next Time I’ll Sing To You, for November, which had huge influence on Tom Stoppard, and others. The diverse programme ends from December with a third comedy by St John Hankin, following the great success of The Return of the Prodigal and The Cassilis Engagement.
The Conspirators runs at the Orange Tree, Clarence Street, Richmond, until 1 Oct 2011. Performances are Mon-Sat 7.45pm with Saturday matinees at 3pm. Thursday matinees also include a pre-performance discussion at 2.30pm on 8, 15, and 22 Sept. For more information/prices and details of further 40th anniversary productions, visit their website.