On the corner of a suburban Richmond street I’m standing with others awaiting instructions. We have been summoned to this spot by email, and will shortly be taken to a secret address nearby. As we enter the house, someone is taking photographs. “Were you followed?” we’re asked. “Did anyone see you?” We settle in the living room and bottles of Czech beer are handed round.
In the UK, nobody risks imprisonment for going to the theatre, but elsewhere in the world that is not true. Some British-based companies seek to up the excitement by veiling their shows in secrecy and performing them at undisclosed addresses. But in Belarus’s capital, Minsk – for the safety of both audience and performers – Belarus Free Theatre perform in makeshift spaces with performances announced last-minute via WhatsApp.
Forty years ago in Czechoslovakia, signatories of Charter 77, the influential petition demanding that the communist government implement human-rights provisions, were banned from public life. They included playwrights such as Václav Havel – who went on to become president after the regime crumbled – and many artists including actor Vlasta Chramostová, who promptly set up “living-room theatre” performances in her Prague flat. It was risky for her and for audiences, who on occasion were picked up by the secret police as they left and driven miles into the countryside, dropped in the snow and told to “think about theatre” on the long walk back.
London’s Czech Centre is recreating the living room theatre phenomenon in private houses with the help of interactive company Oneohone. They are performing updated versions of Havel’s Vaněk Plays featuring the same central character, a dissident playwright called Vaněk. The twist is that it’s the audience who are cast as the playwright who exposes the other character’s delusions and chicanery.
It’s not, as director Asia Osborne explains, an attempt to take us back to 1977 and recreate the oppressive atmosphere of the communist era, but a way to reflect on “freedoms that we take for granted and that can be eroded without us realising”.
“It’s hard to find stakes that are comparable to what Havel and other dissidents experienced in Czechoslovakia 40 years ago, but we wanted to find a way to update them so that people think about their own lives and what we will stand up for and also the increasing use of surveillance and the way we give information about ourselves away so easily.”
In these new, partly improvised versions, the characters give themselves away every time they open their mouths, whether it’s the couple in Private View who display their materialistic lifestyle all over Instagram or the brewery boss in Audience who tries to get us to inform on ourselves. In Protest, a celebrity fakes sympathy for causes but won’t put her signature to petitions in case it damages her image.
It’s a roughly energising evening, and one that stays true to Havel’s reflection of the way governments bank on the fact that people will often compromise for an easier life. Havel preferred not to be described as “a dissident playwright” but one who was taking the moral temperature of the country and “living in truth”. These spiky satires ask us to do the same.