The Independent (London)
31 March 1995, Friday
You know it makes sense
The Memorandum, Orange Tree, London
By Paul Taylor
At the start of Vaclav Havel's The Memorandum, the managing director of a
company is seen desultorily sorting through his in-tray, when all of a
sudden he's arrested by the contents of a particular document. I use the
verb advisedly, for from that moment the MD's life is turned upside-down
with the abrupt arbitrariness and illogic that characterise Josef K's arrest
at the beginning of The Trial.
The memo that launches the absurdist lunacy in this 1965 play (now
spiritedly revived by Sam Walters at the Orange Tree) is written in
"Ptydepe". Sounding like gobbledegook, it is a synthetic language that's
been designed to eradicate all ambiguity and imprecision from office
discourse by making words as different as possible from each other in
spelling. On lesser- used nouns, this procedure takes its toll: the word for
"wombat" is 319 letters long. Vulnerable to blackmail because he innocently
took the company's endorsement stamp home for the weekend, David Allister's
splendidly rattled, mystified MD allows himself to be hustled into giving
verbal authorisation for the Ptydepe classes that have already been
functioning without his knowledge.
By so doing, he plunges his career into a dippily downward spiral and the
office into situations that allowed the young Havel to theorise on the
tortuous entanglements of totalitarian bureaucracy. To get a translation
from Ptydepe, for example, you need an authorisation from someone who needs
an authorisation from someone who, by definition, can't give it. The only
way to learn what is in a memorandum, therefore, is to know it already.
Though the production can't disguise the protracted nature of the play,
Walters' cast brings a biting exuberance to its bureaucratic shenanigans.
Particularly enjoyable are the Ptydepe classes presided over by John
Baddely's hilarious bow-tied enthusiast of a tutor. He demonstrates, say,
the many intention-differentiating Ptydepe equivalents for the word "boo!"
with the serene pedantry of the blinkered expert - a fact underlined when,
after a power shift in the office, he's seen teaching another synthetic
language (based on opposite principles) with just the same dispassionate
The desirable goal of reverting to the country's mother tongue can't be
achieved because, even when reinstated, the MD is still in hock to his
enemies. They, after all, manoeuvred him into the position of authorising the
now-despised Ptydepe. The saddest aspect of the whole affair is that it
corrupts his human instincts, tempting him to pass off as high-minded
necessity his refusal to defend Maria, the young secretary (movingly played
by Victoria Hamilton) who had risked her job by translating the original
memorandum for him.
This document, though couched in Ptydepe, had, it turns out, pledged full
support from on high for the MD's negative stance towards the language -
head office, like God, moves in mysterious ways. Curiously undated and with
spot-on comic acting, The Memorandum gets this reviewer's endorsement stamp.
(Submitted by Tara)