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The Times
29 March 1995, Wednesday

Wicked days at the office
By Jeremy Kingston

THEATRE: Old Havel makes new points


The Memorandum

Orange Tree, Richmond


WRITTEN and produced in 1965 when its author, Vaclav Havel, was a relatively
free man; first staged in this country 12 years later, when he had been
placed under house arrest, this famous play is being revived at a time when
he appears to have become incarcerated again, although now as his country's
President.

The Velvet Revolution gives a special significance to the words spoken by
the typist Maria, the only decent character in the play, trying to embolden
her pusillanimous boss: ''I believe that if one doesn't give way, truth must
always come out in the end.''

It has not done so when the play ends, and, perhaps, within the multiple
ironies of the closing scene Maria herself has given way. Her boss's fatuous
blatherings make her curiously happy. But on the other hand, this may be
because she is leaving him to join her brother's theatre group just such a
group as the Theatre on the Balustrade, for whom The Memorandum was written.

Her boss is Josef Gross, who could well be known as Josef G, recalling Josef
K, Kafka's hero, who woke up one morning to find himself arrested. Josef G
arrives at his office to find himself being supplanted by his scheming
deputy. The weapon used is a synthetic language called Ptydepe, pronounced
in four syllables: P-tie-dip-py. This is supposed to increase the efficiency
of inter-departmental memos and instead leads to impotence and chaos.

Havel writes amusing scenes in which this ghastly tongue is being taught,
culminating in one where the instructor (John Baddeley) has suavely replaced
it with another, based on directly opposite principles. But the play's real
meat is the endless circling by Gross around the building, becoming ever
deeper entangled in the deceit and betrayal. David Allister, in physique
like a harassed Clement Attlee although twice the height, gives his voice
the wobble of panic and his shoulders the hunched look of a beast of burden.

Shortly before the half-way mark the play is becalmed in repetition, and
some of the Absurdist baggage has not worn well. But Sam Walters's
production recovers in the second half, and the scenes between Allister and
Victoria Hamilton, excellently conveying Maria's plucky goodness, are tense
and eloquent.

Among the play's happier inventions is the character of Mr Pillar, played
here by Ian Angus Wilkie in silence for almost the entire play, but
communicating volumes by his nods, insouciant shakes of the head and ominous
shrugs. In an office, or a nation, where human speech is condemned, silence
may seem wise. But it fails to save Pillar. The only true course, even if it
is foolhardy, is not to give way.

(Submitted by Tara)