REVIEW: Memorandum by Vaclav Havel, Lancaster Library

Vaclav Havel. Photo by Rebecca Naden/PA Wire
Vaclav Havel. Photo by Rebecca Naden/PA Wire

‘Memorandum’, a black comedy by Czech philosopher, politician and playwright Václav Havel, was written and first staged in Communist Prague.

It is very much in the tradition of the Theatre of the Absurd, alongside the works of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, John Osborne and many European writers. In this style of theatre, anything can happen, often without any rhyme or reason.

As so often with chaos there’s an underlining message, or essential truth. ‘Memorandum’ tells of an unnamed business organisation in an unnamed industry which has suddenly decided to adopt a new, experimental language for use across the organisation. It’s called Ptydepe (the cast pronounced it ‘tie-deep’), and meant to improve communication and efficiency throughout the organisation.

Josef Gross, the Managing Director (Paul Slater) gets an internal memorandum in this new ‘language’ but can neither understand it nor find anyone who is authorised to translate it for him. Meanwhile the rest of the staff are busily acquiring the novelty tongue, and a large translation centre and a language class have been set up.

Oh dear – it sounds drearily familiar, doesn’t it? The latest management fad, the office know-all’s pet project, the absence of consultation with the staff along with all the trendiest nonsensical jargon. Plain, straightforward English has now become ‘aspirationally inappropriate’.

Retaining some vestiges of common sense, Gross is replaced by his unctuous and ambitious assistant Jan Ballas (James Hurrell) who has recruited almost everyone in the firm to the ‘mission’. His enthusiasm is shared by his spivvy, suited, smoothie sidekicks Otto Stroll and Alex Savant (Lol Brady and Nick Haughton).

A notable exception to the fast-spreading craze is Hans, a secretary (Oliver Atkinson), who is solely interested in doing his hair and going out at the rigid, ritualistically-appointed hours for milk, rolls, chocolate and all the other necessities of officialdom. The action of each of the two acts was predictably dominated by the build-up to the major office ritual of Lunch.

There were some entertaining scenes in the new language tutorials led by Mr Lear (Jon Whittle), but by the second day of Ptydepe’s promotion, interest is waning fast. Poor Gross has by now been demoted to company ‘Staff Watcher’ replacing an unseen, secret and furtive agent of George Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ (Ben Brighouse).

But no bureaucratic fad lasts for ever and, towards the end, Ptydepe is ousted by a second wonder-language, Chorukor. A second set of new clothes for the emperor! But finally Gross’s impassioned belief in the dignity of mankind, personal integrity, the purity of language and the irrelevance of bureaucratic pretence can no longer be kept silent. As one of the two otherwise wordless choric observers Mr Column and Mr Pillar (Christine Burn and Ruth Gregson) exclaims near the end of the play: ‘Death to all artificial languages! Long live natural human speech! Long live Man!’.

Emma Rucastle’s wonderfully imaginative production has silently and neatly updated some details of the office environment (no typewriters, comptometers or stenographs visible), and used the ample, resonant space of Lancaster Library to fine effect. Diction, gesture, body language and blocking were all first class. The political and dramatic thrusts of the action were clearly evident as Havel’s mordant satire bites just as sharply today, much to the delight of the capacity audience.

Oh, I forgot to mention that ‘Memorandum’ was written in 1965, exactly 50 years ago. Havel’s and other dissidents’ political satire unsurprisingly displeased the Communist government of the day and Havel was incarcerated for over four years. He would later play a leading role in the Velvet Revolution and became President of Czechoslovakia and, after independence, of the newly-formed Czech Republic. He supported the Green Party for the last seven years of his life, and died in 2011 aged 75.

Rucastle and her gifted 16-strong cast, along with five singers and a highly able production team, have given us a razor-sharp realisation of Havel’s frustrations and his contempt for the way ‘we do things now’. These universal, timeless matters concern us all still, particularly after the recent UK elections. In short, a timely, moral triumph.