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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Conspirators
Orange Tree Theatre   Autumn 2011

Vaclav Havel wrote this political satire in 1971 when he was officially a 'banned' writer in Czechoslovakia, and it has a sometimes uneasy mix of sharp, insightful observation and angry, heavy-handed outrage. This first UK production captures all its strengths but is limited by its inherent weaknesses.

Havel imagines a country that has just overthrown a dictator and is enjoying its first flush of democracy. A group of government and military figures, worried at the new state's fragility, meet to find ways to strengthen it, but what begins as a committee to support the government evolves into a cabal and a coup to replace it with something stronger and, well, more dictatorial – with, of course, them at its head. 

It is that process, of the supposed reformers threatening to become worse than the pre-revolutionary evils, that is the play's weaker strand, since it seems both obvious and too near-clichéd to have much dramatic energy. 

Of far more interest and entertainment value is watching the members of the cabal jockey for power among themselves, with seemingly objective theoretical proposals by one or another gradually morphing into arguments as to why the proposer is the right person to carry them out. 

The ruthless Chief of Police just has to display his military and personal power, the State Prosecutor plays the 'I'm an old man with no personal ambitions but patriotism' card, the dimwitted Military Chief is clever enough to bide his time until he seems a good compromise candidate, and the rich woman who has bedded each of them shifts her loyalties to whoever at any moment seems most likely to take the throne she can be the power behind. 

That's where Haval's political savvy and satirical pen are most effective, and where this Orange Tree production is the most fun. 

David Rintoul plays the Police Chief like an East End hardman, his thuggish instincts and dangerousness only slightly disguised by the trappings of civility. Christopher Ravenscroft makes the Prosecutor the smartest man in the room, thinking fast enough to see where someone else's argument is going even before they make it and having his response ready the minute they stop talking. And Lucy Tregear lets us enjoy watching her use all her character's wiles - rhetorical, feminine and sexual – to make sure that when the dust clears she's standing beside whoever the winner is. 

Sam Walters directs with his usual mastery of the in-the-round form, but with a too languid pacing that lets the energy slowly seep out of too many scenes and keeps the play from developing any real forward motion.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   The Conspirators - Orange Tree 2011

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