Vaclav Havel has been a political prisoner and a political hero but, although admiration may enhance the opinion of producers and directors, critics must disregard Havel's struggles. One can see why his countrymen, in the Prague of 1968, would have thought this play daring and amusing. But the first quality loses its interest with time, and the second - well, if the Czechs still laugh at The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, there must have been only two in the audience the night I saw it.
Vera Blackwell's translation is perfectly fine - it's the play and Simon Godwin's under-powered production that are the problem. The setting is the flat of Dr Edward Huml, an academic whose equilibrium is being tested by his wife, his mistress and his secretary, as well as a team of scientists conducting an investigation. Over a day, the doors of the sitting room fly open repeatedly, to disclose the troublesome females or the intrusive bureaucrats. Encounters are repeated, and time doubles back on itself but, notwithstanding a few tears from the women, Dr Huml remains unflappable. When his secretary reacts to being forcibly kissed by pushing him to the floor, he just gets up and tries again later.
There's clearly a satire going on here, but both wit and mischief are so subdued that the intention to be comic is all that comes across. Dr Huml, a social scientist, has a private life as compartmentalised as his work. When he is not dictating banalities to his secretary, he is telling his wife or mistress identical lies. (The one thing I did find funny about the play was Huml's temporising, when each woman insists he get rid of the other; he gives an example of how he begins the process of Letting Her Down Gently, such as "I didn't laugh a whole lot at her jokes.")
Meanwhile, the investigators keep trying to get their robot inquisitor to work. The machine sputters and flashes but says only, "May I have a little rest?" In the climate of communism, demonstrating the incompetence of the system, and hinting it needed putting out of its misery, may have been daring. Now, the metaphor is not exciting enough nor the writing sparky enough to sustain our interest.
Martin Wenner's dry, sexless performance as Dr Huml emphasises the detachment of the work. It's ironic that, at the time the Czechs were risking their lives for individualism, theatrical fashion mandated plays in which human characteristics were suppressed in favour of un-human, absurdist preciosity. That fashion is exposed in all its flaws here, along with the play's failure to integrate its themes of male-female incompatibility and the soul of man under socialism.
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