THEATRE: You know it makes sense

The Memorandum Orange Tree, London

Paul Taylor
Thursday 30 March 1995 23:02

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 eagerness.

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 ofauthorising 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.

n Box-office: 0181-940 3633

Paul Taylor

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments