The Memorandum - Communicado Theatre Company

Drama often focuses on politics with mixed results, but Vaclav Havel's politically charged work claims an unusually fine pedigree.

Feature by Alasdair Gillon | 15 Feb 2006
Communicado are a Scottish theatre company who make a point of cultivating an international outlook. Since their 1983 debut with 'Robotnik' (an account of the Polish Solidarity movement) they have performed translations into English or Scots, or set the action overseas, in more than half of their productions. Tales of childhood in war-torn former Yugoslavia, forced migrations for native Americans (as well as Scottish Highlanders) and the Spanish Civil War are just a few examples of their casting the net wide for material to take around Scotland on tour.

They're especially keen, however, on Eastern Europe. In 2004, for 'Zlata's Diary', Artistic Director Gerry Mulgrew adaptated the journal of Zlata Filopovic, from Sarajevo, who was ten when war engulfed her city. The play received critical acclaim across Scotland. Earlier Communicado productions included political satires from the USSR and Czech Republic. And if we take 'Robotnik' as well, the ex-Soviet bloc starts to look like an abiding interest.

Their choices might also suggest a taste for politics. Actually, with their current project (touring Central Scotland this February and March) that's guaranteed. They return to the Cold War and cross the Iron Curtain again with 'The Memorandum', which was written and premiered in 1965 by Czech playwright, Vaclav Havel, later the country's president. And it is "Havel's own assertion", Communicado are pleased to point out, "that theatre is always about politics... concerned with examining the way in which human beings relate to each other by power."

Even if politics is ever-present on stage, Havel's work still claims an unusually fine pedigree. His absurdist dramas satirised life in communist Czechoslavakia, winning an enthusiastic following, at a rich moment in Czech cultural history – the 1960s. Indeed, it was the 'failure' of the national government to clamp down on such expressions, and on the self-aware population, that brought the Soviet army into Prague in 1968.

'The Memorandum' is set in an office where managers invent a new language for their employees, in order to streamline bureaucracy – and manipulate the thinking and work of the staff more effectively. But what results is total confusion – a destabilising of all relationships and everyone's grasp on normality. What once seemed certain, like individual morality, is suddenly cast into doubt. That might all sound rather abstract but, then, in absurd comedy, Havel says, character psychology is never the main point. Instead, communal situations are acted out, to be exposed as both meaningless and ridiculous. In this case, it's bureaucracy throttling real life, creating a sense of alienation and trailing apathy in its wake.

Apathy and bureaucracy was a combination the Soviets were keen to stamp onto Czechs, post-1968. Along with other non-conformist voices, Havel's plays were finally clocked as subversive, and banned. But then, the more depressed 1970s saw Havel organise a vigorous campaign when the State tried to sweep a young, non-political rock band, the Plastic People, quietly into jail (they were "layabouts, hooligans, alcoholics" – and long-haired). Havel ended up in prison – but the trial had been noticed. The regime saw that Czechs were still awake.

Scotland, of course, is not Cold War Czechoslovakia, but Communicado insist on the political angle. The performance will draw "frightening parallels", they say, pointing to modern political "spin" and Britain's mistrust of politicians. And if Communicado want political theatre, they seem to know how to get it. Sarajevo was old news by 2004, but critics who saw 'Zlata's Diary' couldn't help reflecting on the war in Iraq, still underway during the performances. In any case, bureaucracy and its stifling effect is a universal problem, and this might partly account for the enormous success of 'The Memorandum', and its many revivals worldwide, since 1965.
The Memorandum' runs at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre from Feb 22-25.