Red Phoenix Theatre
Holden Street Theatres
Until 11 Nov 2017

Review by Paige Mulholland

Democracy is a fragile thing and sometimes, under the guise of protecting it, those in power stray further and further from its true ideals. In “The Conspirators”, playwright Vàclav Havel casts heavy suspicion on any measure said to be in the name of freedom, and, in this age of fake news, spin doctors and a jargon-heavy, equality-light US government, it is certainly a timely statement. Havel’s play is long and, at times, rambling (particularly for a comedy), but brings up important and oft-neglected themes and will certainly leave the audience with food for thought.

Set in an unnamed country (but based on the playwright’s experiences in the Czech Republic), “The Conspirators” follows a group of revolutionaries who, after fighting for democracy and overthrowing the dictator Olah, are now concerned that their newfound democratic nation is too lenient and liberal to be secure.

As they plot to undermine and overthrow the democratic government and instate a “free and just” government based on censorship, political imprisonment and absolute power, they inch closer and closer to the philosophies of the dictator they overthrew in the first place. The show is pitched as a comedy and certainly has its funny moments, but also has long periods of political debate that make it difficult for the show to build any comic momentum.

Particularly in the first act, the lack of plot development and excessive dialogue become tiresome – the show could easily have been cut down by as much as a third without any loss of theme or impact, but, as Vàclav Havel wrote it while living as a political prisoner and had to smuggle it out through a bathroom, it’s understandable that he had a lot to say. It’s also understandable why he calls this his weakest play.

The show was well-rehearsed and featured stylised, farcical performances. Emily Branford (Helga) is the standout, mastering the melodramatic manipulations of her character, and striking the perfect combination of “soap opera mistress” and “political sociopath”. She is joined by a strong cast of performers who are able to convey both the funny and the dark and violent elements of the plot with confidence.

Visually, “The Conspirators” was exciting, with a set covered in chalkboard paint and political graffiti and a 50’s aesthetic to the bright and sleek costume design. Without reading the program, the choice to dress the characters in 50’s garb when the show was in the 70’s and set in an unspecified time period seems arbitrary; the design was apparently created to honour political comic strips and pop art, but this doesn’t quite translate. It does, however, give the play a “Mad Men” aesthetic, which is never a bad thing.

Although the script is not the strongest and this offering was not Red Phoenix’s best, “The Conspirators” is a thought-provoking, unique show. It also fits the company’s 2017 theme of politics and their brief to only perform shows which have not been presented before in Adelaide – both worthy aims. If peacebuilding strategies in post-revolutionary nations don’t set your soul on fire, you’ll have to work a little to stay engaged in “The Conspirators”, but politics-buffs will find this right up their alley.