Cyanide at 5 is the UK premiere of a Czech play opening at The Kings Head on 15 November. We spoke to director Peter Kavanagh about what attracted him to the play
What is Cyanide at 5 about?
Zofia is a successful wealthy polish woman novelist. She is happily settled in Prague, living in some style in a smart neighbourhood. Then out of the blue she gets a surprise visit from an unknown fan. Irene, her visitor, is the daughter of a Jewish friend of Zofia, who loved her and has cherished her since her tragic death. She died at the hands of the Nazis after the Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. Irene has just recently read Zofia’s fictional account of events back then. And now she has come with searching questions… and a bottle of cyanide in her bag. The play deals with several theme including writers’ moral responsibility – warning against authorial fake-truth. But also fiction that is too close to actual truth for comfort.
How did you come across the play and what attracted you to it?
Sir Tom Stoppard wrote a play about Kohout, and the ban on him performing in Czech theatres under soviet communism. In revenge, the writer enterprisingly took to performing Shakespeare in different Prague sitting rooms! I had the good fortune to work with Sir Tom, and his accounts kindled my interest. In a longer run (we only have a fortnight at the Kings Head) I’d like to mount the Stoppard play alongside Cyanide
What’s the driving force behind it?
The tense thriller shows past crimes finally being called to account and the moral compromises that (in this case lesbian) love can provoke. It also considers the age-old tension between Christian and Jew, and the distrust that that engenders. In that sense it might be seen as a kind of female Merchant of Venice.
What will the experience be like for the audience?
They’ll experience empathy, surprise, fear, pity and a burning desire to see how this tense story will end! And they’ll enjoy Kohout’s fine writing and dramatic adroitness.
The playwright has been performed across Europe but rarely in the UK, why do you think that is?
Just the luck of the literary roulette. He’s a terrific writer. But if we can help revive this marvellous author with his terrific play, we’ll be very happy.
What’s next for you?
Salt-Water Moon at the Finborough Theatre, on Jan 3-28th 2023. Another engrossing by Newfoundland writer David French. And another UK stage premier. Please come to both!
Cyanide at 5 plays The Kings Head Theatre London 15th – 26th November https://kingsheadtheatre.com/whats-on/cyanide-at-5