Fifty years ago, on the 19th January 1969, Jan Palach, a student of history and political economy at Charles University in Prague, had burnt himself to death in protest after the end of the Prague Spring, resulting from the 1968 invasion.
A few months later, I toured Europe with the English Stage Company, from the Royal Court Theatre, with two Edward Bond plays. I was cast as Len, the main character in Saved.
Narrow Road to the Deep North, a play set in Japan, was the second production. I played Kiro, the young monk at the centre of the narrative.
The Bond touring cast included Queenie Watts, a blues singer with her own pub in the East End; Richard Butler, a schoolmasterly type from the North; and Nigel Hawthorne, a then unknown gentlemanly actor from South Africa – later on, famous in Yes, Minister.
Prague, one stop on our tour, was both exhilarating and fearful. It was occupied by Soviet troops. The British Council warned us that all the hotel rooms were bugged.
Our play about British imperialism and the Japanese became a play about Prague and the Soviet occupation. Nigel had a line that went unnoticed in London: ‘Politicians are so stupid.’ It got a huge reaction.
In the Japanese play, my character escapes a palace revolution with Shoqo, the head of the city, who is captured by soldiers and killed. My character’s response is to take his own life. He kneels facing the audience. I had a long-handled knife with a retractable wooden blade. I also had a sort of money belt with a pouch that contained a Strepsils tin with around ten reels of scarlet ribbons in it. After I’d sunk the blade into my left side, I pulled the scarlet ribbons out, catching the light; then I pitched and turned onto my back, my upper torso hanging over the edge of the stage. Hara-kiri meets Blue Peter.
At the time, I was unaware of Palach's recent death. And my stage suicide caused the entire audience to audibly weep. The sobbing and wailing reached the stage from the far corners of the building.