Artist. Dissident. President. Icon.' ; John Walsh Meets Vaclav Havel He Was the Playwright Whose Work Was Banned by the Communists. He Was the Leader of the Revolution That Drove Them from Power. He Was the President Who Was Courted by Rock Stars and Royalty. Now Vaclav Havel's Role in Bringing Freedom to Czechoslovakia Is Celebrated in Tom Stoppard ' S Extraordinary New Play. John Walsh Meets a Living Legend

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It's a hot summer evening in Chelsea, and upstairs at the Royal Court, a reception is under way. On the balcony of this slightly flyblown theatre - home of British radical drama in the Sixties - philanthropists, corporate sponsors, arts administrators and famous TV faces nibble chicken bits on toast and sip champagne in the cool breeze above the Sloane Square traffic. Richard and Ruth Rogers, Alan Yentob and Harold Pinter hang out beside Tony Elliott, the Time Out founder, and Jane Ashley, heir to the Laura Ashley empire.

It's a communion between the Human Rights Watch organisation, dedicated to documenting rights abuses in countries from Burma to Bangladesh (and holding "advocacy" meetings with government ministers there from), and their financial sponsors. On this warm night they're getting together for a stage event called Cries from the Heart 2006, the fourth annual "celebration of voices for justice", in which two dozen performers, some of dizzy-making eminence, read testimonials, poems and prose pieces from the officially voiceless shadowlands of the imprisoned, kidnapped and interrogated worldwide. It's a potentially harrowing evening, made bearable and even triumphant by the sophistication of the performers' having Brian Cox and Janet Suzman emoting at you is more guaranteed to raise your consciousness about Uzbekistan than reading a dozen editorials.

In the midst of this throng, however, all eyes are on two figures being snapped by photographers. They are a curious pair. One is tall, rumpled and hirsute, his presence and gestures some way larger than life. The other is small, tidy, Bryl-creemed and modest in his movements, like a retired bank manager reluctantly rising to speak at a wedding. Beside the expansive, boun-cily oratorical Oliver Hardy that is Sir Tom Stoppard, OM, CBE, Vaclav Havel is a shy, nervous-seeming Stan Laurel. There's no doubt at all, however, of just who is the star of the show tonight. Even as he introduces Havel with the words "...former jailbird, President of the Czech Republic ." Stoppard exudes deference towards his fellow countryman, fellow playwright and friend of 30 years. He himself is a major writer who can chronicle, better than anyone, the transformation of Czechoslovakia from a satellite state of the Soviet Union to a working democracy, and can celebrate the career of Havel as dissident, intellectual, anti-autocratic free-thinker and soul of the people. But Havel lived it, endured imprisonment for it, embodied the historic struggle of his country. To paraphrase Whitman: he was the man' he suffered' he was there.

Havel was also there (physically and dramatically) at the Royal Court on Wednesday night, when Stoppard's new play, Rock 'n' Roll, dedicated to the former President, directed by Trevor Nunn and charting 22 years of Czech history, had its press night. The atmosphere inside and outside the Court was extraordinary - charged, expectant, electric, hypera-drenalinated. Partly this was explained by the presence of rock-star glamour (Mick Jagger and L'Wren Scott, and David and Polly Gilmour were in the stalls) and a strangely random convocation of famous faces. Havel was seated beside Raine Spencer in a Lady Tottington hairdo' I found myself next to Kim Cattrall, who played the man-eating Samantha in Sex and the City (dear God, the rigours of research one has to undergo). But mostly it was explained by the Havel-Stoppard combination, as if their joint attendance has infected London's drama-loving masses like a virus of libertarian joy, as if Sloane Square had briefly turned into Wenceslas Square c1968, and we were celebrating an unexpected impulse of revolution. I'm not sure if people were smoking joints or reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being on the theatre steps in the late evening sunlight' it certainly felt like they were.

When I met Havel on Sunday at a small table covered in Sol beer bottles, surrounded by Paul, his Canadian translator, Jakub, his secretary and Tom Stoppard, his biggest fan, he seemed an unusual candidate for the role of global statesman (since his tenure as first President of the Czech Republic ended in February 2003) and saint. …