I had the very good fortune one week in March to attend five plays – with English superscripts – performed by five different theatre companies. These were five of twenty plays bundled by the Hungarian Theatre Critics Association as The Hungarian Showcase. http://www.hungarianshowcase.com/about-us/
The goal of the showcase was to make accessible in English a wide variety of plays, theatre companies, and actors for critics, theatre festival directors, theatre organizations, and non Hungarian theatre goers in order to promote Hungarian theatre to an international audience. I have already blogged about the politics surrounding this series. (see Saturday, of Hungarian politics in a day) Here I summarize my reactions to what I experienced.
Bela Pinter and his company, which began in the late 1980s, has developed a cult following in Budapest and Pinter’s company is said to be the most provocative and influential experimental theatre in the city. Pinter is a theatrical everyman: writing, directing, producing, and acting in all of his company’s plays. His theatre is a small space (150 or so seats) on the second floor of the Technical University and his plays, it seems, are eagerly awaited events. Several of his plays were represented in the Showcase.
I saw his play of last year, Muck.
Muck is the name of the main character, a teenaged orphan who, along with a Roma (Gypsy) friend is adopted by a childless couple living in a rural Hungarian village. It all turns out badly – the friend gets pregnant by the adoptive father and Muck joins the rightwing, neo-fascist Jobbik Party — a commentary on the alarming growth of the ultra nationalist rightwing and its anti-Roma, anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence.
The play mixes drama and farce, commenting on current issues drawing on traditional village folk songs and experimental staging (masks, a musician on a ladder playing wind instruments accompaniment throughout the play, a play within a play, etc). It was an interesting theatrical experience despite the challenges of following what was happening on stage while also trying to follow the English supertitles. At times I would simply stop trying and become naïve anthropologist observing the audience. I was surprised how young the audience was – that was the case at each of the plays I attended – and how engaged they were: laughing at lines I couldn’t catch in translation, leaning forward in their seats, nodding to each other or whispering comments. The after play scene was especially interesting. A snatch of conversation behind me while waiting in the coat check line: He: “It is amazing that Pinter is in such control of his own aesthetic!” She: “Wow. You got that too? Such control! And those orphan customs . . . where does that come from?!” I felt like Woody Allen standing in line for the movie in Annie Hall.
I won’t try to say much about Ulysses’ Living Room but instead include this YouTube video trailer to it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-95uHLFYdXw
This was a theatre of visual experiences rather than ideas, thematically held together by the title that was meant to evoke Homeric homecoming as well a Joyce’s stream of consciousness. Performed in a warehouse in Obuda for sixty “guests” I felt uncomfortable and exposed, longing for the return of the “fourth wall” between audience and players and the clarity of which side I was supposed to be on. But many of the episodes were visually riveting and made me wish I could have had my camera.
The obvious thing to say about Kornél Mundruczo’s stage adaptation of J. M. Coetzee’s novel, Disgrace, is that it was disgraceful. But not in the sense intended by Coetzee’s novel. I had really liked the novel which is why I selected the play. Coetzee, the South African writer and Nobel Prize winner, is unflinching in depicting the fall from grace of a British literature professor, his daughter who had immigrated to a farm in apartheid era South Africa, and symbolically the fall of European privilege in Africa. It is a physically and emotionally violent novel, but still it has insight and moments of human connection and redemption. Mundruczo’s adaptation,on stage at Trafo House of Contemporary Art, captures the violence but only that. Mundruczo is an actor and film director who has assembled an excellent company of actors around him for theatre and film projects. And it is clear he can direct up a storm. The opening rape scene that lasted probably 20 minutes but seemed much longer was a visual and emotional assault and the audience could not avoid experiencing the degrading violence along with the young woman – acted brilliantly by the waif-like Orsi Toth, who remained nude for much of the play, looking more Holocaust survivor than expat farmer.
There is no insight or humanity in Mundruczo’s version of the novel. It is brutality throughout, relieved occasionally by moments of slapstick, rock-opera like scenes, and yes, even grand opera (a young actor with a credible voice sings Nessun dorma before a large television projection for no apparent reason). The rape scene, by the way, gets repeated mid way through the play by video from various angles projected on four large screens. But mercifully it is interrupted after about 5 minutes by an actor acknowledging to the audience that since we have already seen this part the play will move on – a line that brought a cheer from the audience.
While Mundruczo retains the South African locale, he can’t help but try to treat the play as a parable for present-day Hungary, by implying that the rape happened in Budapest then returning to all the references to South Africa of the novel. The attempted reference to Hungary’s current distress seems obligatory in Budapest theatre (the production of Angels in America ends with a projection of the Gabriel stature at Hero’s Square rather than the fountain in Washington Square) but in this case it was jarringly gratuitous and the implied comparison between Apartheid and contemporary politics in Hungary – as depressing as they are – strains credulity.
Dogs figure symbolically in Cortzee’s novel and they are everywhere in Mundruczo’s play – they announce the rapists, there are stuffed dogs in the rafters, a dog’s throat is cut on stage, dogs are portrayed by actors, and at the very end all the actors come to the edge of the stage and howl and bark at the audience. When the lights finally went out, there was stunned silence. A hand full of people stood and cheered, about half the audience clapped diplomatically, and the rest exhaled the equivalent “Thank God!” in various languages. I was among that group.
Our Class was the most completely satisfying of the plays that I saw. The play, by Polish playwright Tadeus Słobodzianek, is about a real and tragic episode in a small Polish village in 1941. The Catholic villagers herded 1600 Jewish neighbors into a barn, locked it, and set it on fire, killing them all. For years the villagers claimed that the Nazi were responsible, and the play deals with falsifying history, forgetting and remembering, denial, and refusal of responsibility as much as with the event itself. It is told through the eyes and lives of Catholic and Jewish children (acted by adults), classmates who spilt apart and come together over the years that follow. This play truly is a parable for contemporary Hungary and coming to terms with responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust. It was acted brilliantly by the Katona József Theatre Company, in their basement black box theatre on Ferenciek tere. The set was simple – a schoolroom with desks and blackboard – and the adult actors wore children’s school uniforms. The passage of years was marked by changing dates on the blackboard. The story unfolds through brief scenes, song, letters exchanged with a student who had immigrated to the US, and actors narrating events directly to the audience. But it all worked seamlessly and chillingly. It is a play I think would transport well to the US because historical forgetting and evading responsibility are not unique to Eastern Europe.
I have written about Angels in America in an earlier blog (Saturday, or Hungarian politics in a day) so I won’t repeat what I said there about the complicated cultural politics of Budapest. I will say that this was world-class, big stage theatre.
While the architecture of the National Theatre is suspect, the technical capability of the stage and quality of the auditorium are not. This production exploited the technical capabilities fully. The relatively bare stage consisted of two revolving platforms – one inside the other – where scene moved carousel-like into view, with other scenes emerging on multiple risers — sometimes simultaneously — here and there around the central circular platform. The compression of the two plays into one was effective and gave coherence without losing the different themes and forces of each play. The acting was uniformly outstanding and once I forgot that this was advertised as a parable about the challenges of democratization in Hungary I was able to appreciate it as a fine piece of theatre.
I will not try to draw any conclusions from these five days of theatre in Budapest except to say that they were demanding, intense, aggravating, and rewarding. I was very lucky to have had the opportunity.