DunaPart3, a Hungarian showcase of contemporary performing arts that ran March 2–8 in Budapest, was the third iteration of a festival inaugurated in 2008 by that city’s Trafó House of Contemporary Arts. It was also, and more immediately, the industrious follow-up to the theatre-centric Hungarian Showcase of 2013 (see AT, May/June ’13), which welcomed a large international audience of theatre professionals and critics to the dependably picturesque city on the Danube during a period of heightened tensions brought on by Hungary’s rightward turn since 2010—and the attendant culture wars, in which theatre has loomed large.
Trafó, the Hungarian Theatre Critics Association and the Association of Independent Performing Artists banded together to present this year’s festival. The six curators included three theatre and two dance critics, as well as an artistic director. This alliance was partly motivated by a desire for curatorial breadth, but also by financial necessity. It has only gotten harder to raise money for truly independent work in the austere and partisan environment of present-day Hungary.
The festival also constituted a thoughtful response to 2013. The Hungarian Theatre Critics Association, organizers of the 2013 Showcase, had taken to heart feedback they’d received about the showcase from foreign guests—not least many American theatre professionals—and factored it into their curation of dunaPart3. Among other things, an attempt was made to address what was widely perceived as a lack of female directors and perspectives, and a probably non-coincidental prevalence of what many saw as uncritical, stereotyped representations of women onstage.
Still, an even larger group showed up this year: nearly 200 foreign visitors in all with an unprecedentedly large contingent of some 40 Americans (most supported as in 2013 by the Center for International Development and the Trust for Mutual Understanding).
Since 2013’s Hungarian Showcase, the conservative government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of the ruling Fidesz party has managed reelection under a new and more authoritarian constitution the party helped install—although, significantly, the ruling coalition of Fidesz and the Christian Democrats lost its parliamentary supermajority in the recent by-election in February. The formerly high pitch of political unrest has subsequently settled into a lower register of uneasy resignation or quiet but restless perseverance.
Still, protests continue to erupt, including a large demonstration last month expressing opposition to a state visit by Russia’s Vladimir Putin and against Orbán’s implicit eastward glance, away from the European Union and the West.
In the theatre world, which remains alive to the economic and political changes affecting Hungary’s 10 million citizens, further signs of the “progress” since 2013 are stark: Robert Alföldi (see AT, Nov. ’11), the outspoken and brilliantly successful actor-director who excelled as head of Budapest’s National Theatre (and became a veritable lightning rod for the ultranationalist faction in the Hungarian parliament), has been replaced in that high-profile post by Attila Vidnyánszky, the politically right-wing (if artistically respectable) former director of the National Theatre in Debreczen, Hungary’s second-largest city. Under Vidnyánszky, Budapest’s National has seen its audience wither away dramatically, even as its state subsidy has been generously inflated.
More recently, two acclaimed directors on the independent scene (i.e., beyond the heavily state-subsidized repertory houses) announced the curtailing of their operations. Árpád Schilling, whose world-famous company Krétakör has devoted much of its artistic practice of late to educational projects and political organizing, has closed down the company’s home, Krétakör Base. And Viktor Bodó has decided to fold up his Sputnik Shipping Company at the end of this month. Both directors are turning to more individual and international directing projects.
In both cases, the reason was clear: a lack of resources at home. Significantly, Sputnik Shipping Company’s production of The Government Inspector was an opening salvo at dunaPart3, and Schilling’s sly, naked “rant” on the untenable nature of theatremaking in Hungary, Loser, closed out the festival. The first of these pieces is further discussed below; attention will be paid to the latter in Part 2 of this essay.
Indeed, it is in the independent theatres that the status of the artist is most precarious these days. Of 376 organizations registered in the performing arts in Hungary (according to statistics offered festivalgoers in a discussion of the political context for Hungarian theatre, led by university lecturer Máté Gáspár and journalist György Vári), only 20 percent are classified for direct state support; the rest can compete for a relatively small subsidy doled out annually, though somewhat erratically, in recent years.
In short, a general trend of economic liberalization, coupled with a conservative government’s capricious (and often opaque) disbursing of public funds means it’s increasingly difficult to plan, let alone support, the kinds of ventures that have made companies like Krétakör and Sputnik Shipping internationally renowned. Americans can only smile ruefully and say, “Welcome to our world!”
In Hungary, this state of affairs continues to be protested onstage and off—and sometimes both at once: In May 2013, a member of Krétakör pulled a Kanye West at the premiere of a lavishly subsidized work by director/choreographer and government favorite Iván Markó, rushing the stage with a bullhorn to decry the grossly unequal and politically motivated distribution of public funds in the arts. (It’s a scene that finds its way onstage again in Béla Pintér’s outstanding production Our Secrets, slated for discussion in Part 2).
But amid all these outward signs of unrest, dunaPart3 revealed a surprisingly broad and varied landscape about which it is difficult to generalize. Politics there were—of both the macro and micro varieties—but they found many divergent avenues of expression and transformation in the festival’s generous offerings.
Opening night set the tone well. A small but vivid production of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s play, which later became a film, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, occupied the basement locker room and black box of the Katona József, one of the leading theatre companies in Hungary. The audience stood or sat in close proximity to the action, while the accomplished Réka Pelsöczy delivered a commanding performance as the eponymous heroine, a woman at once powerful in her professional realm (haute couture, to be precise, which inspired a slick video backdrop in the production) and pitifully helpless in her love for the younger, simpler and voracious Karin (Anna Pálmai).
Directed by Kriszta Székely, freshly graduated from the prestigious Academy of Theater and Film, this intimate, all-female production—a shrewd if dramatically somewhat compact exploration of power in the most intimate of quarters—was followed by something approaching its opposite: Bodó’s large, wildly comical, politically barbed (and rather more macho) production of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, which sprawled over the stage at the Vig, a grand 1896 house and home of another of Hungary’s most prestigious ensemble theatres.
Bodó’s Government Inspector was already a famous, even infamous, production by the time we saw it, having been plastered on the front page of a large conservative newspaper in the run-up to the last general elections as an example of “liberal propaganda.” It also, ironically enough, represents an ambitious turn for the soon-to-be-shuttered independent company toward a large-scale production with overtly political messaging.
The latter came scattered throughout the show’s pell-mell absurdities and broad strokes of Marxian (Brothers) humor, in a series of in-jokes that had Hungarians in the audience laughing heartily at references to this politician or that. The thrust of this scattershot mayhem finally resolves itself in no uncertain terms when, near the end, the main character comes to the front of the stage and coolly asks the audience what they’re laughing at. Silence descends for a chill moment when he answers for them: “You’re laughing at yourselves.”
Robert Avila is a San Francisco–based critic and arts journalist. Part 2 of his report from Budapest will be posted next week.