It was an eye-opening and unsettling week in Budapest, the sprawling, architecturally opulent Hungarian capital, for scores of theatre people visiting there from around the world. The occasion, in early March, was Hungarian Showcase 2013, a program of 20 stage productions and nearly a dozen related events organized and curated by the nation’s association of theatre critics, and supported in part by U.S. funding sources. Many of the plays offered pointed criticism of the policies of the right-leaning authoritarian government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party, which came into power in 2010; others reveled in plentiful nudity and graphic depictions of sexual violence, or conveyed psycho-social messages bordering on the nihilistic. The showcase utilized an array of venues on both the Buda and Pest sides of the Danube River, the most prominent being the emblematic National Theatre, where Hungary’s escalating culture wars will come to a dispiriting climax on July 1.
In keeping with an edict by the state Ministry of Culture, that’s the date on which Róbert Alföldi, the progressive and charismatic artistic director who has led the National for the past five years, will lose his job. Alföldi, also an admired stage actor, has completed his legal contract, against considerable odds, and will be replaced by Attila Vidnyánszky, a respected artist who is evidently more in tune with the Orbán administration’s rigorously nationalistic cultural policies.
News reports indicate that upon his assumption of leadership in September, Vidnyánszky will take part in a public baptism of the National Theatre building, presumably to cleanse the premises of liberal and unpatriotic vibrations (and who knows what other unsavory influences) that may have accumulated during Alföldi’s tenure.
In fact, Alföldi will be a hard act to follow. The dashing, 45-year-old multitasker has made headlines and attracted full houses from the moment he took the reins of the National, which is situated, controversially, well outside the heart of the city in a great gilded bug of a building erected on the Danube’s left bank 10 years ago, after conservatives in Parliament managed to scuttle plans for a more centrally located venue.
Alföldi accedes to the requirement that the National be a repository of classic Hungarian work—which, in theatrical terms, consists mainly of three 19th-century dramas that have long been dutifully drilled into the heads of Hungarian schoolchildren—but he’s interested in “how classic texts can work in a contemporary environment, how they comment on today,” as he put it in a panel discussion with a packed house of showcase visitors in March. “Young people need to have personal relationships with these national treasures, to experience them as living, not as compulsory.” So, for example, when a folk musical based on the universally familiar epic poem John the Valiant hit the National stage in 2008, with prostitution and moral ambiguity injected into its fairy-tale plot, Alföldi found himself decried in Parliament, no less, for “falsifying the author’s intention.”
A litany of ad hominem attacks and manufactured scandals followed, including accusations against Alföldi of “vandalism,” “treason” and “inciting and discrediting Hungarians” and his outing in the press and in Parliament as gay—but these assaults are now old news. The director persisted, and the fact is that his tenure has been a historic success, bringing new vitality, record audiences and unprecedented critical acclaim to the National—for the record, some 100,000 spectators annually lined up for 40 premiere productions (10 of them contemporary plays), encompassing pieces about tolerance, oppression, gay rights and a range of problems inherent in Hungarian society.
“Alföldi has managed to turn this big ocean liner of a theatre in new directions,” insists critic Tamás Jászay, who curated the showcase with his enterprising cohorts Andrea Tompa and Bea Barda. “He has proven that he doesn’t have to show only patriotic and ‘national’ pieces, which are already over-represented in the National repertory. He is brave. And people love it.” Alföldi’s current and final season includes a luminous Seagull that premiered in February; Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, opening in May; and, most audaciously, guest director Andrei Serban’s compact and powerful rendition of Angels in America, with Alföldi himself in a witty, rending performance as Prior Walter.
Angels was the cherry on top of eight days of showcase programming, not all of which found favor with an international contingent of 26 American visitors and nearly four times that many guests from other countries, whose sojourns in Hungary were supported by the Baltimore-based NGO the Center for International Theatre Development and the Trust for Mutual Understanding, a U.S. foundation active in Russia and Central and Eastern Europe. (The municipality of Budapest, still willing to offer its imprimatur to efforts frowned upon by forces in Parliament, helped underwrite the showcase, but a state grant that would have facilitated bringing in productions from other parts of the country was pulled at the last minute.)
The presence of international critics, theatre leaders and European festival directors was particularly significant, as non-Hungarians have been disinvited as of this year from the biannual National Hungarian Theatre Festival in the southern city of Pécs, coming up this June, where in recent years the nation’s top shows (gleaned both from independent companies and the network of state theatres, which are now led mostly by Fidesz Party loyalists) have been proudly offered up for world attention. No longer: Hungarian art, as the prime minister and his crew apparently see it, is for Hungarians.
Considering how tellingly the showcase entries reflected the roiling national zeitgeist, there’s something to be said for that viewpoint—for us outsiders, the panel discussions and post-show sessions, designed to lend perspective on the plays’ sometimes indirect, sometimes baldly explicit commentary on the troubled Hungarian present, were illuminating, often revelatory. The Örkény Theatre’s fierce and funny staging of King John, an ironic takeoff on Shakespeare written by Friedrich Dürrenmatt in the ’60s, served up an antic cavalcade of shrewd politicians fighting tooth and nail for survival, with actors in business suits clambering through the audience to join the action. When it was first performed in Hungary in the ’80s, director László Bagossy said at a post-show coffee klatch, the play served to address the Soviet occupation and its absurdities; these days it conveys a satirical critique of Hungary’s right/left schism and her touchy negotiations with the European Union.
Alfred Jarry’s King Ubu would seem a natural property for skewering the powers that be, but Zoltán Balázs, the articulate young artistic director of Maladype Base (a gypsy term meaning “theatre of encounters”), had more than that in mind in his high-energy, low-tech staging of the play, pared down for a quartet of male actors and performed in a cramped, white-walled apartment for 45 or so spectators. Papa Ubu (played with captivating intensity by Ákos Orosz) and his shirtless acolytes rolled, scampered and skulked about on a mountain of bundled newspapers, punctuating torrents of Hungarian text with English interjections (“The sun is shining—it looks like Los Angeles!”) and pop-culture shout-outs (“Jennifer Lopez! Prince Harry! Nascar!”). “Theatre is an act of the moment—you meet us, we meet you,” Balázs ventured amiably in a talkback session, after assuring his listeners that life for independent actors like those in his cash-strapped company, which frequently tours for additional income, was difficult in any number of ways. “Together we find ways to continue and move into the future,” he said, eliciting sober nods from his cast.
Another abundantly talented independent group, the HOPPart Company, formed from the first music-and-acting class at Budapest’s elite University of Theatre, struck rich metaphoric notes in a similarly no-frills rendition of Coriolanus. A text that drew upon Brecht and von Kleist as well as Shakespeare emphasized power shifts and regime change with TV-news immediacy, and the musically adept cast, performing in street clothes with minimal props, burst at intervals into harmonic anthems, twisty fugues or folk refrains. In revisited classics like this Coriolanus, HOPPart and other young Hungarian companies (like their Polish and Romanian counterparts) show themselves to be inheritors of a fine-tuned propensity for theatrical indirection and extended analogy, honed by their predecessors over decades of making work in the shadow of repression. At its best, this quality keeps the issues of the moment burbling beneath the surface of the action like the fuse on a submerged explosive.
In other instances, artists elected to detonate their explosions in their audiences’ laps. Stage and film director Kornél Mundruczó, known for his dark and assaultive style, utilized a wildly overheated adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, about a privileged white South African professor and his delicate relationship with his adult daughter, to skewer not only the perpetrators and (in equal measure) the victims of apartheid but what he apparently sees as a comparably vile social dynamic in his home country. In the opening moments of Mundruczó’s panoramic, expertly realized production, its fragile young heroine (Orsolya Tóth) was horrifically and repeatedly raped, as her quartet of assailants beheaded a dog and slathered her with its blood. Here’s the kicker: The black rapists were played by Hungarian actors in frizzy fright wigs. Front-row spectators, including a number of Americans, headed for the exits, as did others when two additional female characters were sexually assaulted and when the initial rape was later reiterated, close-up, on film. By the play’s end, 9 of the 11-member cast had become dogs—stripped and leashed, clawing in the dirt and snarling at the audience—as they were sardonically identified as “Jew dog,” “gypsy dog,” and so on. Some in Mundruczó’s audience may have been willing to accept the implied indictment.
But there was push-back, not only from American theatre folk who found the racial representation repugnant, but from any number of international visitors who spoke up at the showcase’s final talk session at Goethe Institut, questioning the brutal and dismissive treatment of women in Disgrace (the director was not present) and other productions in the lineup—only one of which, out of 20, was directed by a woman—and the overall lack of gender equality in the Hungarian arts scene. Moments after the session disbanded, news came that Disgrace had been selected as the single show that will represent independent theatres at the upcoming national festival in Pécs.
Sexual politics and societal guilt were handled more subtly, sensitively and, ultimately, with more emotional impact in the Katona József Theatre’s masterful production of Our Class, a contemporary Polish play by Tadeusz Słobodzianek that mirrors Hungarian life in far richer ways than does Coetzee’s South Africa. The play tracks the lives of 10 members of a school class, Catholics and Jews, from 1926 to the present, through loves, betrayals and cruel reversals, and packs as much of a wallop in Budapest as it reportedly did in its debut in Warsaw. Katona József artistic director Gábor Máté, also a teacher of actors at the Budapest Academy, noted that his award-winning production, provocatively cast with performers of all ages, was part of the theatre’s “strong emphasis on keeping contact with a multi-generational audience.” (In the U.S., Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater produced Our Class to critical acclaim in 2011, and the play is currently on the boards through May 4 at Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre.)
An array of other potent productions—including three plays by that most characteristically Hungarian man-of-all-work, Béla Pintér, and several homages to Kafka, most explicitly in director Viktor Bodó’s exuberant, much-toured extravaganza Rattledanddisappeared, based on The Trial—rounded out the showcase lineup. Between performances, guests relished an in-person encounter with the eminent founder-director of Krétakör, Árpád Schilling, who now devises socially focused projects in schools and villages (but who recently lent his expertise to a German production of Rigoletto, his first opera); and a heartening tour of Jurányi Art Incubator House, a city-supported center formed in 2012 to bring together independent artists in a range of disciplines, a kind of facility not seen before in this city of 1.7 million.
“The problem in culture and theatre is that everything now is a battle,” Alföldi remarked at Goethe Institut’s talkback, decrying the general inattention to the value of the arts and the top-down divisiveness that has sent the Hungarian theatre community into a tailspin. “Quality has become less important because of that. What counts now is philosophy or intention—the official stance is to disregard quality.”
That stance was reiterated on the final day of the showcase, when a statement denouncing the event was issued by the state Ministry of Culture. “We are sorry to say that the program of Hungarian Showcase 2013 does not give an overall picture of the contemporary Hungarian theatre,” it began, and went on to recommend that we visiting “theatre experts” seek out “a more realistic picture” from (unnamed) members of a government advisory board. Similar opprobrium was simultaneously issued from the right-wing-aligned Hungarian Theatre Association and the Association of Country Theatres, organizations both currently headed, not incidentally, by the incoming artistic director of the National Theatre, one Attila Vidnyánszky.
For commentary on other productions featured in Hungarian Showcase 2013, refer to AT’s past coverage of Hungarian theatre by Eliza Bent (April ’10) and Jim O’Quinn and Robert Avila (Nov. ’11).