“Attention, attention. I’m warning you that you are at the Hungarian border. If you damage the fence, cross illegally, or attempt to cross, it’s counted to be a crime….”
–Loudspeaker announcement, in English, Arabic, and Farsi, at the electrified razor wire fence along Hungary’s southern border
The skies were gray and brooding over Budapest when I flew into the city on a late November afternoon to attend the fourth edition of dunaPart, a high-profile four-day festival of contemporary Hungarian performing arts. Even when the sun came out a couple of days later, something gray persisted. Perhaps it was a mood, an undercurrent—something unspoken.
Clouds of whatever hue tended to dissipate, though, when crowds of revved-up spectators, many of them visitors from abroad, packed into 15 various-sized venues across the city for dunaPart’s craftily curated lineup of theatre and dance performances between Nov. 29 and Dec. 2. The festival’s 30 productions, accompanied by a short list of off-program panels and networking events, showcased what organizers called “independents”—established artists and newcomers to the scene who are not regularly affiliated with large, government-sanctioned arts institutions.
That’s a recipe, of course, for rowdiness—for messages of anger and protest, anti-establishment points of view, transgressive aesthetics, all of which have been prime ingredients of Hungarian stage work, alternative and otherwise, in recent generations. But if dunaPart4 was an accurate indication, the flavor of that work is growing less pungent, less provocative.
But, let me hasten to add, no less ingeniously conceived or professionally executed: From inventive ensemble shows based on classics such as Crime and Punishment and Peer Gynt to experimental solo riffs titled Selfy (by Gyula Cserepes, an accomplished dancer/choreographer of Roma descent) or Between the World and Me (by Valencia James, a freelance theatremaker hailing from Barbados), the dunaPart program offered a panoramic scan of new Hungarian theatrical talent, as has been the case since the festival’s debut edition in 2008.
Still, as critic and editor Tamás Jászay, who steered a team of six festival curators, conceded, “This year, there are fewer shows that deal with issues in the country—there is less edge, less disagreement.”
Reasons why—political, cultural, and otherwise—are not hard to suss out. Starting at the top, the belligerently right-wing Fidesz party (led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s own version of Trump/Kaczynski/Ceaucescu, et al.) has controlled the goings-on inside the ornate Parliament building on the banks of the Danube since 2010, and will likely be re-empowered in the upcoming spring election. As is the case in neighboring Poland, media in all its forms is under tight government control.
Independent-minded leaders of scores of theatres and other cultural organizations across the nation have been replaced by apparatchiks—including at the emblematic National Theatre, where popular actor-director Robert Alfoldi was sacked in 2013 after being outed as gay and decried for “treason” and “inciting and discrediting Hungarians” (resulting in half-empty houses under his wan successor, Attila Vidnyánszky).
Sociologically, Hungarians are sharply divided. There’s reportedly wide approval for a new steel-reinforced barrier fence (more shades of Trump) currently being constructed (by a labor force of prison inmates) along the Hungary-Serbia border, once a busy crossing point for migrants fleeing violence and persecution in their homelands. The floodlit and electrified fence, equipped with intimidating loudspeakers and patrolled by border agents, will run for some 85 miles when complete and is predicted to cost a whopping 1 billion euros.
Giant government-sponsored billboards of the face of George Soros have also gone up in recent months, with text decrying the philanthropist’s proposals for more humane treatment of migrants as a threat to the Hungarian state—“part of the Soros-EU conspiracy,” as Fidesz would have it. The average wage in Hungary is now one-quarter of that in Germany.
All told, it’s not a pretty picture, and many Hungarians are grumpy. As Jászay sees it, “The younger generation has stopped caring about politics and social causes—it’s a way of protecting themselves. They grew up in a divided country, where you had to belong to the left or the right, and they’re sick of it. They accept it theoretically, in a way, but not practically. They want no part in this division.”
That antipathy has contributed in major losses to theatre. Alfoldi now works regularly at important European theatres as well as in Hungary (in February he will play Richard III in a new staging by Andrei Serban at the Radnóti Theatre). Renowned director Arpád Schilling, whose Krétakör company focused international attention on the Hungarian avant-garde, was targeted this past September by the National Security Committee and decried in Parliament as a subversive agent and a security risk. Jászay, a Schilling scholar, says the outspoken artist “refuses to work here any more—he doesn’t want to accept a penny from this government.”
Which brings us to another key ingredient in the unruly mix of contemporary Hungarian arts: money. Two of the productions I saw at dunaPart4 (and there may have been others) used actual currency—the paper kind—as a messaging tool. The 12-year-old Forte Company, associated with Budapest’s Szkéné Theatre, began and ended its long but engagingly human rendition of Dostoyevky’s epic Crime and Punishment with precisely choreographed physical-theatre sequences in which handfuls of paper rubles passed desperately or surreptitiously from hand to hand—a cogent and telling gestural interpretation of the novel’s thematic focus on money, or rather the lack of it.
These storytelling tactics were characteristic work for Forte founder Csaba Horváth, whose fast-growing reputation brought him to Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre Company this past fall to direct a much-praised (and equally physically rigorous) staging of Lorca’s Blood Wedding.
Paper money—this time Hungarian forints—also changed hands and steered the discussion-driven plot of Addressless, an interactive performance by the activist collective Stereo Akt, which delved with unsettling specificity into the lives and fates of Budapest’s homeless population and the social institutions designed to serve them. Billed as a “vagabond role game” and staged in a well-lit classroom, the show aligned three teams of audience members with a trio homeless characters based on real cases from the welfare rolls. The homeless folk were represented by skeletal metal poles on wheels with a sort of grocery cart attached, attended by performers who told their dispiriting stories and occasionally assumed their identities in terse dramatic scenes.
The audience’s job was to steer their group’s homeless avatar through everyday dilemmas, with the ultimate goal of finding them a place to live. Where should your character sleep tonight: the street, the temporary hostel, the permanent shelter? How should she spend her meager allocation of forints? Where can she take a bath? Addressless insistently moved us spectators inside the minds and hearts of actual homeless individuals, a theatrical accomplishment that, on the day I attended the show, generated perplexity, astonishment, and sorrow. One observation that struck home for U.S. viewers: “We live in a community where it’s easier to get funding to build a penthouse than it is to get assistance to get off the street.”
The moving force behind Stereo Akt is 26-year-old Martin Boross, another Hungarian theatremaker intent on forming relationships with theatres abroad. The collective’s 2015 work Promenade, designed to break down neighborhood barriers in economically segregated cities, has been adapted by Single Carrot Theatre of Baltimore, and Boross will be in residence in coming months with Tricklock Company of Albuquerque, N.M.
Money can have powerful reverberations in performance, but it wields even more powerful repercussions in reality. Funding for Hungarian theatre organizations comes almost entirely from three sources: the national Ministry of Culture, the municipality in which the theatre is located, and money-making enterprises the organization may undertake. (The kind of corporate and foundation support upon which U.S. theatre depend is virtually nonexistent in Hungary, as is systematic individual giving.) Since the populist takeover in 2010, radical changes in arts and cultural appropriations have meant late and short funding for many theatres, and has particularly destabilized dance groups, many of which have been forced to abandon their spaces.
One effective survival tactic has been banding together. Eighteen Budapest theatres are now connected to Trafó House of Contemporary Arts, the performance space, gallery, and gathering spot that served as an informal headquarters for dunaPart4. Trafo was created in the 1990s on the site of a former electrical generator plant by onetime rock-concert promoter Gyorgy Szabo, who remains at its helm (despite a short-lived effort to depose him) as a kind of underground tastemaker and a frequent promoter of international co-productions (another clever tool for raising elusive operating funds). Trafó itself is publicly funded to the level of 80 percent of its ticket income.
“What does it feel like to be working inside this system?” Jaszay asked three of his female colleagues—a choreographer, a designer, and a managing director—during a tell-it-like-it-is panel discussion about the economic rigors of being an independent artist. “You never know” was the consensus answer.
“I grew up in communist times, studied math in college, and went to illegal dance classes,” recounted Réka Szabó, the 47-year-old director of a dance ensemble called the Symptoms. “After ‘the changes’ in 1989, there was a boom in dance,” she added, referring to the end of Soviet occupation in Hungary and Poland. Because it is essentially nonverbal, dance tends to make its way more easily under repressive regimes than theatre does, she observed.
“I performed in my flat for many years,” noted set designer and emerging director Eszter Kálmán (who has worked and studied in the U.K.), calling to mind the career arc of the landmark expatriate Hungarian company Squat Theatre, which fled Budapest in 1976 after being targeted for its political and aesthetic radicalism. (Now disbanded, Squat went on to become a major presence in the Downtown Manhattan performance scene.) Panelist Beáta Barda has been a fixture at Trafó since 2006, and as of this past fall became its executive director.
Jászay summed up their situation: “The system encourages more popular performances, more famous actors, and less experimental material.”
What about actual censorship? “There is no censorship in Hungary,” he says flatly. “You can do what you want, speak about anything. But when you do, there is no guarantee that you will get money. Economic control of institutions has replaced political control.”
Nobody understood the impact of money on every aspect of life—including family relations—better than Anton Chekhov, a claim amply verified by the single Chekhovian selection on dunaPart4’s lineup. The fledgling company dollardaddy’s, led by risk-taking actor/directors Emöke Kiss-Végh and Tamás Ördög, dived into not one but a quartet of the Russian master’s greatest hits, in a kind of “collected works” amalgam of Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, and Ivanov. Dubbed Chekhov and performed in the round without sets, the performance fused the plays, sometimes molding several characters into one.
Did it work? Sometimes. One thing became clear at the outset, with the entrance of three sisters (renamed Piroska, Emöke, and Lilla) rhapsodizing about Moscow—this Chekhov was going to be all about the shoes. Beneath their modern jeans or pant suits, the siblings sported identity-defining clunky boots, elaborate sandals, tall, fat wooden heels. When neighbors from another play spoke up from seats in the house and invaded the stage, all attention turned to silver-lamé-clad Arkadina’s impossibly high spiked heels.
Abetting the costumes in the mash-up process was a cheerful vulgarization of Chekhov’s dialogue—the Konstantin character calls his mother a “shit” and a “bitch,” somebody refers to “poor, golden-dicked Ivanov”—and casual slurs of Jews and Arabs. Arkadina and her “little Kolya” fight like tigers, appropriately, over the definition of theatre: “This, THIS, in an empty space, is theatre!” he shouts in a fit of rage that would make Peter Brook proud. For the final scenes, bouncy music accompanies the audience to a narrow adjacent corridor, where (due perhaps to an unannounced intrusion from Uncle Vanya) a crazed, pistol-wielding Kolya shoots most of the cast and an audience member or two.
Among better-known works served up at dunaPart4 was a very different Russian classic (this time intact), Diary of a Madman, based on Gogol‘s almost-200-year-old short story. The production, which debuted a year-and-a-half ago at Katona József Theatre, was adapted by a stellar team—much-honored director Viktor Bodó, who recently pocketed the prestigious 2016 Europe Theatre Prize, and actor-designer Tamás Keresztes, who designed the show’s sets and costumes (including his own) and delivered an electrifying solo performance as Gogol’s unhappy civil servant, desperate to transcend his class.
The festival’s single foray beyond Budapest’s scrappy independent-friendly venues into its ornate culture palaces came on dunaPart4’s closing night, with a visual spectacle called Drip Canon: How’s it going Heraclitus?, for which audiences headed across town to Müpa Budapest, a giant, architecturally ungainly performance center adjacent to the equally overemphatic National Theatre building.
A celebrated project of the well-traveled, 37-year-old Artus Company and directed and choreographed by its amenable founder Gábor Goda, Drip Canon was performed by a dancing choir of some two dozen, discovered at curtain’s rise wearing raincoats of many colors and perched along the perimeter of a pool of ankle-deep water that covered most of a wide proscenium stage. As the singing performers were prompted by a moody, throbbing musical score to move singly or in groups into the water, sensor cameras beneath the pool sent increasingly complex ripple patterns onto a drive-in sized movie screen upstage, where they mixed in watery profusion with images of disembodied talking heads and crashing sea waves.
As rain began to drizzle in glistening sheets and eventually burst into an onstage downpour (reminiscent, inevitably, of such Pina Bausch classics as Café Müller), scenes of intimacy and conflict played out in the pool: a love duet, a party in which wine glasses were attached to the top of long poles, a fight between men that morphed into embraces, a dancer who beat his own head with a book till he fell unconscious.
Critical notes in the dunaPart4 program praised Drip Canon for its combination of “monumentality and intimacy: not confronting each other, but coexisting in the same place and time.” Experiencing that profound synthesis onstage cannot alleviate the painful conundrum facing Hungarian performing artists at this juncture: Is coexistence possible, or even advisable, with a hostile, authoritarian state prone to reprisals for opposition activities or the free expression of political views? For the time being, it will have to be.
Jim O’Quinn is the founding editor of American Theatre magazine. His visit to dunaPart4 was supported by the Center for International Theatre Development.
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!