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English Newsletter, October 2009

Posted by jt - 2009. november 16.

Dear Friends of Hungarian theatre,

Welcome to the contemporary Hungarian Theatre monthly newsletter, provided by the Hungarian Theatre Critics’ Association in collaboration with ITI Hungary. In this newsletter, you will find short reviews by theatre critics about current performances, as well as information about festivals and other theatrical events. Any further suggestions are welcome.

If you wish to submit a different address or unsubscribe, please refer to the bottom of this newsletter.

In this issue:

  • Shows directed by Robert Alfoldi, Janos Szasz, Eniko Eszenyi, Bela Pinter, the Artus Theatre Company, Laszlo Bocsardi, and Sandor Zsoter, as well as Bluebeard’s Castle in the Opera House.
  • Information about the Hungarian Theatre Critics’ Association, their awards, and the Contemporary Drama Festival.

Alfoldi’s Bank ban takes a fresh look at a national classic. Bank ban, written by Jozsef Katona in 1819, is THE great Hungarian tragedy, continuously performed in national theatres and read by all high school students. The drama is based on the assassination of Queen Gertrud in 1213. However, any performance of this archaic play runs the considerable risk of becoming bombastic.

Robert Alfoldi, managing director of the National Theatre for more than a year, attempts an ambitious feat by staging Bank ban exclusively with young actors. His Bank ban – junior escapes the trap of operatic gestures and benefits from the fresh outlook of the young.  The energetic performance, which has a down-to-earth, everyday atmosphere, is able to engage the audience in a productive and authentic way, all the while raising topical issues concerning Hungarian nationalism. The immature young figures struggle hopelessly (though dynamically) to solve their personal problems and the affairs of state. The audience is left with the impression that no one can ever be sufficiently grown-up to handle the responsibilities placed upon us. – Andrea Radai

Laszlo Bocsardi and The Misantrope. Laszlo Bocsardi and his outstanding company from Sfintu-Gheorghe (Sepsiszentgyorgy, Romania) are known for powerful acting with physicality and energy and for a directorial vision that mates a symbolic theatrical language with classical texts. Bocsardi and his company premiered this Moliere work in Budapest, and it was a rather bold performance – no specific visual effects, no sound design or music, just bold acting and the power of the text. However, this acting style is rather theatrical, sometimes even fake theatrical. Text is delivered in a simplistic, uninspired manner, without much sense of humor. The play is not playful, but rather a difficult-to-watch text-based theatre where speech is not powerful enough. His main actor, Tibor Palffy as Alceste, is an actor in his late 40s, but the director makes no reference to ages, even though he is surrounded by young people. Besides, Bocsardi does not refer in any way to our contemporary world, and there seems to be little connection between the cynicism of Moliere and our present. – Andrea Tompa

A kaleidoscopic Three Sisters. Janos Szasz, director of the movies The Witman Boys and Diary of a Madwoman, has staged Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Katona Jozsef Theatre in Kecskemet. The production is based on a careful, detailed analysis of the text and, through its details, offers a thought-provoking interpretation. However, the performance is rather eclectic without any focus, and its momentum is disrupted by too many layers being built up at the same time. The set is realistic, as if the Prozorovs lived in a packed apartment complex; while contemplating the meaning of life, the women are always occupied with housework – slicing vegetables, dragging basins and hanging out diapers. Alla Pugacheva’s song Million Roses is also used several times to absurd effect. Chebutykin gets drunk with Russian pathos, and Masha weeps and crawls at Vershinin’s feet in a melodramatic way when saying goodbye to him. There are other references that place the performance in a Russian context: the samovar is wrapped in the Russian tricolor, and a blurred image of a Rublev icon can be seen on a door. Nevertheless, the profusion of layers never builds into an organic whole. No gesture stands out, and nothing is really important. Everything is begun and abandoned. After all, this is what life like. – Andrea Radai

Eszenyi and Othello. Vigszinhaz (Comedy Theatre), together with its chamber theater Pesti Színhaz and its studio stage, constitutes one of the biggest theaters in Budapest, thanks to its seating capacity of 1700. Since February 1, 2009, the institution has been run by actress-director Eniko Eszenyi, who is not an unfamiliar presence. She has been a resident member of Vigszinház since 1983. The 2009/2010 season is the first completely planned under Eszenyi’s leadership, so Othello, her first directorial effort this year, may be defined as an artistic manifesto indicating her future approach.

It was a serious surprise that, although the Vig has a pretty populous company of actors (42 in number), Eszenyi invited three guest actors for the main roles. Zsolt Nagy, a former actor in the Kretakor (Chalk Circle) company secured the title role; Iago is played by Erno Fekete, a leading actor from the Katona Jozsef Szinhaz; and Desdemona is performed by Marta Beres, who is known for her work in often alternative theatre in Subotica, Serbia. Considering that Gyorgy Arvai, responsible for the set design, is also active in alternative circles, one thing seems clear. Eszenyi intends to explore new paths.

The start of the play also suggests this. The Moor, played by Zsolt Nagy, emerges from the audience and splotches two stripes of black greasepaint on his face, only to wipe them off for his second appearance. Evidently, this theatre does not hold a mirror up to life. Indeed, Othello’s black identity is not as important as his essential difference.

Eszenyi’s interpretation of the drama is exact and accurate. Her directing is well-paced and features several unconventional elements. However, the outstanding acting of the main characters does not always complement the Vig’s different (old-fashioned, declaiming) performance language. One of the main tasks of Vig’s new leadership will be to harmonize these dissonances. – Robert Marko

The Bela Pinter Company’s new production. Since Kretakor (Chalk Circle) disbanded two years ago, Bela Pinter’s Company has become the most famous independent theatre group in Hungary. Pinter tours extensively abroad with his most famous productions, Peasents’ Opera, Dievushka, and My Mother’s Nose. He creates these shows himself as director and often acts in them, too. His company has a specific theatrical language, already referred to as the Pinter Bela style. This includes rather amateurish acting, a funny text, and all kinds of cultural layers mixed together to form a surreal vision of the contemporary world. Their new premieres always raise high expectations. Called Parallel Hours, this new piece is a funny, energetic, and powerful performance, but it does not reach the level of their earlier works. The story – always very complicated in Pinter’s work – appears somewhat autobiographical and is not really coherent dramaturgically. The surrealistic world he invents is rather falling apart, and it seems to consist of too little material. The focus is a schoolteacher couple in matrimonial crisis, in a surrealistic world where people worship tigers and other animals as gods and bow before them. The story of the couple and of the other characters goes nowhere, and the dramaturgical weaknesses are quite apparent. – Andrea Tompa

Zsoter’s Brecht. The Orkeny Theatre, balancing well between the concepts of popular and artistic theatre, embarked on one of their biggest adventures yet when they invited the director Sandor Zsoter to head their first premiere in this season. He is the oldest ‘young director.’ Though awarded every existing prize and continually working with the same permanent team (dramaturg, designers), Zsoter is still able to surprise both critics and spectators. Brecht is an author dear to Zsoter. For instance, he chose to stage The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (a play retelling Hitler’s seizure of power in terms of a vegetable marketplace) as one of his exam performances at the University of Theatre in Budapest. Now he is shocking audiences at the downtown theater with the very same parable of the cauliflower business.

What we see is a colorful, witty tale. A gigantic cauliflower lies sprawling on the tiny stage. In the opening scene Arturo Ui, dressed as a rosebud, snuggles up to the giant plant as though in love. The set later transforms quite easily into a courtyard, a family house, or a human brain, while small people with cauliflower faces and skirts struggle inside and around it. The president of the court, who is unable to control Arturo’s rise, is a witch with a magic wand. A plastic frog comes out of a witness’s mouth instead of testimony.

The fable is refreshed by the grotesque and playful torrent of ideas, and the tragedy of the story is not lost either. Zsoter often ignores gender differences. The role is always played by the person who can handle it best. In this case, the title role is played by Eva Kerekes, a great actress at the Orkeny Theater, who enriches the gangster leader’s didactic portrait with surprising nuances. The woman is full of secrets and surface uncertainty. She switches from a comedienne to a blood-sucker without raising her voice. Her naivety is as boundless as her lust for power, and that is why she does not realize for a long time that the object of her experiment has already overgrown her. The monster cannot be restrained. – Tamas Jaszay

Bartok in the Opera House. Adam Fischer, musical director, and Balazs Kovalik, artistic director, are determined that the Hungarian State Opera, famous for its traditional (but not necessarily boring) operas, should catch up with the big music halls of Europe. For a long time, Kovalik has been the most progressive opera director in Hungary. The fact that his productions are part of the Opera House’s repertoire has split today’s public into two groups: those who are against him (who insist upon tradition) and those for him (fans of fresh ideas).

Now, Kovalik has backed the realization of Adam Fischer’s old idea: to perform the only world-famous Hungarian opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, twice in one night, following (in theory) two different concepts. The direction was undertaken by Hartmut Schörghofer, the young German scenic designer-director who staged the Ring in a quasi-concert style during the Budapest Wagner Days to great acclaim. Bluebeard’s Castle, however, proved a less congenial task. Having seen this unusual ‘2 in 1’ solution – and having seen several previous stagings of the work – I am less and less convinced that Bartok’s opera can be performed at all – not as a concert, but as a theatrical play.

Schörghofer places monumental reflective surfaces on the stage (familiar from his work with Wagner), which creates an impressive view. Sometimes he projects films on them, sometimes he uses them as mirrors, and they are perfect for shadow-play and hide-and-seek as well. It is a pity that the video recordings are often uninteresting. Only the puppies playfully chasing each other appear to be missing from the green hills representing Bluebeard’s kingdom, and the stairs of the prince’s castle are somewhere between Escher’s drawings that climb to infinity and the backgrounds of a video games featuring knights and dragons.

Furthermore, why should the opera be performed twice in a row? According to the director, first Bluebeard’s, then Judith’s point of view prevails. The two young singers, Balint Szabo and Viktoria Vizin, play their roles with great enthusiasm, but (understandably, due to the strain) their performances are not immaculate. The director confines them to a labyrinth of commonplaces. First, the man is an aging lecher, and the woman is an innocent flower; then, the man is a humble servant, and the woman is a ruthless vamp. What about the conclusion? Maybe keeping it simpler would have resulted in a better performance. – Tamas Jaszay

The independent company Artus has created a show called Rooster.Rooster.Rooster. It premiered at a theatre festival in Legnica, Poland. The title reflects the performance’s inspiration: an anecdote about the Japanese painter Hokusai, who is commissioned to draw a rooster. A fine combination of visual art and dance performance, a funny and wise show, Rooster is a comment on what work and practice mean for an artist – instead of inspiration and romantic “geniality” – and also about the roles we play in our contemporary lives. Placed on a “stage within a stage,” every gesture and action is evaluated by the performers, while at the back of the stage the artist with his magic brush or pencil practices drawing “electronically.” This is a genuine invention of the visual artists in the company. The ending of the show is an allegory of what practice and everyday work brings about for an artist – the joyful, lonely creation of a piece of art, effortlessly and without witnesses.

NEWS:

In September 2009, the Hungarian Theatre Critics’ Association elected a new presidency. The aim of the new leadership is to make the association, as well as Hungarian theatre criticism, visible on the Hungarian and international stage, to open criticism up to a large audience, and to improve theatre critics’ education. The new presidency consists of Andrea Tompa, president, and members Andrea Radai and Tamas Jaszay.

In September, the Theatre Critics Awards 2008/2009 were given out according to the votes of the members of the Hungarian Theatre Critics’ Association. The award for best production went to The Crucible (Arthur Miller) directed by Janos Mohacsi at the Pecs National Theatre. Poesy and Epic by Daniel Varro and Borbala Szabo was voted best Hungarian play. Sandor Zsoter received the award for best direction for his Merchant of Venice in the city of Eger. The piece was also awarded the prize for best stage design (by Maria Ambrus).  The best actress in a leading role was Eszter Csakanyi for her performances in Woman of the Week and the KoMa company’s production Fedra Fitness, directed by Istvan Tasnadi. (The latter piece also won for best independent production.) Karoly Hajduk and Ervin Palfi took prizes for best actors in leading roles for their performances in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (Katona Jozsef Theatre, Budapest) and Geza-boy (Hungarian Company of Subotica, Yugoslavia), respectively. The award for best musical show was given to Shockheaded Peter, directed by Tamas Ascher at Orkeny Theatre. The piece also received the award for best costumes (by Fruzsina Nagy). Tibor Zalan’s Horrendous Greek Soldier (directed by Tamas Fodor at Studio K) was given the award for best performance for children. Best actress in a supporting role went to Eniko Borcsok in Vig Theatre’s August: Osage County, and best actor in a supporting role was Laszlo Szeles in the above-mentioned Shockhead Peter. The award for best actress under 30 was given to Reka Tenki for her performance in Barbarians at the Katona Jozsef Theatre.

Contemporary Drama Festival Budapest

The international Contemporary Drama Festival is the only event in Hungary that exclusively deals with the introduction of new Hungarian and foreign dramatic works.  The festival was first organized in 1997.

The existence of the festival is extremely important not only for Hungarian, but all European dramatic writing, as well as theatrical life. First, it provides a possibility to watch fine quality performances based on contemporary dramatic texts from several European countries. Second, it forges vivid and ongoing relationships between European theatre experts, thus enabling international exchange of experiences and the formation of professional connections across borders.

Further information at www.dramafestival.hu

The newsletter does not represent the opinion of the Hungarian Theatre Critics’ Association, but of the individual critics.

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