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English Newsletter, December 2009

Posted by jt - 2010. január 11.

Hungarian theatre news – December

–  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.

–  You can read back issues of our newsletter online:

In this issue:

Mohacsi stages Caragiale

Hamlet by Zsoter

Orkeny at Orkeny

Ubu by Maladype/Zoltan Balazs

Kovalik stages Hungarian contemporary opera

Janos Szasz’s  new production

The second Mezzo festival

Esterhazy’s new play

A Romanian classic as a Hungarian modern

Janos Mohacsi, one of the finest Hungarian stage directors, produced a Romanian classic, Caragiale’s A Lost Letter, which premiered in the city of Pecs, the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2010. Mohacsi is famous for his adaptations and completely rewritten, deconstructed texts, as well as his original plays. His dramatic language is somewhat similar to Monthy Python’s absurd humor and surrealism, but has a stronger dramatic basis (i.e., structure) and works with plenty of contemporary Hungarian social-political reflections. Because of his use of language, Mohacsi’s work is less visible on the international stage. He is also famous for epic stage directing with big casts.

Now he has tackled a 19th century comedy about political elections and turned it into a contemporary text. The Romanian classic is still very recognizable and more alive than in any other staging of the same author or text. Then again, it is also a contemporary Hungarian text. This time, Mohacsi is working with a nationalist discourse, which one would recognize as both Hungarian and Romanian (i.e., general East-European). The vaudeville-like play is somewhat deconstructed, but topical and funny as always.

We saw the production one sleepy afternoon in an auditorium full of pensioners. There was no laughter (except ours). One is really surprised how little self-reflection our audiences demonstrate. – Andrea Tompa

Hamlet in the Jozsef Attila Theatre

Sandor Zsoter, a thought-provoking and thought-demanding director, has returned as a guest at the Jozsef Attila Theatre, a conventional company in Budapest. Their first encounter resulted in a fascinating production of The Visit by Durrenmatt. It caused an uproar when it turned out that high-ranking actress Erzsi Galambos would be replaced by the charismatic contemporary dancer and choreographer Andrea Ladanyi in the role of Claire Zachanassian.

This second encounter can also be characterized by a controversial casting choice for the main character. This time Hamlet is played by Csaba Horvath, a dancer, choreographer and, more recently, a theatre director.

Zsoter’s Hamlet, 150 minutes without an interval, is far from being audience-friendly. It places emphasis on the meta-theatrical motifs of the piece. The setting includes a changing room with the costumes used in the performance and a kitschy castle of Elsinore, its spires recalling Disney World. The roles are played by altogether nine actors, which dwells upon deeper correspondences between the characters. Csaba Horvath acts, or rather behaves, like a phlegmatic civilian directing the play Hamlet onstage. With a modicum of open-mindedness on the part of audience members at this mainstream theatre venue, the performance should add a few shades to their conventional understanding of Hamlet. – Andrea Radai

A Hungarian classic an actors’ triumph

Orkeny Istvan, a playwright of the 60s and 70s, is already a classic. His Cats’ Play is a famous drama (originally a short novel) which has showcased amazing performances by actors (actually, actresses). The play is structured around the parallel speeches of two old sisters, one living in Budapest in the Communist era, the other an emigrant in Germany. It concerns their lives, family, business, love affairs, hopes, despairs and so on.

Staged in the theatre bearing Orkeny’s name and directed by Pal Macsai (actor, director and artistic director at the theatre), the play is transformed into a valuable event of Hungarian acting. With three major actresses, Piroska Molnar, Judit Pogany and Mari Csomos (all abouve 60), one is captivated by the great resources of Hungarian theatre – that of the performers’. Their work is outstanding and extremely powerful. On an almost bare stage with almost static staging, the acting becomes central to the play.

Macsai with his dramaturge reworked the text and transformed it into a more prose-like (less drama-like) text, firmly establishing it as a contemporary production. – Andrea Tompa

Ubu the King

After some erratic years of being guests in bigger theatres, Maladype, an independent and experimental company under the leadership of the charismatic actor and director Zoltan Balazs, has finally found a home. Its new headquarters can be found in a flat in an old house in the city centre (not far from the former base of Studio K, one of the first and legendary independent companies of the country). This site has been inaugurated by the premier of Ubu the King by Alfred Jarry.

The performance attempts to get as far as possible from the conventions of theatre. First of all, the rehearsals were open to the audience, who took part in the creation process enthusiastically. Secondly, the Maladype base and its casual, cozy atmosphere remind you of anything but theatre. Rather, you find yourself in a classroom, since Balazs’s Ubu the King goes back to the roots of the play, a teacher-ridiculing farce by the student Jarry. As if the four actors were entertaining their classmates between two lessons, they are dressed in short trousers with suspender and use the paraphernalia of an art class (plenty of old newspapers, scissors, cellophane tape and adhesive). Maladype’s (and the audience’s) Ubu is extremely relaxed and fizzes with creative energy. – Andrea Radai

Jozsef Sari’s Sonnenfinsternis (Solar Eclipse) at the Hungarian State Opera House

The new premiere of the Hungarian State Opera House, which only appeared five times this season, proved a unique challenge both for the singers and for the audience. Sonnenfinsternis (or Solar Eclipse), written by Jozsef Sari a decade ago, was staged for the first time in Hungary by Balazs Kovalik. It shows us fragments of the life story of Arthur Koestler and also describes the miserable mental conditions of our past century. I have ambiguous feelings about production. While I am sure that Kovalik found the key to the movie-like, fragmented structure, the opera itself disappointed me somewhat.

The librettist Elisabeth Gutjahr and the composer Jozsef Sari chose episodes from the life of the world-famous, Hungarian-born Renaissance man Arthur Koestler, recorded in his famous autobiography entitled Darkness at Noon. In the opera, we start from his childhood spent in Budapest and Vienna and finish with his suicide, assisted by his third wife in 1983. The independent scenes make up an epic danse macabre. The protagonists of Koestler’s life are also the important figures in the cultural life of those decades. We see writers, poets, philosophers and all kinds of artists who fiercely ignore or happily obey the dictates of communism. Recognizing all the characters is one thing, but understanding more about their motivations, intentions or aims is something else altogether. One would have to be a Koestler specialist, and the librettist is one of the few. The music of Jozsef Sari – which relies heavily on percussion – seems to put too much faith in the musicians and almost none in the singers. It is almost impossible to sing through the wild, dramatic music. The storyline is hard enough to follow, but the inaudible phrases make the audience’s task even harder.

This time out, director Kovalik seemed more respectful than he has been with classical operas. (The set of Peter Horgas was more than helpful. It is a rigid, strictly enclosed space that intensifies the atmosphere of total hopelessness.) In this production, Kovalik consistently goes about creating an enormous painting of an inglorious era and the mechanisms of communist dictatorship with the help of the Arthur Koestler’s life tableaux. – Tamas Jaszay

Janos Szasz and The Unhappy Ones

Probably the best Hungarian play written in the 20th century is The Unhappy Ones by Milan Fust. A dark tragedy written in 1914 (and almost never staged till the mid 60s), it is a naturalist-expressionist drama of a man who keeps two, or more, lovers and of a family falling apart. Sharp, cruel, dramatic, psychologically exact and well written with short dialogues, the play was not staged due to its ‘too bitter’ and ‘too gloomy’ character. In previous decades, major directors have staged it, practically as a compulsory task.

Fust’s view of the world is definitely tragic. His characters are all of no importance, but still deep human beings. The main character is reluctant and cynical, but still tragic and deep.

Janos Szasz directed the play at the Radnoti Theatre in Budapest and placed it in a contemporary context, transforming it into a flat, simple story with a weak central character who has no human depth. The darkness and tragedy are lost from the beginning, and good young actresses cannot save the show. – Andrea Tompa

Second annual Opera Competition and Festival with Mezzo Television in Szeged

In 2008, the Hungarian production office Armel and the television channel Mezzo (a worldwide specialist in jazz and classical music) made an agreement. According to the organizers, the Opera Competition and Festival with Mezzo Television is unique, since the international jury tries to find the best singer and actor or actress during the competition. (In happier countries, the two are one and the same.)

The festival – which mixes classic and contemporary, well-known and unknown operas, foreign and Hungarian directors and singers – has at least one winner for sure, the opera fans of Szeged. Both in 2008 and 2009, the five competing productions were shown two nights each in the biggest city of the Southern Great Plain. This year’s festival made a much more balanced impression than the first one. All the organizational problems disappeared, together with the shocking ticket prices. What is more, the five new performances displayed a much higher level of quality.

The Last Day of a Condemned, an opera by David Alagna, was the only ‘domestic’ show. Nadine Duffaut’s production can be seen in Debrecen this season. The leading character was played by Zoltan Nyari, who received the best performer’s award from the jury and from the audience as well. In addition, it received the best production award from the audience, too. In Gdansk, Marek Weiss staged the one widely known opera, Ariadne auf Naxos. It took place in an asylum where Dr. Dionysos worked to cure his patients – a not-too-convincing idea with great singers.

For me, the most impressive production – with regard to both music and staging – was definitely the opera by Marco Tutino called Vita. In it, the composer builds a bridge between the English metaphysical poet John Donne and a woman dying of cancer. The Hungarian director Peter Telihay tells us the story of a tragic journey with simple devices and poetic images, all with one clear destination: death.

Bertalan Bagó staged two one-act operas: Bohuslav Martinu’s Alexandre Bis as a surreal and sharp series of jokes and clowning, as well as Maurice Ravel’s L’heure espagnole. The company of the Swiss town Bienne worked in remarkable harmony with the Hungarian director, and their production profited a great deal from the good relationship.

I am sure that there was no lack of harmony in New York’s Dicapo Opera, where Hungarian director Robert Alfoldi worked for the second time, although I was not at all pleased with his new production of Tobias Picker’s Emmeline. On Alfoldi’s black and white stage, puppet-like figures moved about in a very closed and sterile world. The retold Oedipus story tries to find its place on the Western coast of the United States. Nevertheless, we must be thankful to the two leading characters for saving this night at the opera. Kristin Sampson and Zoltan Nyari won the best performers’ award for their amazing achievement. – Tamas Jaszay

Esterhazy’s new play

Peter Esterhazy, “the” most important Hungarian writer, wrote a play about Haydn’s stolen head. The play, which premiered at the Barka Theatre in Budapest, is called Haydn’s Crane. Actually, it is not a play, but a postmodernist game of art, play, words, death and God, something without story, characters or dialogue. Esterhazy is definitely not a good playwright. The text has no dramatic or post-dramatic structure, only funny monologues and lines – bon mots one would remember as jokes. Still, the show is very theatrical, with live music, some funny scenes, good lines and some good acting as well. – Andrea Tompa

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