Attacking the theatrical bloc in Europe


Theatre is again becoming an outlet for raging against the machine in central and eastern Europe, and the Hungarian government in particular is cracking down in an all too familiar fashion, writes PETER CRAWLEY

BE CAREFUL what you wish for. It is present day Bucharest, and a Romanian family is heaving with irritations and frustrations that seem universal: money trouble, the broken promise of a new European identity, filial disrespect, and just two minutes of peace and quiet in the bathroom. Finally, one father dares to say it. He misses communism.

The slovenly, quick-tempered but otherwise affable father in Gabriel Pintilei’s barbed comedy Tlicked/Blifat– which performed during the National Theatre Festival in Bucharest late last year – was not a lone, dyspeptic voice. If anything, he articulated the weary uncertainties and self-deluding nostalgia of disenchanted Eastern Europeans across the former Soviet bloc, an ageing generation for whom the great promise of freedom has turned into an unsettling reality of economic crises and austerity measures, a shaken national identity, and resurgent right-wing politics. More liberty, more problems.

“We had a job for life,” bemoaned Laurentiu Lazar’s paterfamilias in a string vest. “Fathers knew what to do and were respected.” But while director Alexandru Mihail’s indulged the father’s helpless self-interest, Pintilei’s play provided a wicked, if overheated, counterbalance: while using the phone, the father figure was monitored by a ruthless and menacing figure – another Nicolae Ceausescu in the making – who, by the play’s end, would have blood on his hands. This figure was his nine-year-old son. Nobody said that revolutions are permanent.

You don’t need to look far for a more chilling reminder of authoritarian regimes. Right now, neighbouring Hungary may be edging closer towards one. With a two-thirds majority in parliament, Viktor Orban’s ultra-conservative Fidesz government has forced through a new constitution with laws that give the party stifling powers over the media, religious bodies and the central bank.

Culture has also fallen under repressive right-wing influence, with new powers enacted to ban performances and efforts to replace the liberal directors of Hungarian theatres with party loyalists. Last year, Róbert Alföldi, the artistic director of the National Theatre in Budapest, survived a very public campaign to oust him, which was orchestrated by the far-right party Jobbik. “A lot of people are saying that it’s a miracle that I’m still here,” he says.

During Cross-Section, a showcase of three of Budapest’s most important institutions – the National, the Katona József and the Örkény – the charismatic and jocular Alföldi didn’t admit to being a cultural provocateur, but his programme was always going to ruffle feathers. Mein Kampf,one show in his studio space, is a boisterously satirical piece about the young Adolf Hitler written by György Tábori, in which the junior führer wears a moustache on an elastic band and tangles with a Jewish hostel owner while the figure of death – played by an aged woman in a sparkling blue hoodie – stalks the stage. After Alföldi directed a radical re-envisaging of the Hungarian folk operetta John the Valiant,Jobbik denounced his work as “obscene, pornographic, gay, anti-national and anti-Hungarian”. This made his gripping production of Hunting Scenes from Lower Bavaria, Martin Sperr’s play of a homosexual persecution by paranoid, small-minded villagers, seem all the more salient, if not sadly prophetic.

Before its campaign ran out of steam, Jobbik organised a march on the National Theatre and the joke went around that they first needed to find the theatre on a map. “It wasn’t so funny at the time, though,” reflected Alföldi. Also, the director of Budapest’s New Theater, István Márta – another Hungarian liberal – will be replaced by the director György Dörner (who promised to save “Hungarians moaning under the yoke of social liberalism”) , with the bilious playwright and politician István Csurka named as his intendant. These appointments went counter to the recommendations of the theatre’s board and have been met with huge public protest. The joke doesn’t seem funny any more.

With so much drama happening off the stage, Hungarian theatre has been struggling to keep pace. Like many theatre cultures with a history of operating under oppressive regimes, Hungarian audiences are accustomed to reading between the lines. Lately, however, productions have made their political concerns more overt.

The Katona József (whose work has visited Dublin in the stately, playfully allusive Ivanovfrom director Tamás Ascher, and the infectiously anarchic Kafka adaptation Rattledanddisappearedfrom Viktor Bodó) added Gypsies, by Jenõ J Tersánszky and Krisztián Grecsó, to its repertoire. The production is an updated version of a 1931 play, and it comes at a time when a number of theatre-makers have likened Hungary’s right-wing rhetoric to the fulmination of the 1930s.

“In today’s Hungary, anti-Semitism is alive and kicking again,” says Anna Lengyel, the dramaturg and deviser of Cross-Section, “and the language of the 1930s is something you can read on walls in graffiti and in papers.” Disillusionment and the loss of moral equilibrium are not new themes in Hungarian theatre, and the Orkeny director Pal Macai is pleasingly lugubrious when asked if international attention to Hungarian politics have had any effect. “I think the trip downhill is a little slower,” he says.

For his part, Tamás Ascher dared to be more optimistic. “I’m not afraid of the right-wing government in Hungary,” he says, “because I think that freedom is not something that you can really take back. Money you can take back, yes. But a free man is a free man, even if poor. If independent or liberal artists are treated badly they will still survive. It could even help theatre in a way. Suddenly things can become important which mattered since the 1970s and 1980s. I wish that wasn’t so. But it will be.”

Part of the lesson of Polish theatre in the 20th century was how an art form could flourish in shackles. In the years after Stalin, while censorship persisted but theatrical form was unrestricted, Polish theatre addressed its thornier subjects indirectly, treating nation, politics, religion and history through allegory and allusion. Its audience learned to look deeper into densely encoded works.

Those conditions ended after 1989, though: as the academic Daniel Gerould pointed out, the challenges of market conditions in a capitalist society outweighed those of a repressive but weak communist regime that paid all the bills. What happens to the stage when the iron curtain lifts? You would hesitate to call it communist nostalgia, but a new Polish play such as Julia Holewinska’s Bubble Revolutionneatly summarises the predicament of a generation now entering its 30s. These people carry only simplified halcyon memories of a childhood in the Soviet bloc, and are now contending with the adult problems of a young democracy in an uncertain Europe.

Holewinska’s heroine, a single mother unable to maintain kindergarten fees and keep up repayments on her fridge, refers to Poland’s transformation as the “invasion of prosperity” with little improvement. The long queues for Warsaw’s first Starbucks a couple of years ago – a capitalist parody of once communist routine – seem to support her case.

Something similar happens in Rainbow Stand 2012, which took the main prize of the Divine Comedy festival last month in Kraków. Written by splenetic satirist Pawel Demirski and directed by Monika Strzepa, it gave a caustic prophecy of the Euro 2012 Championship: the stadiums and airport terminals remain unfinished; mosquitoes choke the skies; and various members of the Polish national team come out spectacularly. The net-effect, if you will, is a comic allegory of persecution when one group is scapegoated for the chaos: the gays are to blame.

In Poland, that may seem like a cautionary fable – allied with a programme that vigorously questioned sexual politics and the legacy of the Holocaust in Jan Klata’s excellent A Piece on Mother and the Fatherland– but it’s also testament to the freedom to criticise a nation and its rulers, openly and mercilessly. In Hungary right now, such work would seem even more defiant.

With the rallying example of a company such as Free Theatre Belarus, who stage their secret performances in apartments and forests around Minsk under genuine threat of arrest within Alexander Lukashenko’s near-dictatorship, there is a danger in romanticising guerrilla theatre.

Today, new Hungarian ensembles are also performing works in private apartments. This is not for clandestine reasons, but because state support for independent theatre has been withdrawn and opportunities in established institutions are drying up. There is more than one way to stifle artistic expression.

The death last month of Václav Havel brings a further poignancy to the predicament of Eastern European theatre, but in his example there are also some stirrings of hope. The dissident playwright who led the Velvet Revolution and became both the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first of the new Czech Republic, saw theatre as instrumental to the testing and safeguarding of a nation. Theatre, Havel said, required “a special conspiratorial sense of togetherness”, a quality that persists either in national festivals or within private rooms, when theatre makers are under political pressure or biting the hands that feed it.

“I don’t know what conservative art is,” says Pal Macai in Budapest. “An artist, and especially a theatre maker, is an unsettled person per se and a curious one – one who asks questions.”

On that point, both repressive and permissive regimes agree with Havel’s enduring maxim: “I think theatre should always be somewhat suspect.”