Hamlet @ Örkény Theatre, Budapest, Hungary, 2014Tragedy

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Hamlet, Örkény Theatre, Budapest, Hungary 21 March 2014, directed by László Bagossy

Reviewed by Natália Pikli

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Shakespeare’s Prince, Brecht and a football stadium: this strange combination has rattled the theatrical landscape of Budapest in the last few months, with all performances sold out in the season and countless reviews following the first night, which actually was held twice. The official first night on 21 March as part of the Budapest Spring Festival programme was preceded by a performance on the national holiday, 15 March, resonating with Hungary’s celebration of the fight for freedom and independence in 1848; this strange arrangement offers a valuable comment on the potential political resonances of the performance. László Bagossy directed a Hamlet production which attracts connoisseurs and teenagers alike, is approachable, perceptive and proceeds with unstoppable momentum till the blasphemously present-day ending, when Fortinbras and his people make selfies with their mobile phones posing with the dead bodies on stage. The production unites renowned and highly respected actors (László Gálffy as Ghost/First Player/Player King/Gravedigger, Judit Pogány as Player/Player Queen/Gravedigger’s companion, Anikó Für as Gertrude, Imre Csuja as Polonius), popular young shooting stars (Csaba Polgár as Hamlet, István Ficza as Guildenstern) and students of Bagossy’s class at the University of Film and Theatre Arts (Márton Patkós as Laertes, Tünde Kókai as Ophelia). The nameless mass of supernumeries on stage also play an active role as Hamlet’s story unfolds as well as the audience members, who are addressed by Hamlet with such a compelling directness at times (“Am I a coward? ” 2.2.566) that one is inclined to shout in: “Yes, you are! ” The performance is Shakespearean and Brechtian simultaneously, though distancing never excludes emotional reaction on part of the audience, concluding in a quasi-cathartic end to this inspiring production.

From the first moment on, the scenery provides a static and still dynamically alterable background to the events: we see the crudely structured concrete grandstand of a sports stadium with red plastic seats. Since we are in Hungary, this invariably suggests football, traditionally the most popular game and at present politically the most favoured and sponsored sport (and a personal favourite of the Prime Minister, often criticised for his tyrannical policy). There are stairs in the narrow corridor in the middle and to the sides, providing ample field later for Hamlet to use in his frantic sprints. The performance starts with the Danes already sitting in the seats and looking at the audience as if we were the game, supporting for their team dressed as football fans in red and white colours, flags, hats, etc. Claudius and Gertrude in sunglasses are positioned at the centre as VIP guests, and Hamlet enters a little later all in black with red sneakers on. Claudius (István Znamenák) appears as a sensible politician: an ordinary but successful businessman of power one might almost sympathise with, and one who knows exactly how to shift and direct the people’s sympathy. The grandstand with the red plastic seats remains till the end, offering a theatrical space that reminds us of a world being public even in the most private moments, when the bubble of intimacy between the characters (eg. Polonius and his children, 1.3.) is created by the use of spotlight or the other onstage characters freezing. Thus the audience can never forget about the presence of state control and spies listening to every word uttered. The ’fans’, i.e. the people of Denmark provide an active background: the lines of Hamlet’s first monologue are interrupted by their singing of the Hungarian version of “John Brown’s body”, and Claudius’ royal revels are illustrated by Elton John’s song “Can you feel the love tonight? ” from Disney’s Lion King (a nice intertextual touch, as this cartoon is often regarded as an adaptation of the Hamlet-story). Such intellectual Brechtian distancing effects are, however, counterbalanced by the persuasive emotional attachment shown between the sons and their fathers: Hamlet’s vehement embracing the Ghost, Polonius’ ruffling Laertes’ hair affectionately, which also highlights the sons’ infantile desire to be loved. In this respect the only scene which leaves room for criticism is the bedchamber scene (3.4.), where powerful stage symbols illustrate the nature of the conflict expressed in Hamlet’s passionate and offensive lines but the Queen denies any eye contact with his son, looking straight ahead at the audience, standing behind the table at either side of which the two husbands, the Ghost and Claudius are sitting, with Hamlet frantically circling his mother. Although close-ups reveal tears in the eyes of the Queen, her coldness is what remains in the audience’s mind.

The greatest merit of the performance is that it works for the uninitiated as well as Shakespeare buffs since popular culture references and the spirit of the carnivalesque pervade the tragedy, which is greatly helped by the very present-day and approachable though precise translation by Ádám Nádasdy. After the first Ghost scene Hamlet behaves like a crazy rock star. In the Moustrap scene his frantic jumping with the mike and his singing of “Éjszaka, éjszaka, mindenkinek van egy kis vérszaga” (“Night, o night, everyone smells of blood a bit”) in the foreground feels like one of Iggy Pop’s shows. His “antic disposition” is both Shakespearean and postmodern: he dresses up in props thrown to him by the Danish people, a tutu in his neck, vaguely suggesting the image of a fallen angel, smearing lipstick on his mouth and face, with a giant sunflower either at his back or in his mouth – though the seemingly haphazard items also bear iconographical and theatre historical associations (sun-son, morality plays’ Good Angel/Bad Angel, Angel of Revenge, crossdressing in Shakespearean comedies).  Compared to Hamlet’s, Ophelia’s madness (and her status) – though effectively played by Tünde Kókai, playing with puffed rice sweets for flowers and pissing on stage –  proves less powerful, she remains an object of the royal court. Laertes’ emotional directness and honesty, however, successfully counterpoints Hamlet’s insane oscillations, with Márton Patkós’s stage presence only coming short of Hamlet’s by a hair’s breadth. The performance also emphasises the metatheatrical elements of Hamlet, mostly in the interactions of Hamlet and the Player. Gálffy doubling the roles of the Ghost, Player, Player King and Gravedigger is the central figure of this aspect, and he also caters for laughter with contemporary in-jokes in the cemetery – which is nicely counterbalanced by the presence of skeletons sitting in the plastic seats.

The ending tilts the production towards the Brechtian: the events of the last scene are only narrated by Horatio and then translated into Norwegian for Fortinbras, who is watching over from the middle, while Hamlet, Laertes and the rest of the royal court only ’signal’ what is happening, till finally falling over as dead bodies. Then the Norwegians take photos and sit down, thus suggesting the cycle going on uninterrupted. Such distancing definitely works against Aristotelian catharsis, but the live singing of a requim-style music still provides the audience with a possible emotional reaction, though our private sympathy for Hamlet (brilliantly played throughout by Csaba Polgár) is shifted towards a more general feeling of sorrow. The exemplary  handling and cuts of the playtext by dramaturge Ildikó Gáspár contribute to a fast-moving, dynamic production, which yields such a visceral and an  intellectual impact, simultaneously entertaining and disturbing, that one leaves the theatre longing for coming back and watching the play again and again – the neverending myth of Hamlet is retained by the production of Örkény Theatre.

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(photos by Eszter Gordon, from the official homepage of the production)

Natália Pikli, PhD is Senior Lecturer at the Department of English Studies, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, and a member of the presidential board of the Hungarian Shakespeare Comittee. She has published articles both in English and Hungarian on Shakespeare and early modern popular culture and the present-day reception of Shakespeare in Hungary. She is also involved in teaching modern and contemporary drama and theatre, and (occasionally) in directing students’ productions of Shakespearean plays.

Reviewing Shakespeare

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