Hamlet directed by Sándor Zsótér for the University of Theatre and Film Arts at Ódry Színpad, Budapest, Hungary, 13 March 2014.
Review by Júlia Paraizs
Hamlet is a repertory staple in Hungarian theatres and it firmly holds its position as the ʹrole of rolesʹ. It’s not unusual that there are several productions running simultaneously which inevitably leads to comparisons. And despite living in the age of the director’s theatre, the first question which still comes to our mind is who plays Hamlet. The part is often characterized by its enormous length and its variability and these features make it a one-man show by default. The production at the University of Theatre and Film Arts, created by the renowned theatre director, Sándor Zsótér attempts to transform the one-man show into a concerted effort in role-making and he achieves this by resorting to onstage role-changes and cross-casting. The actors are in the middle of their 5 year university training. The class consists of 11 people (4 female and 7 male).
The greatest merit of Zsótér’s mise en scène is that he offers the educational frame of the production as a way to approach the play. There are three important scenes which direct our attention to this aspect of the interpretation. The first scene exposes the examination situation right at the beginning. All of the actors stand onstage and the teacher-director stands up holding a copy of Hamlet. Zsótér summons the actors one by one to repeat certain passages after him. Their names are called in a random fashion. The passages are not from Hamlet (some of them are biblical), the actors hear them for the first time that night. To be prepared is one thing, to be ready is another matter. A similar scene occurs at the end, after Horatio delivers his speech to us and Fortinbras (ʹSo shall you hear / Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural actsʹ, 5. 2.). This time the recital is narrowed down to one player. Horatio is summoned by her name (Emőke Zsigmond) and Zsótér asks her to repeat after him passages on the equivocal condition of being an artist.
The third scene occurs during the interval which is the most theatrical of all scenes (3. 2) in this production. Instead of having a drink and going to the lavatory, we are ushered by the actors to the hall of the dressing rooms. As we walk towards the hall through a narrow corridor, we see Hamlet (Attila Vidnyánszky Jr.) hanging from the ceiling through a trap door. He acts like a naughty schoolboy who has usurped his teacher’s role. Hamlet addresses his advice to the players, to us as we walk down the hallway: ʹdo not saw the air too much with your handsʹ [he giggles and imitates sawing]. We mingle with players and watch Vidnyánszky give a strong performance on ideal acting which exceeds any stage fulfillment by definition. There is a huge mirror in the hall to reflect Hamlet’s failed effort to live up to his own advice. In telling us what not to do as a player, he inevitably resorts to parody which clearly goes against all the decorous content of his speech. As Hamlet in the role of the actor confronts his image in the mirror, it reminds us of the hopelessly self-reflective nature of the simile.
However, before we become fellow players-in-training and assume a common fate, we are first put into the position of an examination board during the first half of the performance (1.1–3.1). We are seated onstage facing the auditorium together with the teacher-director. The stage is empty save for a piano in the left hand side corner. At the beginning, the actors file up on the left and right hand sides. There are already in ʹcharacterʹ, but there is no clear indication of who is who. They are dressed as generations of Hungarian students have for their school-leaving examination (maybe with a few notable differences). The dress code is dark and white. One of the women wears a dark pant suit, the other a white blouse, a black pencil skirt and black stilettos, the third a blue jacket with a red mini plisse skirt and the fourth woman seems to be the odd one out in the whole company. As if she disrespected the whole exam situation or just learnt about it by chance, she wears a grayish polo shirt and a pair of matching trousers. The men wear dark suits with white or dark shirts. Some wear ties, some don’t. One of them wears a pair of red sneakers.
After the recital-rehearsal, the play resumes by the book: Actors step forth to assume the roles of the officers on watch. In the first scene, we already witness the first instances of cross-casting: Horatio is played by the actress Emőke Zsigmond in the red plisse skirt and the Ghost by Blanka Mészáros who plays two more ʹotherwordlyʹ characters (the First Player and the First Clown-Gravedigger) in her grayish outfit and brings the bystander’s distance and irony to her roles. The first court scene (1.2) summons almost all actors center-stage. Hamlet’s first speech (including the lines ʹBut I have that within which passes show – These but the trappings and the suits of woeʹ) is given a sensitive rendering by the actress in the pant suit (Kata Bach). It is a character who feels isolated and misjudged in public and who finally gives in to the royal family’s command to stay. She also delivers the bubbling sequence of Hamlet’s angry youth speech (ʹO that this too too solid flesh would meltʹ), but then Horatio’s greeting is answered by a different Hamlet (Áron Zoltán) who has added a more sarcastic tone to her pain and anger. This is the first instance of the onstage role-change which is most effectively used to indicate the various faces of Hamlet and Claudius. Compared to the changes of the actors in these parts, we should note the constancy of the female roles, Kata Bach’s female Hamlet as Ophelia and Erika Szabó’s nervous pretty woman (Gertrude). The role-change from Hamlet to Ophelia makes a meaningful twinning of the two characters and puts more emphasis on their mutual self-denial in the nunnery scene. By that time, Bach’s partner is Vidnyánszky Jr. who plays the crafty, role-play driven Hamlet which includes all the scenes with the players. For these scenes we take our seats in the auditorium. Hamlet and Horatio double as the Player King and Lucianus respectively and they produce a less-than-subtle dumb show and their play-let for the court. They use plenty of chalk powder (which transforms them into circus clowns) and raspberry syrup (for the bloody and brutal murder scene) in Tarantino’s style. From the recorder scene (3.2) on Hamlet changes again: He shows his rash, vengeful face (kills Polonius, almost kills Claudius and abuses Gertrude). In these scenes he is played by the blond, angel-looking Miklós Vécsei who has just transferred from playing Claudius. The usurper, in turn, is taken up by Vidnyánszky, the former Hamlet. Just before the prayer scene (3.3), Vécsei’s Hamlet is frozen in a crucifix posture at the back of the stage, while Vidnyánszky subverts his crafty self-mockery as Hamlet into the role of Claudius. He carries the live crucifix center-stage, makes Vécsei sit down and shares his dilemmas with Hamlet. It is after this direct cynical confession that Vécsei’s Hamlet almost kills Claudius.
The production weakens considerably in Act 5 since it shows no surprising role change in the last scenes (Vidnyánszky is back in the role of Hamlet and Vécsei plays Claudius). Nonetheless, for the most part, the production keeps reminding us of our double roles as judges and pupils in our attempts to make sense of Hamlet. We have the opportunity to admire various actors in various roles as they glean something out of those repetitive lines in the book. Many of us in audience have certainly experienced a number of illuminating moments.
Cast: Kata Bach, Attila Csapó, Barnabás Janka, Blanka Mészáros, Erika Szabó, András Tóth, János Tóth, Miklós Vécsei, Attila Vidnyánszky Jr., Áron Zoltán, Emőke Zsigmond (Class of 2010 –2015).
Head teachers: László Marton, Géza Hegedűs D., Péter Forgács.
Translator: Ádám Nádasdy
Music: Zsófia Tallér