Shakespeare in HungaryFestivalsYear of Shakespeare

  • Stanley Wells

Photo by Christoph Mueller

The world of Shakespeare is coming to England during this Olympic year with a whole string of remarkable productions, many of them taking off from a Shakespeare play rather than offering a straightforward, text-based account of it. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a world of Shakespeare elsewhere.

From 10 to 15 July I had the great honour, and even greater pleasure, of being invited to the annual Shakespeare Festival in Gyula, a delightful spa resort of around 35,000 inhabitants in Hungary, close to the Romanian border. Dominated by a handsome brick-built medieval castle close to a charming lake surrounded by trees, the town attracts visitors partly through the remarkable spa, a complex within a tree-strewn park of around twenty thermal baths and swimming pools offering various levels of aquatic engagement and supplemented by treatment centres for a wide range of ailments.

The festival itself, established in 2005, spreads over several locations. The central courtyard of the castle encloses a stage and temporary auditorium. In the nearby lake is a floating stage with seating on the bank. The town’s cultural centre incorporates a theatre, as does the festival’s office building. Performances cover a wide range of styles, media, and languages. Some of them are simply DVDs of varying interest. But during my five-day stay I was able to watch, along with other entertainments, live performances of two different Shakespeare plays in three different languages.

Curiously, all of them used a single room as a setting.

First came a Hamlet performed by the Teatr Zeromskiego of Kielce, in Poland. The stage projected slightly into the auditorium, and the acting area was defined by a curving set of coloured footlights creating an obvious sense of theatricality. Behind these was an odd kind of dining room furnished by a large table at which the characters sat for much of the time, with a back wall covered, for no reason that became obvious to me, with nine glass cases full of stuffed animals and birds. I understood neither the language in which the play was spoken nor that of the subtitles, but although the action broadly followed Shakespeare’s play, it was clearly considerably adapted, to the extent even of opening with a long original soliloquy spoken by a resurrected Yorick. Both the cast and the action, played without an interval, were pared down.

There were strong elements of caricature in the characterization. Gertrude was a glamorous but empty-headed, middle-aged platinum blonde with fluttering false eyelashes, paired with an unusually short, plump, besotted Claudius. Hamlet, played by a handsome and clearly highly talented actor, came on nude for a scene with Ophelia and preened himself while she took photographs of him on her mobile phone. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were women, one of whom fellated Hamlet at one point. He shot both Polonius and Claudius, and after Ophelia’s death appeared wearing her clothes. At the end he and Horatio remained alive, consoling one another in a friendly embrace.

It was all very odd, but for all that I found much to enjoy in the theatricality of the performance, the conviction and vigour of the acting, the physical tensions established between characters, and visceral intensity of the relationships among them. I’m not sure whether I should have enjoyed it so much if I had understood it better; at any rate I was the only one to call ‘Bravo’ at curtain call.

The other foreign language production was of The Tempest, the play that formed a focal point for the entire festival and on which I contributed a short paper to the festival’s academic conference. Given in Romanian, this performance was directed by the eminent Silviu Purcarete. It was set in a large baroque bedroom, suggestive of a Mozart opera or a Beaumarchais play. In the centre of the back wall stood a big wardrobe from which characters could peer out to observe what was going on and from which they could emerge as if from a mysterious world elsewhere. To the right a door gave onto the outer world, sometimes letting in bright light and tempestuous gusts of air. But often the stage was lit only dimly, sometimes partially illuminated by the bulbs of a many-branched lamp stand. Some of the characters were robed in paper costumes that crackled and tore as they moved. Miranda and Caliban were played by the same actor. There were many silences, creating a sense of hushed mystery. Out of the linguistic obscurity emerged a sense of strange beauty.

It was a far cry from this to the other version of The Tempest, played in English by two men, both of latish middle age, and set in an ordinary, somewhat dingily furnished English living room. Centre stage was an old-fashioned radio, from which voices emerged from time to time. The actors, Mick Jasper and Iain Armstrong played all the roles, using changes of vocal pitch, fragments of costume and props to suggest change of character. Though the play was shortened its action was not drastically altered. The demands on our imagination called for by this method of performance seemed appropriate to the play’s dramatic mode. The greatness of Shakespeare’s poetry, sensitively spoken, lifted us above the dinginess of the setting and made us feel its power and beauty afresh.

This continues our series of blogs about international Shakespeares during the Olympic Games. What are your experiences of Shakespeare in other languages?

Author: Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, and Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. He is an Associate Reviewer of ReviewingShakespeare. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells