The Tempest at Örkény Theatre, Budapest, 2013
An Initiation to …. growing up? life? love? sex? teenagers??
Review by Gabriella Reuss
… all the blessings of a glad father compass thee about!
“People of my age don’t frequent the theatre, you know” my eldest daughter of fourteen explained as we were walking towards the theatre in the evening lights of downtown of Budapest. Soon she was taken aback: youngsters entered the theatre hall in populous crowds. Of course they did, as they were sent and accompanied by their literature teachers to tick the compulsory Shakespeare performance off their annual list. I could not help sighing in anticipation of an evening spoilt by noises of munching and hardly suppressed cackles by the teenage herds. Good god, why now? Exactly when I want to show a Shakespeare performance to my daughter for the very first time?
The show started, lights went down, but, as I had gloomily expected, giggles didn’t stop. The production directed by László Bagossy had already won a Miklós Gábor Award in 2013 for László Gálffi’s Prospero, I had already seen it and very much liked it, but with these teenagers one never knows…
The curtain rose on a black walled and barren stage, immediately reminiscent of Peter Brook’s empty space, at least for those of my age. Levente Bagossy’s stage design apparently reveals all, even the fire extinguisher and stage manager on the left, prompter on the right. Somewhat schizophrenically, I found a part of myself calmly praying for an uneventful, uninterrupted performance so that our girl would not dislike Shakespeare, while another part, instinctively taking up the merciless outsider’s point of view the easily bored young lady on my side might have, was profoundly curious: What will be the reactions of a fourteen-year-old? How will hers be influenced by the response of the other teen spectators? How will a barren stage and theatrical illusion satisfy the teenagers’ visual appetite that has been bred and fed on extremely fast cuts and breathtakingly realistic computer animation? How will they, impatient and accustomed to hear and use one-syllable lines, bear so many “words, words, words”…?
Miranda is staged in jeans and very much alike the teenager on my side, only a few years her senior, thus representing the kid whose father must make great efforts to be heard. She is easily, funnily and honestly distracted while Prospero is telling her about their close escape from Milan so he must often check on her attention by both gestures and words. (By then, I noted optimistically, giggles completely ceased.) He is close to her, both in a metaphoric and a physical sense, and their intimacy is reinforced on both levels: he routinely does her hair – today fathers tend to be so good at pony tails, don’t they? – while speaking about the usurped throne. Prospero even wipes her nose with a hankie, wedging goading words into Shakespeare, as “Blow again, blow all of it”. The audience, parents and teenagers, respond with bursts of laughter to the familiarity of these little physicalities – and such sugar coating seems perfectly enough for the youngsters to swallow longer speeches, those “words, words, words.” Immediately they are charmed, and remain for all the unbroken ninety minutes of the performance under this casual, good-humoured yet mighty Prospero’s spell.
Laughing out loud frequently, could that be the “spoonful of sugar” that makes Shakespeare go down?, I mused. (My daughter’s satisfied comment: I didn’t know this play is so funny!) Or rather, the personality of the Örkény/Gálffi Prospero is so magical…?
Is he the understanding father kids all want, who is, ideally for a kid, both omnipotent and generously forgiving? With whom one can remain an ever curious and experimenting youngster in a cloudless childhood? Yes, this Prospero seems to embody the intelligent, allowing father you read about in some “How to handle your teenager?” handbook who is honest about his sentiments and is openly imperfect enough to be loveable. He is heartless, but not to sheer cruelty, to Caliban; nonetheless, we tend to tolerate this as one of his understandable imperfections.
He is heartless to a certain extent to Ariel as well just as a boss is to his employee when he coolly forces her to execute his last instructions. Though first disapprovingly grumbling a little, Ariel does all to satisfy her master. Moreover, on her release, she seems utterly orphaned without Prospero. She takes off her workwear, Ariel’s huge blue cloak, and it is Judit Pogány whom we see: an aging actress in her early 60s and her own simple garb, suddenly made redundant. The sight of this life-size, pensioned Ariel in civilian guise puts an end to her frequently comic entrances: so far any time Ariel appeared on the stage she playfully took a different shape, from being occasionally larger than life, driven onstage in a mobile seat, to restlessly jumping in Prospero’s hands as a blue handkerchief. – The air freezes for a minute (giggles long forgotten), and we realize when she does, that it was once so good to belong to and work for Prospero and that that is over. Suddenly now, no one asks her to stay, her services are not needed any more. Frozen silence dissolves into a burst of loud laughter when she shouts at the prompter: „My bag!” On its receipt, looking very much like anyone when fired, she walks unhappily off the stage.
Clearly, Bagossy’s direction anatomises mutual dependence within parent-child, master-pupil relationships. In both, attention works wonders. Anyone released from the scope of attention or spotlight, be it master, pupil, parent, child (actor, blogger etc), in Alonso’s words, their “ending is despair.”
Prospero’s leave-taking is one of a vastly powerful yet fallible man, who manages to endanger and save lives, yet struggles for his Millennial (generation Y) daughter’s attention while telling a story of the past, a Herculean job. In his magical presence, that is his attention, even incorrigible bad guys as Sebastian and Antonio suspend their wicked pursuits temporarily. Prospero is the one, who will mend what no one could, and amusingly enough like a Jack-of-all-trades dad, he can even fix the shoddy three-leg chair that repeatedly annoyed the characters. However, this performance that is so good at pointing out the comic, the everyday elements and matching them with the more serious or pathetic ones in the Shakespearean text does not conceal the play’s darker aspects either: eventually, Prospero grows rather tired of being so omnipotent, alert and attentive. When in the end he manages to stay seated on the chair which each and every character who carelessly tried to sit on fell off, we understand that the peace he created is just a truce, a fragile, though even more precious, balance. He fits into its place the wooden stick that occasionally seemed in his hand an oversized, curved magic wand; thus fixes the fourth leg of the chair and slowly descends on it. He doesn’t fall; and speaks the last lines from there. He allows us to see him as a tired father on a shabby throne / chair leaving a brittle social/political/emotional balance. His magic will not, cannot set everything right, will not maintain law, order, or ideal justice for good. What he, as well as the entire production, will do, however, is giving a lasting example of accepting kids’ (perhaps unpleasant) frankness, understanding the (perhaps hostile) Other, and forgiving. He refuses to do more and we must grow up to take up the lead.
The young lady beside me claps enthusiastically, others around us whistle, shout and behave as they would at a rock concert. They regularly do so after this performance, as Judit Pogány noted in the theatre’s “making of” video. Doubtlessly these easily multitasking spectators were focused and are charmed by the Bagossy production. Not only by its juggling with revealed illusions which is worth another paper, but also because it’s being built upon the illusory power of the master and father, who understands the necessity of releasing his child, and worrying though, allows them to go on their own (if faulty) ways. He and we know his future: as István Géher, the “father” of the present generations of Hungarian Shakespeareans pointed out, no master or parent is saved from this experience: our struggles once become a soothing bedtime story…