Svetlana Alexievich: Secondhand / Örkény Theatre
2019.02.22.

Every episode of the show called Secondhand is about the ingloriously deceased (?) Soviet Union, but the performance as a whole is built from us, non-Soviets, it tells our story. By JUDIT CSÁKI.

“Essentially, the greatest virtue of the show is that various generations inspiring one another were able to freshen up the repertoire of a city theatre always on the lookout for renewal”, writes Zsuzsanna Kollár in her review. That in itself is quite an achievement, but is that really all there is to it?

Various generations, mutual inspiration – both undeniably true. But there is more to the production of László Bagossy and Dániel D. Kovács than that; the members of the oldest generation have contemporaneous experience, they know “in their guts” what they are talking about, and the younger artists get involved by acting, they blend into the waves of remembrance. This could of course be a mere theatrical practicality hardly worth mentioning, but in Secondhand it is more than that; it is the sharing and distribution of experience. Passing on not only knowledge but feelings as well.


The word experience should, of course, not be taken literally: for instance, the actors never went near Chernobyl. But that is totally beside the point. 
 
What is the intersection of the sets serving as a common ground for this really heterogeneous group? „The tiny mirror of East-European politics of memory: we simultaneously see amnesia, nostalgia and a mythicized image of post-Soviet society”, writes Zsuzsanna Kollár – and we couldn’t agree more with the first half of the sentence. This performance is indeed the mirror of East-European memory (let us leave out politics for the moment); experiencing the past passed down and living on in the cells, which, however, does not evolve into experience on the historical scale: generations to come do not learn or obtain wisdom from it. 
 
Consequently we really seem to be encountering amnesia: the appearance of amnesia is caused by the contradiction between the judgements based on a historical prospect and the prospectless memory of simultaneous subjects of the same age. Therefore the “mythicized image of post-Soviet society” can only take shape in us, viewers after the show, as in the theatre we get a deluge of fragmented, but clearly individualized and unique impressions. And not so much post-Soviet, as more and more Hungarian…

But where I really disagree with my colleague is the emphasis on nostalgia. We simply have to differentiate between nostalgia making an appearance in the texts, the monologue of a few characters and the empathy prevalent throughout the show. The theatrical ambition of giving reason to a protagonist in a given story – even a Chernobyl liquidator – is a prerequisite to connecting with the viewer; nostalgia in the sense of a longing for the distant past, however, is not present in the play. 


Alexievich’s tone is indeed dryer, leaner than that of the performance in Örkény; I for one ascribe that to the characteristics of the genre. Sára Gábor, the playreader, found a good balance of the episodes: for the goal is not to be sentimental (much less melodramatic), the goal is to awaken emotions in the viewer. (And I remember well a reading from her book The Unwomanly Face of War, which talked about its subject matter in the same restrained tone as Second-hand Time and Chernobyl Prayer, and nevertheless became emotionally forceful when read aloud, when given a voice.)

The scenery – the mount of rags made up of threadbare clothes – is not only the space and site of the performance, but also its frame. It is the starting point to which it falls back: no-one is elevated, no-one advances. Moreover, Kristina Ignjatovic mixed some cherished items, some former “fine attire” into the lot, and it is heart-wrenching to watch the characters clumsily slipping into muslin or nylon. 

Photos by Zsolt Puskel
Photos by Zsolt Puskel
The directors hammered down a few sturdy bollards into the show that is otherwise as malleable as the mount of clothes: a few grand scenes and long monologues hold the whole thing together. When the father raises his sons to die heroically, Attila Epres with stifling stubbornness fails to see the child, the human being in them, he only sees them as ingredients of war. Csaba Polgár’s understated cinematographer of Chernobyl talking sombrely gives us the message in passing: there are times when one must put the camera down … Or the time when it happens to be a door that cannot be left behind in heavily irradiated Chernobyl – on which a small child dies of radiation sickness not much later: Imre Csuja’s great monologue left everyone breathless in the auditorium. 
 
Mother and daughter in the subway: Kriszta Bíró’s and Emőke Zsigmond’s delicate twosome about fear delivered brutally in the present tense, about terrorism. The desiccated life of a modern female manager, failure masked as success is told by Eszter Csákányi with a wide smile, another shocking narrative. And István Znamenák in the role of the mother living her pseudo-life in proximity of death, glued to the grave of her son who died in Afghanistan – the validity of that surpasses the scene. 

It is not amnesia, and definitely not nostalgia that ooze from the production of Örkény; I let it kick in, I accept the weight of deep sorrow, hopelessness, pain. For things past and things that never will be. Neither there nor here. 
 
Translated by Péter Papolczy 
Szerző: Csáki Judit