An afterword to the New York Hungary Live Festival
Jul. 9. 2018.
As I have already alluded: From New York very little is seen of the theatrical world of Europe, let alone Hungary. The first production of the Hungary Live Festival wished to change just that. BY TAMÁS JÁSZAY.

To bear gifts to a place where next to nothing is known of our world seems like an immensely easy and impossible task at the same time. In other words: the people conceiving the program of the festival have great responsibility, as they need to possess in-depth knowledge of both cultures that are to be familiarized with one another. The goal is to reveal the familiar in the unfamiliar, the local in the exotic.

As it was apparent from my earlier article, during the drafting of the program the organizers decided to make remembrance the theme loosely connecting the performances. The decision was greatly justified by the plays put on stage, however, I must also mention that in the area of remembrance (especially regarding its historical dimension) the overall output of Hungarian theatre is much more modest than was suggested by the Hungary Live Festival.

Searching hands
Searching hands

The American-Hungarian mini summit, where the theatrical professionals of both countries were searching for common denominators revealed, of course, that the US is not a land flowing with milk and honey either. I can now confess, that as the moderator of the discussion my assumption was that besides the obligatory cataloguing of the differences, we will be able to find a good many similarities as well when comparing the two theatrical cultures, but my expectations were overwritten by the events. The participants were very consciously picked from very different places and positions, there were people with a robust institutional background, but there were also independent artists who steered the ship of their career successfully on international waters as well. Let me just briefly list some of the topics touched upon, such as financial difficulties (the American financing built entirely on private sponsorship is utopian seen from Hungary, the ideological pressure accompanying humble state funding is a familiar motif), or the creative process prolonged or embarrassingly cut short (while a new American drama can take a year to produce thanks to various tenders and workshops, an independent, off or off-off-Broadway production may only have one or two weeks to rehearse). It was the well-functioning residence system in America that evoked the most praise and yearning from the Hungarians: foundations or companies provide time and venue, sometimes even money to ensure that the artists can do their jobs: namely to think and create secluded from the troubles of the world. We all agreed that we live in dark times, and the tasks of artists are more numerous. 

“Knowledge is vaccination. Hatred and indifference: a disease. Love and empathy: health. We all make our pick.” A still opportune quote from the writing of György Konrád entitled Searching hands full of ashes and fragments of bones, which was performed in Budapest a single time by Róbert Alföldi and the Szakértők in the form of a concert play. A special reprise now took place in the upper floor great auditorium of the legendary La Mama Theatre: Ádám Boncz, who lives in New York, read Konrád’s multiple layered, pitch-dark text, while the Szakértők assisted with their music to make the unprocessable palpable. Konrád’s mercilessly honest performance about the nature of remembrance was put on stage by the actor and the musicians as a multi-movement music piece, as a minimally thespian musical event. The actor regularly stops, he waits at the end of the units of various length, each of which seems to drag the listeners to an ever deeper maelstrom. At times the music creeps unnoticeably under the text, at other times it interjects nervously, rendering the sentences sometimes inaudible, but the spectator knows and feels at all times what it is all about. Searching Hands is a spectacle an hour and a half. A tightrope walk on the thinnest wire between pathos and detachedness. The former leads one astray, the latter points the way.


Regarding the festival as a whole, a night of key importance was the American premiere of Moonstone by the k2 Theatre. Péter Závada turned the reminiscences of the 56-er Hungarian emigrants collected by the artists in New York two years ago into a performable text. The performance changes from one night to the next among somewhat overthought rules. Whatever is said and the way it is said indirectly reflect on the very essence of remembrance: namely that the/a story does not exist, that stories are made up of thousands of colourful glass tiles, providing a totally new, surprising pattern when the kaleidoscope is turned. The Hungarian performance was interrupted time and again by English texts: viewers asked to participate recited Závada’s bizarre and enigmatic poems about moon rocks, thus making complete the adventure of discovering a distant, strange land with far from only happy twists and turns.

The Ghetto Sheriff has been on the program since 2012, and is a joint venture of director János Mohácsi, composer Márton Kovács and the actors. The underground, claustrophobic space of the Abrons Arts Centre reminding one of a concrete bunker is a chilling bullseye as the venue of the New York premiere. As the lights above our heads gradually dim right up to perfect, flawless, round darkness, the room seems to be flooded by ice-cold, black water. It reaches up to our throats, smothers us, we cannot even move. In the dark we lose all sense of space and time, having no idea how long we have been listening to the piercing and painfully accurate texts. The silly and murderous Jewish jokes and the reminiscences of the Holocaust survivors are all recited with a detached objectivity, leaving room for the imagination of the „spectator”.

And precisely that makes me think this performance is all the more significant now in America. In the era of incessantly blinking and changing images, in the world where people will do anything for their moment in limelight, this performance is outrageously outmoded, depriving the viewers and the actors of all the components they are otherwise used to, they otherwise expect. The Ghetto Sheriff teaches to listen, and however strange this may sound, to see; it teaches us that even in the darkest moments there is, there has to be hope.

Translated by Péter Papolczy.