Imitation of Life is a documentarist gothic tale in the manner of Kornél Mundruczó. BY TAMÁS JÁSZAY.
The first half hour of the performance is a shockingly powerful opening, one I would have gladly watched for another hour and a half: white projection screen with the face of Mrs. Lőrincz Ruszó, played by Lili Monori, who is talking to the invisible Mihály Sudár, played by Roland Rába, a man becoming all the more silent after his initial questions and bickering. Behind the woman we see washing machines, a broken clothesline, we could be in a flat, or just as likely in a laundry room, I don’t know, and I obviously don’t have to know, because it is unimportant. Or rather, it is not important this way, and moreover, that half hour long monologue does not only reveal the setting, it unveils a life as well, a lot of lives that is, lives that evade the attention of most of us day in and day out, while the camera recording every single wrinkle, every single gesture and every single teardrop is motionless the whole time. That is not entirely true, it suddenly starts zooming in on the face that has seen a thing or two, on all its fallible features, creating a hypnotic effect.
The basic formula is scandalous and run-of-the-mill. The employee of the bailiff company recording the conversation with a camera has come to deliver a warrant of eviction to the tenant, Mrs. Ruszó. The game is rigged: the office thinks in legal terms, while the woman talks about her dead husband, about her son that disappeared and how she has ended up like this. The voice of the faceless power fades, it vanishes from the dialogue, a conversation that leads nowhere because it has been played in advance, and the woman now remains really lonely forever, in all senses of the word.
Who is this woman? Once she jabbers about consuming electricity on the sly, next she speaks about the state organized eviction program with self-confidence that would give human rights experts a run for their money. She is smart in her own way, she cannot and will not understand legal gymnastics, she only wants to live, or rather, to survive. For a long time I am under the impression that we are dealing with the extreme cynicism and the rules without exceptions of the department pitted against the defencelessness of the common woman straying from the law and tailoring legal mazes to the reality of her life, and then suddenly the key sentence is uttered, shedding a different light on everything: “The problem is that we are gypsies”. The long, long speech of Mrs. Ruszó – and this is Lili Monori big time, nobody else can speak like that on the Hungarian stage, and I am dumbfounded by her for the umpteenth time – is a jigsaw puzzle on its own: words and phrases, suffixes and adjectives go astray in the often unfinished sentences, in which even sexes and names get mixed up. The fragmented narrative has an exceptional drift, and when we get to Lőrinc Ruszó’s death, the staccato monologue comes to a halt, the widow feels unwell, and disappears from the picture.
The screen rises, and we see a room furnished with a meticulous attention to detail (scenery: Márton Ágh), downstage right is the kitchen table and the camera, on the left we see the stunned clerk watching the ailing woman. While scrutinizing the actors, whose voices are not amplified anymore, so from this point on they practically cannot be heard as they communicate with a few odd words and frugal gestures, our gaze has time to linger on the interior. A shabby, one room flat, high ceiling, a space crowded with unnecessary stuff. From the screen we drop into the theatre and back into the Hungarian absurd: the quickest an ambulance can be sent is seventy-six minutes, the bungling bailiff and the helpless woman are ridiculous and distressing at the same time. A spooky film clip is shown: we can now watch with our own eyes the things the woman skirted upon in her monologue about the inglorious life of the vanished boy.
What happens next cannot be told without spoilers, so skip over this paragraph if you prefer to be surprised. The two actors exit the stage, and the space designed by Ágh is now taken into the expert hands of András Éltető, the technical director, and the huge cube (room) crowded with objects starts rotating in an unhurried manner until it gets back to its starting position. The objects are animated, gravity forces the props into an astonishing choreography. We watch with disbelief, and the process and especially the end result are heart wrenching, as at the end what we see is the same, but not quite. Gravity causes an extraordinary change in the scenery. Drawers open, pillows fly, washing machines dance around, books drop, kitchen utilities clatter as they fall onto the floor, in other words, the little world is turned upside down.
Photos by Marcell Rév
After such a zenith it is difficult to do or say anything, and the bar is set too high for the second half of the performance. Another everyday situation: Mihály Sudár, the landlord is trying to let out the cluttered flat that has obviously been empty of tenants for years, to the desperate Veronika Fenyvesi (Annamária Láng). The dialogue of the powerful and defenceless is organized in a manner similar to what we saw before, but the mutual misunderstanding follows a different pattern, as this woman’s shrewdness is not the same as that of the gypsy woman. Different generation, different socialization, surviving at all costs with finesse is in her blood. Once the realtor leaves, Veronika’s carefully hidden son shows up, and he can act as a point of reference in the next unit without actually uttering a single word.
And then past and present get mixed up for good in the magical flat. There seems to be an invisible thread connecting the old lady of yesterday, the woman of today, and their children. Microhistory repeats itself, but then again, it does not. The so far two-dimensional ghost of the gypsy woman’s vanished son (Zsombor Jéger) walks into the flat as a flesh-and-blood corporeality, to start yet another one-sided dialogue with Veronika’s son. The new entrant takes us to another plane once again, but it is unfortunately a downward journey: after the topics of segregation and exclusion, humiliation and defencelessness have been analysed for better or for worse, or have been simply touched upon, Kornél Mundruczó offers the evocation of a ten-year old crime as closure, but the finale leaves us with a void within. Racism that is fervently passed on from one generation to the next, finding at times quiet, at times loud support in the environment, and crime with a racist motive become no more than a slogan on a poster, which does not even come near the subtlety and density with which Imitation of Life entices in the beginning.
(Translated by Péter Papolczy.)