György Dragomán: The Bone Fire / Staatsschauspiel Dresden and Vígszínház
Dec. 7. 2017.
One in three: György Dragomán’s novel, The Bone Fire was set on stage in four theatres of three countries as a result of a special co-operation. By KRISZTINA VAGDALT.
The artists of the Staatsschauspiel in Dresden, the Schauspiel in Stuttgart, the Vígszínház in Budapest and the Teatrul National Radu Stanca in Sibiu worked together under the direction of Armin Petras, which resulted in three performances. The artists of each nation perform the play in their own language in their homeland. The play put together from different theatrical traditions had its first – German – premier in Dresden (Viktoria Miknevich, Lea Ruckpaul), in the Hungarian Vígszínház it made its debut in late September starring Patrícia  Puzsa and Janka  Kopek, and the opening night in Sibiu was in May.
The play based on György Dragomán’s novel revolves around an adolescent girl, Emma, whose parents die suddenly, and is taken by her grandmother she meets for the first time into the old lady’s home in Târgu Mureș – from this moment forward reality becomes blurry.
Patrícia Puzsa, Janka Kopek
Patrícia Puzsa, Janka Kopek. Photos by Dániel Dömölky
The first performance I saw was the one in Dresden, and I kept wondering, how much the German boy beside me or the elderly couple in front of me understand from what is happing on stage? How much can they comprehend from Romania in the nineties as seen through the glasses of a thirteen year old (Hungarian) girl? To what extent the play is determined by the cultural background, the background of the story, is of course connected to the interpretation of the artists and the expectations of the viewers.
It is generally true that a different cast gives a different performance, but in this case, it is all the more true due to the various traditions and cultural remembrance of the participants in the project. In a certain sense András Urban’s Pass-Port was a similar venture. That series of performances reflected on both sides of the Serbian-Hungarian border with the co-operation of Hungarian and Serbian actors. Because even though they coexist or are separated by only a few kilometres, Hungarians from Vojvodina, Hungarians from Hungary and Serbs saw the three parts differently, and looked at the part in Suborica, in Szeged or Europe for that matter from a different view point.
This aspect is less predominant in the current case, the differences in tradition and cultural (and social) memory are a lot more hidden, they turn up as a consequence of the three languages. It was also felt on the two audiences. While in Dresden the viewers’ reactions to the actors breaking the fourth wall were a lot more passive, but they celebrated the performance with a resounding ovation at the end, the Hungarian audience was very open to the out-of-character interludes of the actors, or were eager to wave back to Emma.
The two adaptations cannot be mapped one-to-one onto each other – not only because of the linguistic and cultural differences, but also due to the changeovers (the swapping of roles do not always happen at the same points, for instance, Peter was not played by the same member of the duo in Budapest and in Dresden).
For  almost two hours we see the projection of an internal dialogue on the stage, where there are no absolute truths. The two actresses are continuously on stage, they never miss a beat, from the first moment to the very last they skip and jump with great energies from the shoes of one character to the next. They even don and shed the character of Emma in turns, and once they recite the lines in unison, transforming Emma into an imaginary character whose person is constructed from uttered words. The changeovers between roles are very quick, they often happen with the help of a prop, an item of clothing or a simple gesture. One scene slides into the next without interrupting the interaction. For example, one of the actresses sheds Emma’s role and reappears as Péter in the next scene – but the transfiguration happens in the open (she steps out of the space of the scene, paints black stubbles on her face, and puts on a hat). All the while she is in contact with her partner, reacting to her words. They choose not to hide behind the disguise of illusion. They make it very clear, that what we see is theatre.
This is all the more prevalent in the performance in Budapest: they keep referring to the rehearsals, the director’s instructions, their relationship with him, and they urge one another to enter the scene. Unfortunately this often disrupts the play, the sentences seem contrived and do nothing to advance the performance. The changeovers in which they glide from one scene to the next or one role to the other without any interludes are much better. For example when the actresses swap roles using gestures and motions – one of them steps out of Emma’s role, and simultaneously the other artist assumes it, continuing the unfinished movement. All of this is backed by their voices and facial expressions as well, but the constant role-swap blends the characters of the actresses into one (this aspect is more true of the performance in Dresden), everything is subordinated to the story. Minute differences can be perceived between the characters as played by one or the other member of the duo. In Dresden we get a more resolute, braver, but also more aggressive Emma from Lea Ruckpaul, while Viktoria Miknevich’s interpretation of her is more feminine, more fragile. These differences also affect the given situation. Their acting captivates the viewers, but there were moments all the same, when they appeared alien, the chasm between the story and the actors became palpable. One of the instances is the scene in which the two characters dance a Hungarian folk dance, but the trained movements are not alive, they remain on the level of practiced steps. It was interesting to see, however, that the scene was much more powerful in Dresden than in Budapest.
In Budapest Patrícia Puzsa combines the tough and the fragile little girl in her portrayal of Emma. Her each and every movement is honest and expressive, especially when she turns to her partner, Janka Kopek. Due to the scheduling that differs from the one in Dresden, Janka Kopek swaps roles a lot more: she is seen as the grandmother, as a teacher, as Peter, at times she is young, at times she is old. She adapts smoothly to the character at hand, only Peter’s gestures and words seem outlandish: he comes off as a chatty little girl, as opposed to the Dresden version, where we encounter a much more masculine, confident and likeable Peter.
The construction of the plot (the narrative is constantly interrupted, just like in the novel the play is based upon) and the conducting of the actors is reinforced by the four by four meter rounded square filled with ice cubes, the space that dominates the visuals of the performance, and that can be interpreted as an arena, the scene of the plot, the place where Emma tries to cope. The space beyond that square serves as the wings (where the actresses can change). As soon as we enter the house we see the costumes and props. The characters, however, leave the icy space to no avail, they need to return to the realm where life is impossible, but this is their only way of survival, their only option to life.
The ice cubes become a metaphor in the surreal world. The grandmother tells the future from them, but as pieces that cannot be joined, they can be interpreted as memories, which will never assemble into anything whole – and their states change from solid to liquid as well -, but they fill out the space nevertheless. Just like the ever changing past unsettled in us is always on the move due to the influences affecting us. What is blue today can seem white tomorrow. The image points to the fact that we cannot know our own life.
The subjective titbits of truth in the stories told lead Emma into the world of adults. What is love? What is a good swimming costume like? How deep do the roots of culture reach in human beings, how does cultural remembrance become the memory of the people living in it? During the story fragments we get flashes of the recent Romanian dictatorship, filled with lingering connotations. Who is telling the truth? Does truth exist, and what can Emma do with the information gathered – was granddad a rat? What is the significance of a star? Of death? We can also shuffle the pieces of information like a jigsaw puzzle in our heads, but we are always left with pieces that do not fit anywhere.
In this context ice can refer to the anomalies of the political situation, to the numb fear, to death, to the victims of the system, and to all the social events that helped to conserve the regime, providing incentive to remain silent (and silence is also an ice of sorts, moderation, a standstill). Ice reflects everything happening on stage.
What do we believe in, what do we believe, who do we believe? How do we live, whom do we live with, what do we live with, what do we live in? Questions that define us. Questions that define our memories. Questions that affect our entire existence. What we let in, what we shut out – these define our interpretation of the world. The magic of life is in fact the magic of memories.
Translated by Péter Papolczy