While my colleagues of the Shakespeare on the Road venture are hurtling round a series of Shakespeare festivals in the New World (I hope to join them on the Canadian leg of their journey), I had the pleasure of attending a festival in the historic and delightful town of Gyula, in Southern Hungary. Dominated by a splendid medieval brick castle close to a lake in what is now an attractive municipal park, the town is famous for its hot thermal baths. Its annual Shakespeare festival, now in its tenth year, is part of a longer festival season catering for summer visitors from far and wide. It is also part of a larger network of European Shakespeare Festivals of no less interest and cultural significance than their American counterparts which take place in, among other locations, Gdansk, in Poland, Neuss, in Germany, and Craiova in Romania, the last of which I visited in June. Next year York, Great Britain, will join the list.
Gyula boasts a number of performance spaces, including the open courtyard of the castle itself; a stage built out over the lake; and two indoor venues. As with the other festivals, performances are complemented by a conference; this one, which lasted two full days and was chaired by Professor György Szönyi of the University of Szeged, was attended by Hungarian scholars and a number of overseas visitors among whom I was happy to be included. It took place in the town’s beautifully appointed and well stocked library. Its theme, influenced by the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jan Kott’s influential book Shakespeare Our Contemporary, was ‘Is Shakespeare still our contemporary?’ It provoked a series of papers and discussions concerned with contemporary approaches to Shakespeare in both study and performance given both by Hungarian scholars and by overseas visitors including Maria Shevtsova, of Goldsmiths’ College, London, Holger Klein, of the University of Salzburg, and the expatriate Hungarian Zoltan Markus, who teaches at Vassar College in America, and who has published a significant study of Kott.
The festival, presided over since its inception by the genial and immensely hard-working Jozsef Gedeon, offers a truly international series of performances based more or less closely on Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Of those that I saw only one, Much Ado About Nothing, performed on the Castle stage by the touring company from Shakespeare’s Globe, offered a reasonably straightforward, text-based version of the play. Expertly acted, it was well received by a packed audience. Beyond this the festival demonstrated the current contemporaneity of Shakespeare in a number of performances that showed how fertile his works can be as stimuli to new forms of theatrical activity.
There is of course something rather weird about attending performances of plays given in a language one does not understand and with surtitles in a different language which also one does not understand. It’s difficult if not impossible to take a judicious view of the proceedings if much of one’s mental energy has to be devoted to trying to work out who is who, what they are saying, and where we are in the story – if indeed the action of the entertainment we are seeing corresponds at all closely to that of the work on which it is based. ‘That must be Malcolm – O no, perhaps it’s Banquo because he has his son with him. The old guy with a beard and wearing a crown is certainly Duncan, and the one pissing against the wall can only be the Porter. I hope.’ ‘She’s carrying a candle so it must be the sleepwalking scene.’ ‘I distinctly heard him say “Birnam” so the end can’t be far off.’
As you may surmise, two of the performances I saw were based on Macbeth. One, given by the Baltic House Theatre of Saint-Petersburg and directed by the Belgian Luk Perceval, used little text and was partly balletic in style. Slow, often silent, deadly serious, it presented Macbeth as a drink-sodden slob either with his head plunged into a bucket of water (symbolizing vodka, I gather) till he seemed in dire danger of drowning, or draining bottle after bottle of it both down his mouth and over his head and shoulders. The production, which I was told was highly political, left me cold, but those better equipped to follow it told me it was a masterpiece. Another Macbeth, performed by a Serbian company on a revolving stage projecting over the lake, was much more text-based though it too had clear – well, fairly clear – political significance; at the opening an actor costumed like a cabaret artist from Isherwood’s Berlin advanced on me saying ‘democratie’ and shook my hand. Though much of the production’s interpretative import was lost on me, enough of the story and dialogue of the original play remained both for me to follow the story and to respond imaginatively to the shifting emotions of the central characters. The performer of Lady Macbeth especially seemed to me to be an artist of the highest calibre who would have brought distinction to any production of the play in any language.
The other show I saw was a version of Othello from Chile performed in Spanish by a man and a woman – Jaime Lorca and Teresita Iacobelli – with a bed, a broomstick, life-size puppets representing Othello and Desdemona, and a number of waxwork heads which could be stuck on top of the broomstick as need arose. It sounds bizarre, but the human performers displayed extraordinary vocal and physical virtuosity in representing a shortened but coherent version of the play; it was cogent, powerful, and even moving – yet another tribute to Shakespeare’s amazing power to inspire new forms of performative creativity.