Noémi Herczog*

The aim of this article is to give a rough sketch about new tendencies in the Hungarian contemporary performing arts over the past couple of years, and also to give a sense of the social-political context of contemporary Hungarian theatre. The latter task may become tricky, since (at the time of writing) we don’t know yet the outcome of the general elections on April 8, 2018[1] which may change the cultural-political context of what you read in this paper. Even so, if the present (right-wing, nationalist Fidesz party) government returns or it does not, an increased polarisation in Hungarian politics is possible in the near future.

As a theatre columnist of a Hungarian cultural-political weekly magazine and editor of the theatre magazine SZÍNHÁZ (Theatre), and as one of the theatre curators of the dunaPart Platform of Hungarian Contemporary Performing Arts in 2015 and 2017, I have had the chance to follow the recent processes of contemporary Hungarian performing arts,[2] which can be interpreted as a success story; however, it can also be described as an area of narrowing pluralism. Definitely, nowadays, theatre-going is a highly favoured past-time in Hungary: almost half of citizens visit a theatre performance at least once a year.[3] The government boasts of the growing number of premieres and theatres and the increase in attendance figures: “While in 2008 there were 4.5 million theatre goers in the country, the figures of attendance grew to 6.7 million in the 2016 season, which represents a 150 per cent increase . . . , and the number of theatre workshops and performances has doubled over the last decade: 330 companies staged 26,473 performances last year.”[4]

Video 1

Context and Environment of Hungarian Theatre Making—a panel discussion at dunaPart, in 2017

However, this growth needs to be set in context. According to the representative survey of one of the most important independent online portals, Index, “only a mere 13.2 per cent of the respondents said that their primary expectation of the theatre is to make them think.” More than half of them, 56 per cent, wish to “relax and forget about their problems for some hours,” while 23.3 per cent prefer to see “established works of art of high value, classic theatre plays.”[5]

Keeping in mind the above mentioned figures, this means that, while the theatre structure in Hungary has remained unchanged since the nationalization of the theatres in 1949 (namely, all the theatres need state subsidy), the present financing system favors the mainstream theatres, whereas I try to broaden the picture in this paper. As the system of state subsidy (which is derived from tax revenues) favors the “successful” theatres, and “success” is measured by market value, the theatres are doubly interested in meeting the expectations and needs of the audience.[6]

There is, in the evaluation of the state funding system, no differentiation made between the blockbuster productions in theatres or stadiums and art theatre performances. The subsidy system categorizes theatre companies as “national,” “high priority” and “other.” The independent theatres are categorized as “other”; their independence means that they are not given regular state support. These companies have been suffering from a disadvantageous situation for years on account of their underplanned and unpredictable financial resources. The institutions belonging to the “national” and “high priority” categories can plan much more safely. In exchange, their directors and managers will be nominated by the state. As the critic Andrea Tompa, chief editor of the theatre magazine SZÍNHÁZ, writes:

in the current Hungarian cultural-policy environment, becoming an artistic director/general manager of an institution no longer depends on professional excellence or one’s achievements. Political connections and being politically acceptable and “on the right side”—the ruling one, that is—are almost the exclusive requirements and are decisive for being appointed to such a position.[7]

As this type of control cannot be applied in the case of independent theatres, the unpredictable invitations to tender are a means of financial censorship. In this way, the government does not need to close down the institutions or create an index of authors whose activities might involve criticism towards the establishment, or that it considers just simply unimportant; rather, it keeps a tight hold over them financially, making their survival difficult. For independent artists and companies, this state policy makes long term planning very problematic. A fact which is compounded by the continuous game of snakes and ladders in which independent companies are moved up and down in the financing priorities of the state funding system.

“Shrinking” and Artistic Exodus

Although the independent sector is not immune to the pressure to maximize audience numbers either, this remains the sphere where we find the most experimental performances (that is, those which do not automatically prefer to follow the determining tradition of dramatic representational theatre in Hungary). However, there has been a notable shrinking, in recent years, of the volume of theatre productions by the independent companies, which are, of course, the most financially defenseless.

In late 2017, the “dunaPart” showcase could present only three major productions from this sector, two of them dance pieces. The lone theatre production was Imitation of Life (2016), by theatre and film director Kornél Mundruczó, which presented the eviction story of a defenseless Romany woman. Its most notable feature is the performative space: the vast interior of the woman’s flat, furnished with hyper-naturalistic details, turns over in the moment of the death of the sick woman waiting for her eviction (played by LiliMonori). For  some moments, the spectators cannot see anything but the kitchen gadgets and brooms crashing down as the room slowly revolves through 360 degrees, until it finally stands erect again in its broken condition. The personal tragedy is presented with objective rigidity, visualized in this post-apocalyptic picture.[8]

Characteristically, Mundruczó is not based in Hungary nowadays. He has this in common with the mid-generation of internationally acclaimed Hungarian theatre directors, such as Árpád Schilling and Viktor Bodó. The last play directed by Schilling in Hungary was in 2015: The Day of Fury. The production was marked by minimalism, an actor-centered approach and socio-political parable—all characteristic of Schilling in more recent years. The story is based on a real person, the “black sister” demonstrating for improvements in the conditions in hospitals and, therefore, losing her job. She was performed in the play by the wife of the director, the splendid Lilla Sárosdi. This play was put on stage in Trafó, the most important centre of contemporary experimental performing arts in Hungary.

Similarly to Mundruczó’s plays, Schilling’s foreign productions can only be seen in this theatre in Hungary. However, at present, there are no further opportunities in Hungary for experimental theatre companies to move on from Trafó and step onto a bigger stage, unless they go abroad.

The Budapest premiere of Viktor Bodó’s latest grand-scale production, The Krakken Operation (2018), was put on stage in a more spacious private theatre in the building of the former Átrium cinema, which is more vulnerable to the trends of the market. His other premiere in Hungary two years earlier, also in a private theatre, was a one-man-show, Diary of a Madman (2016), a touring show, starring Tamás Keresztes, which is easy to put on stage anywhere.

Átrium’s production of The Krakken Operation,directed by Viktor Bodó, in 2018. Photo: Csaba Mészáros
Reflections on #meetoo

Where the financial survival of an independent theatre in Hungary is concerned, the exception is Béla Pintér, who has managed to establish a sustainable independent theatrical model with an on-going repertoire. His second production as guest-director in Budapest was performed in December 2017, in one of the capital’s most prestigious public theatres, the Katona József Theatre. The piece is partly a response to the globally publicized sexual harassment scandals,[9] which also reached Hungarian society and, thus, Hungarian theatre. Its antecedent was Pintér’s first direction in Katona, The Champion (2016), which resulted in a political scandal. The pro-government press criticized the perceived similarity between the mayor of the city of Debrecen (who supports the government) and the main character of the play.[10] The official party organ Magyar Idők reminded its readers that the director of the theatre, Gábor Máté, was elected by the Fidesz-KDNP government, and that he can be removed by them just as easily. The pro-government Heti Válasz denounced the director of the theatre, disclosing some gossip—private details from his past—and suggested that the theatre should rather stage a play about his  private life, rather than that of the mayor of Debrecen.[11]

Ernő Fekete, Tamás Keresztes and Zoltán Bezerédi in Katona József Theatre’s production, directed by Béla Pintér, in 2017. 
Photo: Judit Horváth

The Katona theatre and Béla Pintér took this advice seriously, and Pintér staged the show, where some of the characters are called the same name as the chief director and the actors of the theatre. However, the yellow paper style framework is only illusory; the play is about the harassment scandals and about the vulnerability of women and actresses. It does not point a finger at others, but through the self-critical portrayal of the relation between the director’s theatre and violence it enfolds the problem in cabaret-style farce.

Veronika Szabó, a member of the youngest generation of Hungarian directors, deals with the methodology of collaborative devising and leaves behind the dictatorial toolbox of the director’s theatre. She came into the limelight with a work which demonstrated the individuality of her artistic voice and highlighted gender issues, which are rarely a theme in the Hungarian theatre. Queendom (2017), which was produced by an international group of artists, creates a democratic atmosphere. Built upon scenes (which often test the limits) involving seven women, it is performed mostly without words, and with background music. It puts the human body on show bravely and openly. Influenced by Jérôme Bel, it is marked by feminism, eroticism and strong emotional effects. It does not deal directly with the problem of sexual harassment, but, rather, it considers the way we see the female body.

The performance confronts female audience members with their expectations towards their own female roles; their attitude to the normative body-image; the notion of their own beauty; and whether they are able to review the expectations unconsciously working deep within themselves.

Julia Jakubowska, Lori Baldwin and Luca Borsos in Queendomdirected by Veronika Szabó, in 2018. Photo: László Halász
New Trends, Emerging Artists, Author’s Theatre, Theatre-Makers

While there are still only a few women directors in Hungarian theatre, we have to mention among them, a highly distinctive artist, Ildikó Gáspár, who represents a new, significant and growing trend: that of directors who qualified as dramaturges. Maybe the distinctiveness of their work is the consequence of their studies: the concept of the dramaturge-director often diverts away from traditional dramatic methods.

Gáspár put on stage a play by Ödön von Horváth (Faith, Charity, Hope, 2017) in her mother institution, an important public theatre, the ÖrkényIstván Színház. Starring the young Tünde Kókai in the leading role, the production took the methods of Brecht as its starting point. Contrary to the Hungarian acting tradition, she introduces the protagonist as a much stronger character and, in this way, she places the emphasis on the socio-political constraints, rather than on the vulnerability deriving from a woman’s personality.

Dramaturges do lend a new theatre-language to the contemporary Hungarian theatre. Martin Boross is another notable example. He has directed theatre travelling on a bus, as well as a theatrical board-game about homelessness.

Kristóf Kelemen’s documentary show, with the long title While You Are Reading This Title We Are Talking About You (2016), shows actor-students as they are talking about their vulnerability in their jobs—which also works on the level of a kind of all-societal metaphor. Kelemen’s second production, in cooperation with fine artist Bence György Pálinkás, was Hungarian Acacia (2017): it demonstrates how the acaciaoriginally brought in from Americahas become a Hungarian national and political symbol, and, furthermore, how this political metaphor changes and transformswithout any resonancein the political vocabulary of different periods and how it is filled with totally opposing meanings.

Angéla Eke in Hungarian Acacia, directed by Bence György Pálinkás and Kristóf Kelemen, in 2018. Copyright: Trafó – House of Contemporary Arts

Among the dramaturge-directors, as we can see, there is a prevalent “theatermaker” attitude which breaks out of the “boxes” of traditionally divided and separated theatre roles and mixes them, together with the genre of author’s theatre (auteur theatre).

A leading example of auteur among the theatre-makers in Hungary is Péter Kárpáti, who is also a qualified dramaturge. Besides putting his own dramas on stage, he is known for the revival in Hungary of the genre of improvisation. His methodology avoids the “pre-planned element” one expects of traditional improv (that is, both characters are aware of the basic situation). This new, hyperrealist approach to improv exposes the actors to the lifelike experience of one actor knowing only his/her condition while, at the same time, being unaware of the feelings of the other. Therefore, the performers are truly surprised by the twists of dramaturgy that they receive from the director in text messages, while they are on stage (often for days!) as the performance proceeds.

Another representative of the auteur theatre is Ádám Fekete, also a dramaturge. His most important staging is Tableau without Lion in Natural Light (2015), which reveals the experience of solitude and loneliness in a consolatory tone, and challenges the urge of contemporary Hungarian theatre to involve too much talking. He slows down his play, which is inspired by Ming-liang Tsai and Roy Andersson, and gives very few lines to his actors. The performance of the Ground Floor Group of Kolozsvár (Cluj, Romania) entitled Parental Ctrl (2017), is also the fruit of a dramaturge and theatre historians. This is a post-dramatic petition told on behalf of the generation born in the nineties in the form of painful and funny songs.

New Realism

Although the sphere of the contemporary Hungarian theatre is narrowing and the majority of productions are restricted to small areas, for some creative groups, this is not a constraint but a necessity, as their theatrical language they apply to depicting family problems is hyperrealism. In the work of theatre and film director Szabolcs Hajdu (Látókép Ensemble), and his co-dramatist (and wife) Orsolya Török-Illyés,[12] and dollardeddy’s (the theatre of the actor couple Emőke Kiss-Végh and Tamás Ördög), mainly North-European dramas are rewritten in contemporary language as chamber theatre performances in which the proximity of the actors is vital. These theatre companies try to revive psychological realism with the help of minimalist language. Their immediate Hungarian predecessor is Árpád Schilling’s The Seagull (2003), with its very natural, everyday-like acting style.

Applied Theatre: The Audience as Participant

In the field of applied theatre a number of different parallel trends can be found in Hungary. German initiation theatre and English TiE (Theatre in Education) are particularly prominent. Káva and Kerekasztal are the two most significant Hungarian TiE companies; indeed, they are as important in youth and children’s theatre as they are in adult theatre. The applied theatre companies contrast their perception of audience with the role of the traditionally passive one. This concept is also politically charged in a society which lacks the traditions of participatory democracy.

Besides the German and British traditions of applied theatre there are homegrown trends as well: for example, László Bass’s poverty-research play Sociopoly (2015). This participatory performance is based on the board game developed by Bass himself and makes the audience experience the feeling of surviving in extreme poverty. “Theatre board games” provide a live experience of a board game for the audience who become participants; their decisions as a player are expressed in theatrical scenes. Alternatively, a certain dilemma becomes more immediate by being presented on stage: for example, shall we go shopping in the local little corner shop, or, rather, to the shop in the city, or shall we borrow from the local moneylender? In these games, the role of moderator is often played by a specialist (for example, a researcher of poverty or a social worker), or, in the style of documentarist theatre, another participant in the social events (for example, the homeless activist Gyula Balog performed in Martin Boross’s Addressless (2016).

Video 3

Mentőcsónak Egység-STEREO Akt: Addressless (Vagabond Role Game)

Long Live Regina! (2017) is the final product of a community theatre piece, which follows the footsteps of the documentarist traditions of the German company Rimini Protokoll. It casts “everyday people” as “experts”’ on the stage. However, what is of even greater importance, from a Hungarian perspective, is that it demonstrates the right of Romani women to represent themselves. The sociologists Kata Horváth and Marton Oblath, each with more than ten years of contact with this community, invited director Edit Romankovics and dramaturge Eszter Gyulay to participate in their artistic project. Central to the development of the play Long Live Regina! is the use of digital storytelling and psychodrama. Overall, the project has a therapeutic and community-building aspect, where the output as a theatrical production can be shown to a wider audience.[13]

Báder Renáta, Horváth Róbertné (Rita), Anita Rácz and Kállai Gergőné (Vali) in Saját Színház’s (SelfTheatre) production of Long Live Regina!,directed by Edit Romankovics, in 2017. Photo: Gabriella Csoszó. Copyright:
Theatre and Visuality

Visuality is not one of the strengths of Hungarian theatre. An important exception to this is the latest show by the neo-avant-garde group TÁP Színház, adapted from the cultbook of the Hungarian-Jewish author Antal Szerb, who was beaten to death during the Holocaust. From the visual point of view, the Traveller and Moonlight (2018) has been one of the most innovative Hungarian productions in recent years. It is an example of so-called playback theatre, in which the actors mouth the words to an audio playback in front of a screen on which images are projected, making the performers appear like puppets.

Speaking of puppets, András Jeles is also worth mentioning. His play, entitled Joseph and His Brothers (2015), which is in the repertoire of the Weöres Sándor Theatre in Szombathely, creates a non-realistic, folktale-style theatrical language, where acting is similar to that of the puppets.

Another visually exciting work of recent years is The Dohány Street Sheriff (2012), directed by János Mohácsi, who applied a radical visual solution  in staging of the Holocaust. Expressing the impossibility of visually representing the Nazi genocide, the whole performance is played in total darkness.[14]

Franciska Törőcsik in Trafó House of Contemporary Arts’ production of Traveller and Moonlight, directed by Vilmos Vajdai, in 2017. Photo: Miklós Toldy
Theatre and Politics: The Dictator on Stage

In Hungary, burning social issues on the stages of public theatres are most often thematized; they follow the traditions of representational theatre and often the double speak tradition—very common in Hungarian theatres before the regime shift in 1989. Political topics are often depicted via foreign or classical plays.

Examples of such productions include: Incendies (2017), by Wajdi Mouawad (a Canadian dramatist of Lebanese descent), which considers the migrant crisis and xenophobia, staged at the Radnóti Theatre, directed by the former artistic director of the Hungarian National Theatre Alföldi; and Richard III (2018), this time with Alföldi performing the title role, directed by Romanian-American director Andrei Şerban. The show was presented one month before the Hungarian general elections with a direct reference to the return of the dictator. At the end of the production, the ghost of Richard comes back and walks through the stage smoking a cigarette.

Adél Kováts and Róbert Alföldi in Radnóti Theatre’s production of King Richard III,directed by  Andrei Şerban, in2018.
Photo: Dániel Dömölky

Another example of anachronistic double speak in contemporary Hungarian theatre is Hamlet (2017), presented in another public theatre of Budapest, the Comedy Theatre. Here, the actor recites a famous Hungarian poem which, in this context, includes a reference on dictatorship instead of the original monologue from the Aeneid. These are all performances which articulate political topics “between the lines”—which is a well-known and ongoing tradition for post-socialist cultures, since this was the language of political theatre before the regime shift in 1989.

Although the independent performances are often more direct, their numbers diminish. Add to that the fact that the mid-generation directors are mainly concentrated abroad, and it is clear that there is less and less space in Hungary for independent thinking and for testing brave and experimental forms.

Although Árpád Schilling[15] has staged guest performances recently in Trafó, as a political activist and a rebel, he has been only working abroad in the past, before finally leaving Hungary in the spring of 2018. His work can be mostly seen in Hungary through his political video-performances in the autonomous space of Facebook, one of the last forums of independence.

In the following excerpt, as a continuation of the short history of Hungarian performance art (instead of the Hungarian tradition of representational theatre and the political tradition of double speak), the artist stages himself talking about the Hungarian Government’s fake poll called “the National Consultation,” lecturing the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán:

Video 4

Árpád Schilling about the National Consultation questionnaire of the Hungarian Government


[1] Editor’s note: The election was won by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his right-wing, nationalist Fidesz party.
[2] It is important to mention the existence of an ethnic Hungarian minority in Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia and Serbia—their Hungarian-language theatre activities, often marked by the crossing of the cultures, are also part of the Hungarian theatre culture. The TESZT festival of Temesvár (Timisoara), which has just gone through a change of board—thus also through a change of profile—had been able to represent an international showcase which resembles the profile of the centre of experimental theatre in Budapest, the Trafó, and which was more progressive than any other festival in Hungary.
[3] See here (Accessed March 29, 2018).
[4] See here (Accessed March 29, 2018).
[5] Bálint Kovács, ibid.
[6] A brief summary of the legal background: “since 2009 companies can support organizations of performing art from their company tax. . . . The maximum amount of support can be up to 80 per cent of the box office revenues of the organisation. This support is easy to plan as a fixed amount, but the fact that this regulation covers all the theatres uniformly resulted, of course, in anomalies, and tensions arose, primarily between the big theatres, which provide entertainment, and the small art theatres,” writes István Szabó, theatre historian and sociologist, in the March issue of SZÍNHÁZ. See István Szabó, “What is tao?” Színház, March 2018 (Accessed March 29, 2018).
[7] See here, Andrea Tompa, “And the Winner Is . . . Appointing Artistic Directors in Hungary,” PTJ, 1.2 (2017) (Accessed March 29, 2018).
[8] A variation of the scene is also included in the film Jupiter’s Moon (2017), by Mundruczó.
[9] In late 2017, actress Lilla Sárosdi revealed how László Marton, the ex-director of an established public theatre, Vígszínház, harassed her. On her coming out, the fellow sufferers joined her, and, as part of this wave, Marton was pensioned off, just like the culprit of the next scandal, the ex-director of the Operetta Theatre, Miklós Gábor Kerényi was laid off.
[10] The chief director of the theatre, Tamás Ascher, mentioned then on Facebook that the former prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, also appeared on the stage of a conservative director while he was in power, but nobody made any remark on it at that time.
[11] See also Andrea Tompa: “Du hast gerufen, geliebter Führer!” Theater Heute, July 2016.
[12] See here: Noémi Herczog, “Szabolcs Hajdu and the Theatre of Midlife Crisis: Self-Ironic Auto-Bio Aesthetic on Hungarian Stages,” European Stages 10 (2018) (Accessed March 29, 2018).
[13] See here. Gabriella Schuller, “A Female Psycho Drama as Kitchen Sink Drama: Long Live Regina! in Budapest,” European Stages 10 (2017) (Accessed March 29, 2018).
[14] The show can also be seen at the Hungarian Live Festival in New York, June 23-27, 2018. (Accessed 8 June, 2018).
[15] Árpád Schillinhas left Hungary in 2018 spring: see here (Accessed June 8, 2018).

*Noémi Herczog (1986) lives and works in Budapest, Hungary. She is a critic and editor. She is editor of the oldest Hungarian theatre magazine, SZÍNHÁZ (Theatre), theatre columnist of the weekly ÉletésIrodalom (Life and Literature), editor of a theatrical book series (SzínText) and teaches performance analysis at the University of Theatre and Film, Budapest. She is a former activist of One Million for the Freedom of Speech civic movement (Milla). A doctoral student at the University of Theatre and Film, Budapest, her research field is the history of reporting theatre criticism (criticism of denunciation) in Hungary. She was also co-curator of dunaPart 3—the Hungarian Showcase of Contemporary Performing Arts (2015)—and dunaPart 4 (2017).

Copyright © 2018 Noémi Herczog
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Out of the Box(-Office): New Trends in Hungarian Performing Arts
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