Tamás Jászay*

Interferences International Theatre Festival, Cluj-Napoca, Romania,
November 22-30 2018

Interferences has become shorter—for obvious financial reasons (as everywhere nowadays), but not only. Usually stretching into early December, this year the festival ended on November 30. This is no coincidence: exactly 100 years ago on December 1, 1918, the Alba Iulia National Assembly declared the union of Transylvania with the Romanian Kingdom.

The jubilee is a sensitive topic for Romanians and Hungarians alike and it seems that the organisers, the Hungarian State Theatre of Cluj-Napoca, tactfully declined to choose between the extreme possibilities: organising a folk festival or a funeral rite. They were right: peace is a better choice.

Here is a clip of the entire programme for the 2018 edition

And here is a day-to-day reportage of the festival’s goings-on

It was the impossible but necessary nature of peace that they chose as their topic, making War the motif of this edition. Although I am wary of festivals built around single keywords, I will not grumble: we in Hungary mostly ignored the centenary of the end of the First World War, although it wouldn’t have hurt to remember and to be reminded.

Interferences has grown into an A-list, balanced festival: relevant international contemporary artists came to Cluj-Napoca, but young makers were also showcased. This might be a question of taste, but the programme still featured plenty of ballast, although the presence of big stage productions seemed especially beneficial, when compared to the ever narrowing criteria of Hungarian festivals (apart from MITEM, the heavily subsidised festival of the National Theatre in Budapest). The programme is in the hands of the founder of Interferences, Gábor Tompa, artistic director and managing director of the Hungarian Theatre of Cluj since 1990, who in 2018 was elected as president of the Union of Theatres of Europe (UTE). The programme was certainly determined by Tompa’s interests, likings and commitments.

A scene from Milo Rau’s Compassion, the History of the Machine Gun. Photo: István Biró

This article presents, non-exhaustively, performances that I found relevant from the first four days of the festival.

Milo Rau’s Compassion. The History of the Machine Gun is certainly relevant to the Pan-European hypocrisy surrounding the refugee crisis. For Rau’s work, see here and here.

Katharina Klar as Iphigenie and Anja Herden as her mother, Klytaimnestra, with the members of the chorus (Sophie Reiml, Marlene Hauser, Maren-Sophia Streich, Nadine Quittner and Eva Dorlass) facing the hidden plan of Menelaus. Photo: István Biró

Vienna’s Volkstheater made its debut in Cluj-Napoca, with artistic director Anna Badora’s 2017 production, one that gets right to the point. It starts with the Trojan War (Euripides: Iphigenia in Aulis), then switches to the migrant crisis invisibly subverting our present (Stefano Massini: Occident Express). Euripides’s classic is delivered in an informal, ironic tone in Damian Hitz’s capacious, abstract, flashy space, covered ankle-deep in water that can hinder or purify the characters. The backdrop features wind machines (motionless until the last moments), while chunks of marble stick out from the water. We start with bored tranquillity: the future heroes of Troy are eager to set off at last, but the wind is still and the gods demand sacrifice.

The characters of Occident Express (Rainer Galke, Sebastian Pass, Katharina Klar, Jan Thümer, Lukas Holzhausen and Anja Herden) on their way to Stockholm, after they got out of a human trafficker’s truck. Photo: István Biró

This well-known story is presented not by heroes carved from marble but by everyday men and women who overvalue themselves. Hence the humour of the piece and the loudness of the tragic moments. Family drama mixes with politics, mythology entangles with history. Sharp acting from the first part fades into a fair choral performance in the second and palpably longer part: we witness the odyssey of Haifa, an elderly lady fleeing from Iraq to Stockholm in 2015 (she is portrayed by the actress playing Agamemnon’s old servant). Short on action and long on narratives, this is hard to digest, let alone make exciting in theatrical terms. Obviously, the fate of contemporary refugees migrating to an imagined Paradise touches our hearts, and it will surely do no harm to listen to these stories over and over again, but, ultimately, I felt it incomplete.

Vaterland: Faces from the glasshouse (József Kádas, Lilla Barna, Máté Andrássy, Nóra Molnár G., Barnabás Horkay, Nóra Földeáki, Márton Pallag and László Fehér) meet with the stranger in the village (Norbert Nagy). Photo: István Biró

Of the seventeen productions of the programme, three were from Hungary. The 2018 premiere of Csaba Horváth’s Vaterland at Trafó was an illustrious moment of our season, so I was glad that the company made its Interferences debut with this piece. Although ours is no country for Thomas Bernhard’s works, this undertaking is noteworthy, not only due to its pioneering spirit. Director Csaba Horváth and dramaturg Attila Rácz made a peculiar collage of texts from The Italian, as monomaniac as Bernhard himself. Csaba Antal’s set—cut sideways and built from planes that slip into each another—comes to life as a glasshouse concealing unutterable secrets, a steep alpine gorge and a temporary station for middle-class people envisioning themselves at the top rank of society.

In Vaterland, László Fehér’s character in the whirlpool of the villagers (members of Forte Company). Photo: István Biró

The title denotes a mental landscape: in this two-hour geography lesson, we examine the scenic Austrian land, finding only secrets and lies. Behind the apparent harmony there lies the conspiracy of merciless murderers, eager to conceal their sins: if you were ever unsure why certain compatriots of the utterly cynical Bernhard were not at all fond of him, now you’ll understand. The theatrical world of Horváth is characterised by strong images and mundane objects bestowed with new functions. Here, a story that requires the intense attention of the audience unfolds bit by bit, and emerges from deep down. It is given a comic or morbid edge by re-using sizeable cattle scapulas as fans, instruments, catafalques, tombstones, and so on.

In The Merchant of Venice, lovers on the stage: on the sofa, Bassanio (Balázs Bodolai) and Portia (Enikő Györgyjakab); behind them, Nerissa (Csilla Albert) and Gratiano (Ervin Szűcs). Photo: István Biró

The hosts presented their autumn première, The Merchant of Venice, directed by Gábor Tompa. This ambitious production was somewhat disappointing, as it failed to deliver anything new about one of Shakespeare’s most problematic pieces that focuses, if you like, on the war between Jews and Christians. Dragoș Buhagiar’s monumental and often dysfunctional set presents a world that is mechanical, repulsive, utterly contemporary. In it—as I later found out from characters dressed in steel-grey suits—young sharks of Wall Street are causing tiny whirlpools. In vain do they turn the 3,000 ducats borrowed from Shylock into three million dollars: the story doesn’t feel an inch closer to our world.

The performance fails to go beyond straightforward and lengthy storytelling: I have the feeling that none of Shakespeare’s lines is absent. But there is something honestly surprising too, thanks to which I will remember more than just the awkward embarrassment I felt watching Portia’s lame suitors. It’s nothing new for the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio to be more than just friendship, but I have never before encountered such depth and sensitivity in its portrayal. The result of this is new nuances in the relationship between Portia (performed by a cool, peppery, exciting Enikő Györgyjakab) and her suitor, Bassanio (Balázs Bodolai as a devoted, pure, serious lover). The shocking finale makes it clear that Antonio, Bassanio and Portia will continue living as a threesome, with each of them closeted in their own (un)happiness.

An officer with Macbeth (Leonid Alimov) and the Lady (Maria Shulga) right after the murder of Duncan, king of Scotland. Photo: István Biró

My minifestival ended with another Shakespeare, Luk Perceval’s Macbeth from Theatre-Festival Baltic House, Saint Petersburg. This production, running since 2014, is better described as a Macbeth study. I’m not saying that Perceval, for the third time directing Shakespeare’s shortest play (and making it even shorter), only had time for a sketch, quite the opposite: you rarely see such consistent directorial vision depressingly channelled into one single route. The atmosphere of dark memories and visions is what sticks the most in the mind. It helps to know the original tragedy properly, if you wish to connect the seemingly muddled sentences.

In this puzzle, the task is to understand the bizarre relationship of Macbeth and his Lady. The robust, bulky, middle-aged Macbeth (Leonid Alimov) and the petite, fragile, young Lady Macbeth (Maria Shulga) are at the centre of this pitch-dark cosmos. Their inability to conceive is key to the performance: because they are incapable of creating new life, they kill. It is impossible to take your eyes off the multiple witches, half a dozen mute, naked female beings, their hair almost sweeping the floor, seamlessly appearing and disappearing onstage as in a nightmare.

In one of the visions of Macbeth, Banquo (Roman Driablov) and his son, Fleance (Dmitriy Savchuk) stand at the back. In front, Macduff (Aleksandr Muravitskii, left) and Macbeth (Leonid Alimov). Photo: István Biró

The minimalist set of Annette Kurz, composed of light, smoke and metal rods, is a true hit: the characters of this elliptically delivered story all sit, hang on to or negotiate these low-hanging bars. This is the battlefield of the soul: we are inside Macbeth’s head, waging a bloody, eternal, hopeless war.

*Tamás Jászay is a theatre critic, editor, university lecturer and curator. Since 2003, he has been working as a freelance theatre critic: in the last 15 years, he has published around 1,000 articles in more than 20 magazines all over the world, in ten languages altogether. Since 2008, he has been co-editor of the Hungarian critical portal www.revizoronline.com. Between 2009 and 2015, he was co-president of the Hungarian Theatre Critics’ Association. In 2013, he defended his PhD thesis on the history of Krétakör Theatre. Since February 2015, he has taught at Szeged University as a guest lecturer, and from September 2017, as an assistant lecturer.

Copyright © 2019 Tamás Jászay
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War Is All Around Us
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