Shakespeare Serves A Sensual Banquet (Even in Hungarian)

When I lived in Budapest I contributed regularly to the Budapest Times.  This is the first piece I wrote for them, published I believe, the first week of October 2004.  My records don’t indicate the publication date but my files show it was last modified on September 27th 2009, so I presume it ran in the next week’s paper.  Unfortunately there is no record of it immediately searchable in their online archives. They were not publishing on the web when I first started to write for them, so that may be why. Not currently having access to Uj Szinhas photo archives, I’ve used images delivered by Zemanta.

Scene from A Midsummer Nights' Dream by Arie T...
Scene from A Midsummer Nights' Dream by Arie Teeuwisse, Diever, 1971. Image via Wikipedia

Shakespeare Serves A Sensual Banquet (Even in Hungarian)

by Alison Boston

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, playing this season at the Uj Szinhas, is an auditory and visual feast. It can easily be enjoyed by discerning theater goers of any native language. Directed by Russian Syergej Masylobojscsikov, this Hungarian production of one of Shakespeare’s best known, and most often produced romantic comedies, is masterful.

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream...
Image via Wikipedia

Nádasdy Adám’s translation serves-up the bard’s rhythm.

I`ve always been skeptical about translations of the bard into foreign tongues. A big part of the joy of Shakespeare is in the text’s rhythm. How can you translate that? Well, the version that Masylobojscsikov chose to direct is a relatively new translation by Nádasdy Adám, (1995) that uses modern Hungarian, and works with the beat and metre of the original English. For example, a couplet from Puck:

Original:Fairy king, attend and mark: I do hear the morning lark. Hungarian: Tündérkirály, figyelj jól: a pacsirta reggelt szól.

So in spite of my extremely limited Hungarian, I could appreciate the rhythm, and enjoyed the show. I was bored only once, and only briefly, during the three-hour performance – which is more than I can say for some English productions I’ve seen!

Bored by giggly fairies who looked more like runway models than woodland fairies.

That boredom, and my only real complaint, is a matter of personal taste. Masylobojscsikov directed the Fairies – and to a certain extent, Titania – to be giggly, selfish girls. Titania’s fairy ring is depicted by three young women who move like dancers and walk like models on a runway. Dressed in post-punk rag skirts and tops, complete with the inevitable belly display, their constant giggling and running around hitting people with small cushions was, for me, annoying and tiresome. So when Titania finally got the goat-earred Bottom alone, and together they prepared their love-bed by kicking the plush velvet and rich brocade pillows into a down-stage heap, I was – quite frankly – bored.

Titania welcoming her fairy bretheren
Titania welcoming her fairy brethern: Henry Meynell Rheam. Date Unknown. Image via Wikipedia

Masylobojscsikov erred when he directed Györgyi Anna to giggle her way through this scene. Titania is the Queen of the Fairies, not Allie McBeal. So why does that simpering, idiotic, wanna-be-lawyer character come to mind when I think of Györgyi’s Titania? Maybe there is a Hungarian soap opera character she is parodying and my ‘Angolism’ prevents me from fully appreciating it? Better yet, maybe these giggly girls create an auditory and visual backdrop that runs throughout the show, and despite my personal dislike for it, I can appreciate its value as an effective theatrical device. Having thus slammed the production I will now rave: It is a joy to watch!

Illustration from the title page of Robin Good...
Illustration from the title page of Robin Goodfellow: His Mad Pranks and Merry Jests (1629). Image via Wikipedia

Eperjes Károly’s Puck steals the show!

There is no doubt that Pukk (Puck aka Robin Goodfellow), played by Eperjes Károly, steals the show. Others also turn in excellent performances, but A Midsummer Night’s Dream IS Puck’s play, so it’s a good thing Eperjes grabbed my attention whenever he was on stage. Dressed in a wrinkled black evening suit, complete with watch chain, he commands his roles with the ease of an accomplished player, and serves up facial expressions that ripple through his body, thereby making his complete physical form a caricature and embodiment of the characters he portrays. A point to note: Eperjes triples his roles with the lines of Philostratus and Tetöfi. Tetöfi? A play on words – dallying with the Hungarian poet Petöfi and the Hungarian word tetöf meaning roof. Tetöfi, in Nádasdy Ádám’s translation, takes the role of Peter Quince from the Bard’s original. Eperjes delivers the job of Tetöfi beautifully, but I was thrown off-track by seeing the actor playing Puck, lying on the stage reading what I know is Quince’s list of players for the play within a play. But only for a moment, because there is so much great stuff going on in that first rehearsal of the pageant, that I quickly forgot my confusion and just enjoyed the show.

Johann Heinrich Füssli 025
Johann Heinrich Füssli, Oil on Canvas. Image via Wikipedia

Bottom delivers lines operatic style when planning play-within-the-play.

In that scene, Bubik Istvan’s Tompor (Nick Bottom to you and I) snaps the audience to attention by delivering his lines operatic style, while spinning a wooden leg crutch over his head. In this scene, we also meet a thoroughly convincing, and subtle, yet powerfully comedic Vinkli (Snug), portrayed by Takács Katalin. That she will be Lion in the pageant is obvious when she pulls off her cap and reveals a full mane of flaming, carrot-red hair. When she turns up later in a two-meter wide, red satin, ruffled ball gown, a play on the debauchery of Carnival is evident! There is no confusion about who Oberon is, as played by Hirtling István. Hirtling portrays a clear image of a pensive, King of the Fairies, even if a tad too sombre and lacking any genuine playfulness for my liking. Also absent is the petulant jealousy that drives his feud with Titania. But his costume is by far one of the highlights of the show: a loose-fitting, dark gray casual suit, not unlike the costume Peter Gabriel turned up in for his recent ‘Still Growing Up’ tour. (Well, both those men like to play and weave magic, so it seems appropriate somehow.)

Oberon’s magic potions in jars hung from his belt.

Belted round Oberon’s middle is a collection of jars and bottles containing the various elements of his potions, along with a handful of medical swab sticks that are used by both himself and Pukk to dab the eyes of their innocent victims when casting spells. When he gives Goodfellow (Pukk) fairy powers, Oberon – using a pair of surgical forceps – produces a smoked fish from one of his jars, runs the tip of a swab stick along the skin, then dabs a reluctant Robin Goodfellow’s tongue. (The scowl on Eperjes’ face suggests a joke about the Hungarian love affair with fish.) Throughout the play, whenever a spell is to be cast, a similar ritual is followed: the magic potion is applied to the swabstick and the swab used to cast the spell.

A Midsummer Night's Dream at Carl Schurz Park,...
Another interesting theatrical technique involving sound in A Midsummer Night's Dream by employed in a production at Carl Schurz Park, Manhattan, 1978. The set utilized a series of sheet steel walls to project the natural voice. Image via Wikipedia

Actors use full range of vocal possibilities

If the visuals aren’t enough to keep you awake, the use of sound will. Masylobojscsikov shows his strength as a director by using the human voice to create sound, above and beyond the mere delivering of text. The range of sounds that emerge from his players’ mouths is one of the things that makes this production so wonderful and accessible for someone who does not speak Hungarian. In sharp contrast to the annoying giggling fairies, Hermina and Helena – played by Botos Éva and Kecskés Karina respectively – deliver their lines and fight over Demetrius (Huszár Zsolt) with low growls and high-pitched squeals. (All of that done while dressed in matching white and cream post-modern wedding gowns, with corsets, flounces, ruffles and slits that reveal Elizabethan bloomers!) When the sleeping lovers have their eyes daubed with Oberon’s magical juice, they scream out in pain. Hippolyta, portrayed by Tordai Teri delivers her lines with an unusual, deep and throaty voice. It gives the audience more than words at a time when text to advance the plot, and set the scene, is really all there is. It’s unfortunate something similar could not have been done with Théseus (Gosztonyi János). Fortunately, most of Théseus’ time on stage is shared with the pageant’s presentation to his court. That scene is a key comedic element in the original ‘Dream’ and it doesn’t fail in the Hungarian, either.

Paphos - Pyrame et Thisbé
Image via Wikipedia

Kudos to Kisfalussy Bálint playing Lavör Tamas (Tom Snout, the tinker). His creation of Thisbe, in the afore-mentioned pageant, had the audience roaring with laughter. Everytime he came on stage, his bosoms had grown at least three cup sizes until they could give even Barbie a run for unrealistic proportions. With a bright red mouth and dark black hair, and a death scene that left his legs splayed, I could not help but wonder if Kisfalussy’s Thisbe is a spoof on Hungary’s retiring, pregnant porn star. (And how do I know what she looks like? Because she was interviewed just before me on Sziget TV. She got 10 minutes to discuss her retirement from porn and I got 45 seconds to recite a poem. Such is the entertainment value of poetry in relation to pornography! Of course, it may have had something to do with the fact that I speak very, very little Hungarian!)

Costumes paint color on black box set

Balla Ildikó gets credit for costuming the cast in a range of suits and dresses that uses every color in the rainbow without ever being gaudy. Director, Szergéj Maszlobojscsikov, doubled as set designer and created a simple and versatile set: a black platform on wheels, decorated with sumptuous cushions that serve a variety of uses. Audio is enhanced by a recorded sound track that serves up excerpts of old English folksongs, and classical symphonies. All of which works together to give the play a setting in a post-modern, eastern-European, never-never land. That this is not set in any real time, or place, is clearly established at the outset by a pregnant roller-blader who delivers up the child that Oberon and Titania fight over.

Study for The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by...
Study for The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Noel PatonImage via Wikipedia

Perhaps if my Hungarian were better, it would be clearer for me that this play is about the chaos caused on the earthly plane by Oberon’s jealousy when Titania focusses her attention on the new baby. That Masylobojscsikov doesn’t share my interpretation of what is one of Shakespeare’s most fantastical comedies, is obvious in his direction of the fairies. But I can appreciate his insight, and sense of humor none the less. If you don’t know the play, you might want to read it in English before you see it. You can read it for free on the web at any one of a number of Shakespeare related websites. But it isn’t necessary to know the story to enjoy this production. Just go with a willingness not to need to understand the words, and a good dose of willing suspension of disbelief, and you will be entertained.

Midsummer Night’s Dream (Szentivánéji Álom) by William Shakespeare translated by Nádasdy Adám
at the Uj Szinhas, 1061 Budapest. Paulay Ede u. 35. Tickets, daily 14:00-19:00: 351-1406 or 269-6021/124
In October: 7, 13, and 31.

A word about the Hungarian names

Szentivánéji Alom
‘alom’ is Hungarian for ‘dream’. Nádasdy Ádám explains in that Szent Iván is the Hungarian name for June 24, the longest day and shortest night of the year, and hence his choice ‘Szentivánéji Alom’.

For the most part, the cast retains the original English names, with a few exceptions that are explained in a footnote to the translation:

  • Pukk – Puck (Robin Goodfellow): ‘pukk’ plays both with the original name ‘Puck’ and a word in Hungarian that is used to describe the sound of a baloon bursting ‘pukk’
  • Tetöfi Péter – Peter Quince: dallying with the Hungarian poet Petőfi and the Hungarian word tetöf meaning roof
  • Tompor Miklós – Nick Bottom: ‘tompor’ is the Hungarian for ‘bottom’
  • Sipák Ferenc – Francis Flute: ‘sip’ is ‘flute’ in Hungarian, and ‘sipak’ is the name for a person who is a nervous, high-pitched, chatterbox
  • Lavór Tamás – Tom Snout, a tinker: ‘lavór’ is the Hungarian word for a drain pipe used to run water off roofs, and these are made from tin
  • Vinkli – Snug: ‘vinkli’ in Hungarian is a 90degree angle
  • Kórász Róbert – Robin Starveling: ‘kórász’ in Hungarian means ‘a skinny person’

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