Monday 9 March 2015

Lúzer – Trafó, Budapest

[seen 08/03/15]

Couldn't find a whole-stage photo, with the bamd and lighting. Anyone?

After all my grumbling about Hungary’s lack of feminism in theatre yesterday, Krétakör’s Lúzer, (Loser, unsurprisingly) directed by Árpád Schilling comes along and, to a greater or lesser extent, demonstrates that the exact opposite is also happening.

Lúzer opens with Schilling himself standing in the middle of the large, empty main-stage at Trafó (where Dementia played on Thursday, with its huge, detailed set), telling us about the political situation in Hungary (awful), and the state of arts funding (worse), and about the time he burnt his government funding contract outside the culture ministry, videoed it, and put it on YouTube. He invites his wife, Lilla Sárosdi, on stage to tell us about how stupid she thought this action was (it reminds her of the old communist joke about the bunny who goes to borrow the bear’s lawnmower, who gets so wound-up on the way over to the bear’s house that her first sentence to the bear is: “fuck you, you stupid bear, and fuck your lawnmower too”).

He then strips off all his clothes and stands before us as a “Statue of the Intellectuals”, inviting us to go up and write graffiti about the intellectuals over him. Which, after a short pause a thin tickle of people do, with comments ranging from “Organise. Resist” on his arm and leg, to “It’s not the people who are the problem, it is the Roma” on his arse. (I suspect/hope that this latter comment (and its positioning) was planned, and executed by a plant in the audience, in order to generate precisely the discomfort it did: Hungary’s neo-Nazi party made alarming gains in the last election). By the time an actor-colleague in the audience begins to harangue him, we’ve been looking at this naked, out-of-shape director for a good ten minutes. It’s worth noting that these ten minutes aren’t calculated to make him look good. At all.

Schilling and the actor who has attacked him (Tamás Ördög, AD of Dollardaddy, unexpectedly) exit stage left, and Sárosdi talks to us instead. As she does so, a “cast” materialise and start setting up both band equipment upstage and a sofa and rug in the foreground. One of the wife’s friends is in the audience, and they begin a conversation. The friend comes down to the stage. She’s been living in Berlin, and is working with this band, and she and her partner have got a baby (plastic), which she breastfeeds while sitting on the newly acquired on-stage sofa.

On one level, this could all feel slightly postmodernism by numbers, a bit like every “invention” you’ve ever seen in student theatre. But magically it just doesn’t. I think partly because it’s galvanised by such anger and acuity about the political situation in Hungary. It’s also got female characters witrh demonstrable agency, ideas of their own, and credible, rounded characters. It is also interesting, in the light of what I’ve been saying about feminism this week, that the wife’s friend character (no names in the programme, only the names of the ensemble without the slightest hint as to who’s who) says she feels a tonne more relaxed about her own body in Berlin than she ever did in Hungary. At the same time, you get the sense that there’s no small amount or ironising of these Hungarians who are all too prepared to fuck off to Berlin and abandon their own rotting country. And if it isn’t also the finest deliberate satire of a Thomas Ostermeier staging going (particularly Volksfiend), then Schilling should certainly claim it is deliberate at the earliest possible opportunity.

The female friend is working with an actress for a video for the rock band, and wants her to be naked. “You’re an actress, it’s expected,” she says (rather suggesting I’m not the only person who finds the level of female nudity in Hungarian theatre faintly silly/sinister). The actress (also the daughter/sister from HOME) *REFUSES*! (cue near cheering from me) demands her money, and stalks off. The best friend then suggests that Sárosdi does the nudity instead. She duly strips off and stands naked before us.

Now, if naked actresses are problematic, then describing naked actresses (esp. if one’s a male critic) is a high-speed trainwreck of a proposition. But here I think the character of this specific actress’s particular body is important to how and why it rerad differently. She’s probably between thirty and forty and has a totally normal thirtysomething woman’s body: not skinny, but wide-hipped, etc. (And yes, I do think it is ok to say this – although interested if ppl think it isn’t. It’s disinterested, accurate, won’t come as news to the performer, and not intended nastily at all.) If elsewhere the (usually young) female body has been objectified and sexualised, this feels like the complete reverse: a woman taking complete ownership of her own naked body on stage. It feels much more like a confrontation with the audience, similar to Schilling’s own a few minutes earlier. Here is an actual body, an actual woman, it seems to say.

Sárosdi and her mate who lives in Berlin go through a range of ideas for the video while the band tune up, red wine is poured over the wife’s head, feathers from a pillow are sprinkled over her – sticking to the wine, and causing a passing resemblance to a bloodied, half-plucked chicken. And, crucially, it all feels like it is taking the piss out of a range of things which clearly are ripe for mockery. Indeed, the UK thing it feels most like at this point is that brilliant final scene with the male director in Carrie Cracknell’s Blurred Lines – although, not really knowing much about Hungarian theatre or culture, what precisely is being satirised I don’t know. But even just as a pisstake of a broad mileau, it makes perfect sense.

After wanking off two of the band members (“It’s alright, this is only acting” she brightly informs us) Sárosdi is eventually dressed up in a big spangly red dress and the band break into what sounds like Bauhaus and Portishead having a stab at making a Shirley Bassey Bond theme (which is obviously an *excellent* idea anyway). The stage is filled with smoke, the band are picked out in low blue lighting. And, postmodern or otherwise, it’s pretty bloody good.

From here (and I realise this has gotten a bit blow-by-blow) the piece develops around Schilling’s ongoing refusenik-ness. He seems to have holed up with the naked-refusenik actress, while his wife has been seduced by Evil Capitalist Guy (another one!) and is going to be in movies. Sárosdi and his new girlfriend(?) have a chat and decide that Schilling needs to be given an award to give him back his sense of self-worth, and Evil Capitalist Guy duly delivers one. Schilling is pleased and takes the supermarket carrier bag off his head and they all have a big party.

Essentially, it’s exactly the same ending as Howard Barker’s Scenes From an Execution: the poor-but-integrity-driven artists find it within themselves to compromise their principles and kow tow to the state in order to survive. It’s an incredibly bitter conclusion.

Perhaps – apart from the sheer energy and look of the thing, and what I’m presuming is a very funny pastiche of Berlin theatre – what really impressed me about the piece, what completely rescued it from that horrible school of postmodern banging-head-repeatedly-against the problem, and continual retrenching of position in order to remain ironic and detached, was that a) it seemed to acknowledge those problems of its form, and even undermine those tendencies – to the extent that it could almost be its own *dramatic* version of The Enemy of the People (apt, since that play is also Ibsen’s “Oh, fuck off” play about the initial reception of Ghosts, right?); and b) it wasn’t detached or *not saying anything*. It said a lot, and for all that it deployed irony, it wasn’t so much that school of hipster irony – finding things cute or funny – so much as the just endless understanding of how fucked a situation was being dealt with through every available means.

There is an elephant in the room, re: gender – at least insofar as this *is* still a play which still pretty much puts this male director at the heart of his own piece, playing his own Dr Stockmann, so on one level it’s still very much a “bloke play”, albeit, in this case, a bloke who seems intelligent, passionate, involved, and political in the best possible way. And crucially, the women in it seemed to me to be fully credited with also being intelligent, 3D, complex actors in their own lives. Perhaps there is a degree of egomania involved, but then, theatre is a Quixotic enterprise at the best of times, and in Hungary, particularly outside the state sector, it seems more akin at times to guerilla warfare with an added vow of poverty. So, yes, I think Lúzer is a very fine piece of work indeed. I rather hope it comes over – it could definitely fill the Barbican – at least in terms of sound and fury (signifying plenty) and the resonances between it and the recently seen Ostermeier might give all us Brits pause for thought.

Trailer for (now closed) attempt at crowdfunding on Indiegogo (approx 15% of target achieved, depressingly):

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