Where History Has Been Written: the Budapest Katona József Theatre
After the suppressed revolution of 1956, Hungarian cultural politics realized the necessity of allowing a few tiny leaks in an otherwise densely woven web of censorship. One such example was the predecessor of Katona József Theatre, which later became its most-devoted ally: the provincial Kaposvár Theatre, where a young theatremaker named Gábor Zsámbéki was made artistic and managing director (two functions usually filled by the same person in most Hungarian theatres until recently) and where a still younger stage-director, Tamás Ascher, had just begun his career.
As cultural policy became milder in what was called the "gayest barrack" of the Soviet block, these two directors were invited to Budapest in 1978 and after a short intermezzo as the artistic leaders of the National, were allowed to found the Katona József Theatre in 1982 with Gábor Székely (former reformer of the provincial theatre of Szolnok) and Gábor Zsámbéki as artistic and managing directors, and Tamás Ascher, who kept his job in Kaposvár as associate director, and became the third determining mind in the Katona company.
With an address in the heart of the city, the Katona's original venue with a capacity of 380 never had problems filling its seats. And although most theatres claimed full-houses, Katona attracted a different crowd; until the Berlin Wall came down, it was the only theatre in the capital which regularly travelled internationally, claiming major festival awards and rave reviews throughout Europe.
Beyond the outstanding talent of its leaders, this success was due to a truly unique company. International guests are still swept off their feet by the concentration of talent on Katona's three stages (in 1991 a smaller venue with a completely flexible black box space, Kamra, opened and a tiny room was transformed into a third stage called Sufni in 2003). Katona's thorough text-work and character-development - combined with the exceptional knowledge, sharp wit and intense curiosity of Hungary's most gifted directors - creates a refreshingly modern form of theatre. Because they shared a similar critical sense and the same understanding of theatre, local directors strengthened each other rather than feeling suffocated by this close cooperation. "Most of us would agree on which production was a hit and which was a flop or what was valuable, even if the audience did not like it," explains Zsámbéki.
The production that brought the first international breakthrough was Three Sisters directed by Tamás Ascher. The show, which opened in 1985 and ran for nine seasons in a row, was the key theatre experience a generation grew up on. Almost a century old, the passionately performed play seemed to tell about all our heartaches: lost loves, bad compromises and an unquenchable desire for freedom - to say what we want, do as we please and hop on a plane and go wherever we want to, be it Moscow or New York. "I have rarely directed such a perfect play," explains Ascher. "The cast was virtually perfect as well... The reason it could survive all these years is probably that I could always tell the actors something new about their roles."
The other genre this generation of theatre-makers was (and still is) very much at home with is the Absurd. Gábor Zsámbéki chose Jarry's Ubu Roi as one of his first works in 1984 and Gogol's The Government Inspector followed in 1987. While seeing Ascher's Three Sisters today would be a somewhat anachronistic experience, the Absurd seems to lose nothing over time: Hungary was and remains an absurd country. The same actors who played the fine, sophisticated figures in Chekhov (Masha and Vershinyin respectively) were now seen as the fat, disgusting, lazy, yet lustful and power thirsty Mother and Father Ubu, two characters found in every society and every era.
The Berlin Wall has perhaps been the fourth wall in Hungarian theatre. The change of the system had a complicated impact. Freedom meant intellectual and artistic freedom, but it also meant that hidden political truths and reading between the lines became redundant. Therefore what was certainly the most cathartic element of good theatre before the change suddenly lost all meaning. In a way it was the strongest theatres that found themselves in the deepest void.
Like the others, Katona looked for alternative solutions regarding both content and form. Many contemporary Hungarian plays premiered in the newly opened, much more intimate Kamra. A new series called the Writer's Theatre underlined the importance of contemporary authors even more and proved surprisingly popular with the audience. Hamlet, directed by Gábor Zsámbéki was a uniquely successful experiment for a simpler theatre with almost no set, simple costumes and an unusually intimate and very intense acting, where any lack of real presence would be disclosed right away; while Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in the same basic set, was one of first hits of the actor Gábor Máté, who has since become associate director a few year after Gábor Székely left Katona to found a theatre of his own.
Péter Halász, founder of the world-famous Squat Theatre in New York and a key figure of the underground theatre movement of the sixties and early seventies in Budapest until he was forced to leave the country, returned with his Newspaper Theatre - where stories from the papers of the same day were acted out by the company, based on a script written at night and discussed in the morning. The form was certainly new, not to say revolutionary in Hungarian theatre. Halász continued to work at Katona and staged several of his own plays in the coming years.
The youngest director-in-residence at Katona until he recently founded his own company was Viktor Bodó, whose Rattledanddisappeared, a very free and partially musical adaptation of Kafka's Trial with András Vinnai as co-author, has performed internationally from Dublin through Oslo to Belgrade and winning awards at the most important European festivals. Bodó's unique ability to move mountains when making theatre, his charisma, humour and deep understanding of human nature made him an ideal candidate to pump new blood into the veins of the ever-renewing Katona. "The majority of our shows today are much freer, less direct, denser... The never-changing intention to create important productions demands constant renewal." explains Géza Fodor, the recently deceased founding dramaturg and literary manager of the company.
The numerous invitations to leading international festivals are only one aspect of Katona's international life. The theatre has been a member of the prestigious Union of European Theatres with Zsámbéki as its president after the founder Giorgio Strehler's death and hosted two of its festivals in Budapest in 1993 and 2000.
Tamás Ascher's Ivanov, which opened in 2004, has been the other most popular show internationally and through several cast changes, each meaning about a week-long rehearsal with the director, its freshness never seems to wilt, quite on the contrary. It took two years from opening night before Ivanov started its triumphant journey through all of Europe and onwards to Moscow, Sydney and now New Haven and New York. American audiences will experience this extraordinary production at its best: at Katona's best, at Ascher's best and at Ivanov's best.