This weekend I was in Debrecen, the second-largest city in Hungary. I was visiting a theatre festival and the annual congress for the International Amateur Theatre Association for which I am the British chair.
The city has a brand-new large theatre, built with European funding, seating 350 people, and a smaller studio space. I saw plays from the Netherlands, Slovakia, Lithuania, and Poland.
The first play was a very funny one about a girl who sat on a bed-like structure at the back of the stage. We realised it was her nest and she didn’t want to leave it. The cast used song, dance, and playfulness to try and persuade her down to live a newer more interesting life. In the end, they succeeded, and they all moved on. It was a charming piece. Two Polish girls, presumably sisters in the story, had a love-hate relationship and there were moments of intense closeness but also great battles and a lot of use of chasing, drawing on a blackboard, then on the floor, they marked out their territory, rubbed it out and fought each other until their black clothes were covered in chalk.
The Slovaks presented a piece that was very challenging. We met a bunch of weird characters, one-offs who interacted or not with the audience. One was uncontrollably drunk and was hilariously moving around chairs, trying to maintain some dignity later coming back trying not to be sick They were strange characters maybe outcasts, maybe affected by war but it was hard to make sense of it because there was no connecting story. I think that’s what they wanted. It ended with an elderly man being gently cared for presumably by his daughter. Watching how she kept him warm, even giving him her coat was very moving.
The last piece I saw was performed by university students. Sorry to say I didn’t much like it. It looked beautiful with black and white filmed projections at the back, hazy white light, dramatic background music, and a few props like a table and chairs. There were three women in long black dresses who moved the action around commenting on what they saw and at the centre a young man returning to his love after the war. But it was so portentous and overwrought. Every move, even of a chair, was done with a deeply serious meaning. It had no life in it for me and it felt very precious and full of itself.
But I think that’s the fun of theatre, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose but you always take away something about this funny old world we live in.