by Ian Herbert
Quite early in his directorship of London’s National Theatre (known before his arrival as the Royal National Theatre), Nicholas Hytner was asked whether he would be addressing minority interests. He pointed out that being Jewish and gay he was himself a member of two significant minorities. Robert Alfőldi, director of Hungary’s National Theatre in Budapest, has been accused of belonging to the same minorities, but although like Nick he has led his theatre to considerable artistic success, unlike Nick he has had to put up with some vitriolic personal attacks, many of them coming from his political masters. He told me recently that he expects to complete his mandate, which takes him to 2013, but after that his future is far from clear.
The situation for theatre in Hungary is worsening daily. The country’s right wing government is fanatically nationalist, armed with a majority that enables it to make laws that will be almost impossible to reverse in future parliaments. Last month it threatened to cut completely its grants to the country’s independent theatre companies.
The latest scandal in Hungarian theatre comes at a local level. Budapest’s popular New Theatre (Új Színház) went through the usual procedures to appoint its directorate for a new term. A board composed largely of theatre professionals named the current management to continue, but the Mayor of Budapest (with the support of the Hungarian Minister of Culture) used his power of veto to appoint a new team: György Dörner, an actor, was to be artistic director, and the playwright István Csurka his manager. All well and good to choose an actor and a playwright, you might think. But Mr Csurka is well known for his neofascist, anti-semitic views, as leader of an extreme right minority party. Mr Dörner occupies the same ground, as was quickly seen when he published not a programme, but a manifesto for the new management, setting it in opposition to the ‘degenerate liberal sick hegemony’.
New manager Csurka wrote about the theatre’s plans in his own far right newspaper, declaring war on the ‘egotistical, over-confident theatre clan which has ruled for 80-100 years’, a reference to the high percentage of theatres in Budapest that were owned and managed by Jewish Hungarians before the second world war.
Új Színház sits in the centre of Budapest, a stone’s throw from the old ghetto and the restored synagogue, so when Csurka talks about the risks of parking in the area and the need to bring one’s sword to his theatre, he is making barely veiled anti-semitic inuendoes. ‘I will rely first of all on a national-Christian audience, the support of my combatants, and on their renewed attitude for a fight.’ He goes on to say that the repertoire will concentrate on drama which discusses ‘the tragic fate of the Hungarian nation’.
The original intention was to change the theatre’s name to ‘Home Front Theatre’, a gesture towards the present government’s desire to unite all the Hungarian communities no longer within the country’s borders – they have already been offered Hungarian citizenship. This provocative move has now been abandoned, but the new management will continue with its narrow, ultra-nationalist policy. The manifesto says explicitly that it will not be presenting the work of one of the country’s leading playwrights, György Spiró, because he is ‘not a Hungarian writer’. Spiró is Jewish.
The response of Hungary’s artistic community has been vehement. The conductor Adam Fischer told the French newspaper Le Monde, ‘An anti-semitic theatre in the very heart of Budapest, a couple of steps from the Opera, cannot be tolerated.’ While back at the National Theatre, the current hit is Robert Alfőldi’s revival of Martin Sperr’s play Hunting Scenes from Lower Bavaria, set in a poor, remote village in post-war Germany, whose inhabitants hound out and destroy a young man for his homosexuality. Its final scene has the villagers saying, ‘That Hitler, maybe he was right after all,’ as a brass band plays triumphantly.