I had the privilege to spend a long day (13th July, 2013) at the Gyula Shakespeare Festival, Hungary. It was an enchanting day due to three absolutely great programmes I could attend: a mini-conference focusing on Shakespeare’s monologues in general and the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in particular; Steven Berkoff’s solo performance about Shakespeare’s villains; and lastly a Measure for Measure in the Castle Theatre. All these programmes proved to be special in their kind, giving inspiration and food for thought since then.
The most interesting aspect of the mini-conference was what may be called its multidisciplinary approach, as the participant came from a variety of walks of (intellectual) life. The eight people who gave a talk at the conference included an actor, Steven Berkoff, directors, Csaba Kiss, Yuriy Butusov, Emil Boroghina, and from the academia Maria Shevtsova, Ádám Nádasdy, Gabriella Reuss and myself. I am not claiming that there was much communication between the disciplines and approaches, but at least many representatives of the fields of Shakespeare’s reception were together and could listen to each others’ talks and hopefully learned from each other—I learned a lot at least.
After the conference and some rest we could watch Steven Berkoff’s performance, representation and interpretation of Shakespeare’s most notable villains. The list included Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Richard III, Hamlet (yes, Hamlet was also included, for being “a serial killer”). Although the villains were in the thematic focus of the performance, yet through and with them we saw the stage and the screen of Shakespearean performances, great actors with Berkoff’s eyes. Or more precisely the focus was on MAN, and indeed with capital letters: the mediocre, the fallible, the fallen, the happy, the frustrated and jealous MAN, who is there everywhere, over there and in here. It was professional skillfulness, self-indulgence and self-irony that made this performance memorable and enchanting.
The greatest surprise of the day was Measure for Measure by the Vahtangov Theatre, Russia. The performance cannot be unknown to the English audience, as it was staged during the 2012 London Globe World Festival. This very performance at Gyula really made my day, as this production was one of the very few theatrical performances that was composed and directed in an innovative and creative way, where from the large picture to every little movement was worked out and measured with a coffee spoon. The stage was located within the walls of the Castle, which created a special atmosphere for the production. The stage was surrounded by the high solemn brick walls of the Castle. These walls towering above the stage created the atmosphere of a suffocating area, a prison from where there is no escape. Or if there was some room for escape that was only upwards, as the stage was not roofed, which circumstance made Isabella’s prayers all the more powerful, credible and even moving.
I found the repetitions and doubling fantastic, when complete scenes were repeated during the performance. The most powerful repetitions were those of the opening and closing scenes where the same characters and the same litter filled the stage including the Duke’s immovable eternity, Mistress Overdone’s eroticism, the chaos of the Viennese people, the painful loneliness of the characters with the exception of Claudio and Juliet who represented through their dance some unity and harmony. Also the seduction scenes imitated each other with the long row of tables to separate Isabella and Angelo for the first time and Isabella and the Duke for the second. The initial separation was in both cases overcome by the aggression of chasing and catching and pinning Isabella to a table. Doubling was also really thought-provoking.
Besides the general features of the performance I was also enchanted by the skill and refinement of the actors, especially those of Evgeniya Kregzde (Isabella) and Sergey Epishev (Duke/Angelo). Evgeniya Kregzde’s Isabella was the most innocent, incredibly unhappy Isabella I have ever seen. In this production the question was not whether she is to be raped or not, but here the rape was an unavoidable fact, the question was rather who would rape her, when and where and how many times. Under these painful circumstances Kregzde could remain innocent with her adolescent eagerness to find her place in Vienna, looking for and accepting love. Especially her scene with her brother in the prison was most natural, the playful chasing of each other, the long brotherly embraces made us believe that they were really a loving brother and sister. Her small teenage stature was played upon really thoughtfully when during her first encounter with Angelo she was blown by the provost and Lucio, and she was running up and down like a feather, a butterfly energized and influenced by the male characters. Even here, she could avoid being seen as a lightweight woman, a butterfly of the night, the frail woman, but remained with her dance-like tiptoeing back and forth a woman who was both reluctant and eager to plead, who intends to remain herself even under the pressure of the unwelcoming circumstances. Kregzhde could represent through her refined and thought-over acting style the mystery of a woman, the irresistible attraction that does not emanate from hot eroticism but from charismatic innocence.
In her presence both Angelo and the Duke lost control, which was acted out with utmost precision by Sergey Epishev. What Epishev’s acting pointed out was that Angelo and the Duke were both dangerous men, dangerous but in different ways. Angelo seemed to be dangerous because of his repressed frustration that surfaced in his mania for order in the smallest details. This display of repression appeared when meeting Isabella, in his uncontrollable shaking which turned into an iconic long and mute shriek that he kept until he staggered backwards throughout the whole stage. The danger in his Duke was rather the danger of the cunning, indifferent man of power for example when dressed as a monk, he played with heads as if they did not belong to living human beings, when he did nothing in the midst of chaos, aggression and filth of his dukedom, when he arranged the tables in the same way as Angelo had done and chased Isabella and nailed her down like Angelo. Epishev with his superb skills brought out form his characters what was the most frightening in them with incredible subtlety.
So if I say I was enchanted that very day in Gyula, there is not much exaggeration in this. The conference, the two performances opened worlds to me that I still fight to digest. And for this enchantment I owe many thanks to the Gyula Shakespeare Festival, the conference speakers, the actors and directors of the performances and ultimate organizer of the Festival, József Gedeon. So, I can hardly wait for the enchantment that is to come next year! Are you going to join me?