“Now I Need the Epic Spaciousness of Time”
– In the previous season you have staged “the great narratives” of narrative epic with both plays you directed. Besides Don Quijote (Don Quixote) and Szinbád (Sinbad) by Krúdy, Psyche by Weöres may be listed here, which – in similar fashion to the previous two encompasses a historic age and may be read as a story about fate or a novel. But even in the National Theatre’s repertoire there are more and more theatrical adaptations of novels and short stories (see the Szeszélyes nyár / Summer of Caprice/ by Vančura production, and 6 / Ward No 6/ by Chekhov which is also a production based on a reading experience). How would you explain this? How can the theatre benefit from the productions of such great works which also require quite a lot of intellectual investment?
Theatres are continuously looking for texts and topics, the hic et nunc relevant ways for expression. And probably this is the main reason why we turn to these great literary achievements because these days there are not many really significant new texts. Contemporary authors do not address theatre audiences in either a very shallow, lurid way or by contriving intellectual acrobatic stunts, they do not really reach the directors’ hearts. Meanwhile there are some miracle-works, which force a man to express himself, his environment, his feelings about life through them. There are no consciously thought-out, simple concepts through which these epic works attract attention, but they demand to be performed by their own power.
– This summer I started to read five or six contemporary pieces but I soon gave up dealing with them. As they either have a superficial, didactic pathos with a negative slant or they may try to affect people in a humorously sly way as if they were intellectual plays of some kind. There is no strong impulse, genuine, profound passion, there are only boring and repetitive clichés. At the same time when one gets engrossed in these great works they may give the impression that they have managed to deal with a mystery and find the essence of it. It is extremely hard to cope with them, now I am facing this challenge when staging Crime and Punishment in St Petersburg. Nonetheless, such works may offer so much that even if the end-product is different they still remain much more exciting. And I hope that they are more exciting for a certain part of the audience as well than if I staged a well-done and popular or humorous contemporary play.
– Is it possible to relate to the great classics as contemporary, as it was suggested by the slogan of MITEM (“the great classic writers are our contemporaries”) this year?
Certainly. Actually I will never understand how it can be an issue if a work may become contemporary or up-to-date. For instance Dostoevsky will always remain a contemporary author and so does Cervantes in a certain sense.
– Our theatre is still held responsible for how these productions may contribute to our every day lives.
They actually add to our lives what is most essential. And here is the misunderstanding, or to be more precise the idiotic idea of some leading voices in the profession that making a contribution to our every day lives means lowering the standard of expression to the level of the daily media. I am not in favour of this kind of “up-to-date” theatre and have no intention of directing it.
– Can the information explosion in our world be the reason why the contemporary authors have lost their sense of direction and as a result they feel that the old style of writing is not suitable for this new world? And also, do they just feel that the great classics are just too slow for the current pace of life?
But Shakespeare does keep up with the pace of life today. This is indeed the paradox. And it thrills newer and newer generations.
– Is the reason for this that in his plays there is always an absolute protagonist, especially in the great plays about kings who may always seize young creators’ imagination, as it has happened with the new Richárd III, which was staged this year.
But the younger generation also dust off Chekhov plays again and again while they do not centre around one hero. What can be the reason? Because they may say something about human beings and the human soul that is still relevant. Something that is permanent, that will not change. In spite of the information explosion reading through a novel by Dostoevsky is still gripping today. Because his sentences are still valid. There is no part about which I would say that although it is well-written, it sounds old-fashioned. All of his sentences are so up to date. But I feel the same about A krokodilus (The Crocodile), which I did not know before, it will be staged as a production by Fokin at the National Theatre in the autumn. This short story is also very fresh and crisp.
– At the beginning of this conversation you have mentioned that it is extremely challenging to stage these epic works. They require a completely different background and set of artistic skills on both the directors’ and the actors’ parts.
Time proceeds in a completely different way in a novel than it does on stage. I had a cathartic experience when I was directing Don Quixote. What I had to realise was that one is looking for the truth of a situation the same way as Cervantes did and narrated, then on stage it becomes dead and simply will not work. It is a fascinating thing because on the other hand Dostoevsky’s dialogues still function the same way as he wrote them. If someone figures out how to address something, if their analysis manages to reach the heart of the situation, then the text works almost unchanged on stage. However, I would not say the same in connection with Krúdy’s or Cervantes’ works. But the question of time – the difference between stage time and novel time – is also an issue with Dostoevsky. This Raskolnikov-novel with its six or seven hundred pages, until one has worked through all of its subplots, and reaches the climax confronting the protagonist is a huge adventure, volume is needed for it. Now I am preparing a six-hour adaptation in St Petersburg. Even in the very first minute it was questionable if I should deal with the novel as a whole or would rather need to focus on a “flash” giving a perspective to the whole story. At the beginning of the rehearsals it was very difficult for me to make up my mind. But eventually I decided that then I needed the whole story. It is also possible that some time somewhere a fifty-minute performance will be staged too. But now I need the epic spaciousness of time. For a long time I used to resist the temptation to tell classic stories on stage. But now I need Raskolnikov’s full perspective, everything that he has lived through.
– The question is if in a repertoire-theatre there is enough time for the actors’ to study the basic literary works to be staged in due depth.
Of course, there is not, never has been. The rehearsal process is not long enough, either. It is quite understandable that Stanislavsky only let the critics see the show after the tenth or thirteenth performances. Any audience may come, but he requested, that critical comments may only be made on the play after a certain number of performances. In the adaptation of Isten ostora (The Flagellum Dei) when László Mátray as Attila acted in Kazan during a guest performance he did it completely differently than on the debut of the play a year before. Therefore even a certain number of performances is required – on condition that the whole production has a good grounding-so that it could be as effective as possible. Should there be any problems with editing, as when Sinbad was staged, one is forced to change: I would like to make changes in this production and would shift it to January next year to a smaller stage. Because when an actor is on a larger stage he is inhibited from proper realisation of the role. – To reach this point in fact a much longer rehearsal period is needed. Now in St Petersburg we have been allotted nine weeks for the rehearsals, which sounds like a lot compared with the six weeks we normally have in Hungary. But for the Russians even this nine-week period sounds unusually short. Time is never enough, yet, three, four, five performances are needed for a production to wing its way.
– The Weöres production directed by you was exceptional as the cast had almost a year to come to terms with it. Furthermore, for your students it was a learning opportunity at the same time.
But it does not compare with my other current directions for this reason either. Previously we had been working for a long period of time on productions like the Szarvassá változott fiú (The Boy Changed into a Stag) or A három nővér (The Three Sisters). The one year we spent on Psyche with the company was primarily about making the actors feel the poem. Make them feel that in a story inspired by a poet requires a different sort of existence on stage, walking and breathing are also different. My students managed to understand this more or less, some did better than others. However, it was not the preparation of the production itself that lasted for a year, but the education of the cast. The production was staged within a relatively short time, as it had been prepared very well.
– It is a completely different case when independent poems are recited in a performance as parts of a story than when the actors are playing in a poetic drama.
But for instance Chekov requires a different kind of thinking. Different etudes are needed. – My students started to work on Psyche at the very beginning as if it were a Gorky or Ibsen play. And it did not result in any good. This is a completely different system that many people do not understand. I often experience crazy unprofessionalism in this respect when critics attempt to criticise what is on stage from the point of view of a different system. This is a disaster. I also had to reset my students’ brains which took me many months by the time I began to feel that well, this is an etude, the kind of music, the sort of voicing of the different lines that brings the essence of the work to the surface. I lived through this to a certain extent when directing The Boy Changing into a Stag too in Beregovo. The first rehearsal in 1998 (?) ended up with a failure: we had been rehearsing for four months when I admitted that it was not worth continuing. I only resumed the whole thing five years later and then the production was staged.
– In my view this workshop activity helped you develop your language in directing whose codes you would like to share with your students. But my question is how in the past three years the current troupe of the National Theatre has been able to identify with your idea that it is not the individual actors but rather the company as a whole that is actually able to create a valuable art theatre.
This is very difficult. And in ninety per cent of cases one tends to give it up and just gives instructions. So Don Quixote is not the end-product of a great common brainstorming, and this is why I am missing something from the production. While in this case I tried to work in a different way for the first time. Do not misunderstand me, during the direction of The Flagellum Dei I also gave instructions. I did not even ask the actors to think together with me. What I enjoyed is that my actors had confidence in me. By the end of the play they understood the intention behind these instructions. In case of Don Quixote there was a different situation: I spent a month on making them work together. But in vain.
– But what is the reason for this? Is it the same as the attitude taken by the critics?
Yes, indeed. Different education as well as the repertoire-theatre context, which turns the theatre into a factory. In such a situation one keeps looking for points to break free. Some actors are still willing to embark on some adventure with you, however, the majority has been educated to serve this factory. Anyhow, I truly believe that even within this factory existence there are still situations in which we can rise above this industrial production process.
– In an interview at the beginning of the nineties Vasilyev is talking about Hungarian theatres having no educational background, which astonishes him as in spite of this fact he has met actors with significant achievements.
The origin of this is in our character. Hungarians are great material to become actors. But it is very difficult to put it in words how it is related to education.
– Obviously Vasilyev takes his own Russian point of view. Today you are staging Dostoevsky in Russia, which offers an opportunity for comparison of actors’ mentality. In the background of the Russian school there is a century of avant-garde experiments and theory. I assume that a Russian actor finds it easier to have brainstorming sessions with a director.
In spite of all revolutions in the theatre Russian actors’ education is still based on the Stanislavsky method. Up to the present they still start with the situation and insist on looking for it. It is not the script that arranges the stage but the situation, a conflict. This is fundamentally different from what we have in Hungary where the script organizes the space and everything is built on the text. This is typical of at least the majority of theatres, besides, there has been a great number of changes in the past fifteen years. Russian actors focus on the situation, while always looking for a real situation. This difference is very exciting. While Hungarian actors continuously turn to the audience, and it is very difficult to make them act like partners, it is rather the opposite with the Russians: I can hardly get them to face the audience as they constantly focus on their partners, I have to direct them to turn to the audience sometimes. Russian actors always want to stick to a real situation in the theatrical space.
– According to this the Hungarian theatre has not even got as far as the acquisition of the Stanislavsky-method?
Yes, indeed, it is exactly what I realized some ten-fifteen years ago. Because according to Stanislavsky it is made clear who wants what and why and how they want to take part in a certain situation before actually dealing with the script. This is followed by the etudes and only then comes the text. Hungarian actors may not be independent of the script until they have memorized it; they are unable to break away from it. Only then can they focus on interpreting which of course may take them to the true message of the situation. But this is a different style of direction. I either start with the script and look for the situation, or the other way round, and then I say: here is a set of ideas, a conflict, and it may culminate in such and such contexts.
– But besides the Stanislavsky school the Russian theatre may be characterised by brave experiments with forms. And I suppose that Russian actors are rather more familiar with these than their Hungarian counterparts.
Even in Russia the majority of theatres are conservative, classical, traditional and narrative theatres. But it is indubitable that Russian actors are more familiar with several more traditions and styles. Now I am working in a theatre that is “the theatre” in Russia. It is fairly well-balanced with no extremes. In the 2016 jubilee production of Carnival, Fokin tried to present what the traditional Russian theatre is like, and how this theatre relates to reformist trends. This is the main reason why I would like to bring this special performance to Hungary to enable our audience to see it. The Russian theatre is amazingly rich, one can witness the greatest variety of extreme effects in it. There are even some absurd workshops which dare from time to time to explode walls. There are some extremely talented actors at the Aleksandrinski Theatre who represent the classic Russian theatre. I just need to mobilize and activate them somehow. Some of them are more open-minded, some others are less. I would like to tune them into what my ideas are like about the production with the costumes, too. Raskolnikov’s mother, Puhleriya Pavlovna has a 19th century costume. With the actor’s play I would like to communicate how we can reach the current scenes. For instance Svidrigajlov is a modern person to the core. The way he works in this performance represents modern theatre for me. For instance his performance is similar to how Zsolt Trill acted in Ancestors: his gestures, words, movements and the music together were making an impact on the audience. In my concept Raskolnikov holds together the actors and the different styles like an axis.
– Perhaps the most extraordinary production of MITEM this year was also staged by the Aleksandrinsky Theatre: The Raven by Gozzi was directed by Nikolay Roshchin and in this performance he showed off the whole spectrum of Russian avant-garde theatre. When we were composing the relevant paragraph about this in our report about MITEM we were watching the film about the adaptation of the play in St Petersburg, too. Based on the elemental reactions of the audience my impression was that this theatre addresses not only the so-called “elite” theatre but also functions as a true peoples’ theatre.
The audience in St Petersburg is believed to be more reserved and conservative than in Moscow. Besides this the reception of the production was really very good. The theatre managements there welcome young and experienced directors with their own styles and working methods. This is how Roshchin ended up in this classic world of theatres, as well as Andrey Moguchy in former times, which shows Fokin’s greatness as a director. He is open to new approaches while he navigates the ship of the theatre with a firm hand.
– The situation in Hungary is not so rosy at all. The reform trends at the National Theatre are received in a hostile way mostly by even theatre professionals as this is proved by debates at this year’s POSzT. On the other hand, what you said at the end-of-the-season meeting is that the audience is getting accustomed to this new style. Where are we in reality in this respect?
I have already given up trying to convince the professionals or the critics. My interest is that the number of our theatregoers should increase year to year. So that there will be more of those who comprehend and appreciate authors like Doiashvili or Purcărete, and the kind of theatrical language which is represented in the repertoire of the National Theatre by the most outstanding foreign directors. But our most important objective is to work out our very own Hungarian theatrical language.
– Obviously the pre-requisite of this is that the company should feel responsible for this programme.
It is mainly the younger generation who can identify with this. There are two such graduating classes in Kaposvár (Translator’s note: it is the capital of Somogy County in South-West Hungary, famous for its theatre), which were educated in this new way. Péter Uray and I certainly have a good ten to twelve students who may be suitable. I have been waiting for a new radical generation for a decade; and now there are some actors in their late twenties and early thirties who are worth paying attention to. I would be very pleased if the National Theatre were in the forefront of discovering their talent. My pupils are very gifted, in three or four years they have got used to this new language, they feel more comfortable using it.
– Their educational system also contributes to their approaches as during their training they gather more experience on stage and with various styles of direction. But in connection with this let me bring up one more topic. The novelty of this year’s MITEM was the opening up towards oriental theatrical traditions. Productions from those cultures led to a reinterpretation of the relationship between tradition and modernity. What impact may this broader horizon make on this Europe-centered theatrical approach? How may this openness to world theatre affect the next MITEM?
This kind of admiration of oriental theatres could already be witnessed fifty or sixty years ago and it revolutionized the European theatre. There is a good reason why we like Eugenio Barba and connect to what his generation achieved by finding out more about different cultures. This is actually MITEM’s mission to have the Hungarian audience acquainted with productions brought from distant corners of the world that have never been staged in Budapest before. But it is not only about guest appearances but we would also like to encourage closer co-operation: besides Barba we are having talks over a co-production with the world-famous director Tadashi Suzuki. I would be delighted if this unfamiliar oriental theatre were always present in our theatre. But this would not mean at all that we should give up the expressions and traditions of our own theatre. MITEM’s mission implies not only the facilitation of familiarisation with different cultures but also the presentation of the most excellent achievements in Europe, which may make an impact on the creators of theatre, primarily on the mindsets of the young.
Interview by Zsolt Szász, published in Szcenárium, September 2016
Translated by Anikó Kocsis
 III Richard by Shakespeare was staged on 13 July 2016 in the event of the Shakespeare Festival in Gyula (Director: Attila Vidnyánszky Junior, Title hero: Zsolt Trill).
 The Alexandrinsky Theatre established in 1756 was the first professional Russian language theatre. It has been in this current building since 1832. The new wing opened in 2013 was inaugurated with Attila Vidnyánszky’s production based on Crime and Punishment.
 About the production see Ágnes Kereszty: Morbid történetek – 21 századi köntösben (Morbid Stories – in 21st Century Disguise), Szcenárium, 80–89, May 2016
 Ágnes Pálfi – Zsolt Szász: Ez egy valóságos színházavató volt! Gyorsjelentés a harmadik MITEM-ről (It Has Been a Real Inauguration of Theatre. A Flash Report on MITEM III, 41–60, May 2016 Szcenárium
(18 March 2023)