“IMITATION OF LIFE”: When the scenography speaks
Kornel Mundruczó, a master film and theatre director and his company Proton Theatre from Budapest, opened the 59th edition of the International Theatre Festival MESS with a performance peculiarly titled “Imitation of Life” on Saturday, September 28th 2019 in Sarajevo. The experience of seeing the performance which skilfully combines spectacularity with reductionism, surely hasn’t left anyone indifferent. At the beginning, the hall of the National Theatre was lit for a long time, too long it seems. I can’t say if it was a technical error, but in any case, it appeared like the perfect introduction to what followed. The stage is seemingly almost empty. There is a video projection on a canvas in front of us: a recording of a conversation with Mrs. Lörinc Ruszó (Lili Monori). The voice of the invisible Mihályjo Sudár (Roland Rába) is heard in the moment, who is trying to identify Mrs. Ruszó on behalf of the real estate company “Liquid” in order to handle the legal matters concerning her eviction. The reason being that bills for her apartment weren’t paid for a long time. The push and pull between Mihályjo Sudár and Mrs. Lörinc Ruszó seems comical and its difficult to attribute them with some depth of character up until the moment when she tells the real reason for her stay in the apartment that she is being evicted from. The performance notes that being a Roma in the Hungarian society is not easy. From ways in which she got the apartment to the consequences of that society’s influence on her son István (Zsombor Jéger), who ran away from home at a young age after his own father called him a ‘gypsy’; is a story which Mrs. Lörinc Ruszó brings up in her nearly half-hour-long monologue that deals with a great injustice that she has to battle against once more. At the moment when she couldn’t say anything more, the video projection canvas is lifted to reveal, out of nowhere, something that is largely avoided in contemporary theatre: a completely naturalist-style stage (Scenography: Márton Ágh). It’s all there, starting from the couch, the kitchen work surface and sink, big windows in the back where the light shines through, the table (or tables), all the way to the appliances, books on the shelf and tiny items that are hard to see if you are sitting far away in the auditorium. The apartment that we only heard about until now, considering how the video frame had shown just the face of Mrs. Lörinc, is appearing in front of us. Mihály Sudár sits with his camera opposite to Mrs. Lörinc Ruszó. As the performance progresses, a line of realistic and witty sights will intertwine with horrific images of an unjust reality. When Mihály Sudár calls for an ambulance for Mrs. Lörinc who had lost consciousness, he is put on an absurd waiting list for a vehicle of 76 minutes, together with a terrifying comment from the operator: “If we helped in cases such as this one (referring to the Roma), Hungarians would perish”. And after Mihály and Mrs. Lörinc, who is now allegedly hospitalized, leave the apartment, the whole scene makes a 360 degree vertical flip in all its massiveness. This turnaround goes on, accompanied with deep dark sounds from the music of Ascher Goldschmidt. Chairs, tables, books, pillows, and all other items fall around unpredictably. Some of them are breaking and producing loud noise. We notice how the naturalist-style scenography is now moved upward, considering how the cupboards are filled with various items that are now falling out and shattering at the floor. We realize that we are witnessing a true imitation of life, a life that is full of small things with no meaning to anyone beside their owners who connect them with stories such as the one heard at the very beginning. Its fascinating, disturbing and terrifying to watch a scene where, under gravity’s influence, a single life, one that we got to meet in the introduction, turns into a pile of rubbish, worthless and unusable junk. I’m not sure if there is any better way of representing injustice of one society toward individuals, but through a literal destruction of their home. After these images of destruction, new tenants arrive to the apartment with their own problems, Veronika Fenyvesi (Annamária Láng) and secretly, also her son (Dáriusz Kozma), who are trying to establish a new life, in the midst of the mess that has been left behind by the previous tenant, while also having to deal with the annoying representative of the company “Liquid”, but also their own private problems, which are not the same as those that the previous tenant had, but are, nevertheless, symbolic of a fight for survival no matter the cost. “Imitation of Life” is proof that Mundruczó doesn’t need an overly complex storyline in order to stage society’s corruption. We can hardly call this performance an unmasking, because the only cover in front, in this case, is a literal fourth wall in the form of a video projection canvas. “Imitation of Life” is not a story about hypocrisy, or latent racism, because it appears that racism in the society wherein these characters are living isn’t even attempted to be hidden, and we are witnesses of how that situation doesn’t differ too much from ours. Mundruczó is obviously indicating that we should be worried, because his performance truly is a reflection of life. And all other elements contribute to that idea. An impressive, reductionist acting of the cast, stripped of theatricality, is closer to film that theatre, and largely resembles everyday life. At the beginning, some lines were not even translated, because they were spoken so irregularly and quietly, and clearly on purpose, that even speakers of Hungarian couldn’t easily comprehend them, and so they are associative of everyday speech and life outside the stage in general. The aforementioned fourth wall has never been brought down, in regard to the aspect of acting, which is completely justified in this performance. Sharing a resemblance with this is also acting with the idea of documentarianism in theatre. Video projections and use of many different media is not a rare occurrence in today’s theatre. The use of video, at least in the beginning of this performance, is correct, multifaceted, practical and functional without doubt. Those who are unaware of actress Lili Monori could think that the conversation we saw is documentary material, an interview with an actual person talking about her life, which wouldn’t be the first nor the last account of this kind of solution in theatre. And such kind of illusory documentarianism is a clear, but also a non-intrusive key to watching the scenes that follow. While all of the acting is performed as realism, the director then reminds us that we are still in a theatre, by granting us access to messages that Mihály exchanges with her colleagues on screens on the sides of the stage, along with music playing and directing our attention to certain symbols by using lights. Thanks to all of that, we have the impression that we are seeing actual people who were shut in a damned dollhouse where they are sentenced to live their lives, no matter the condition of the space that they found themselves in. Is that exemplary of a micro-cosmos? However, this concept which largely succeeds in communicating with the audience, leaving us with a torturous feeling of discomfort and disorientation, also has elements that aren’t functioning completely. One of those elements are all of the video projections that followed after the initial one. The line of action happening outside the stage is also shown through video. Mrs. Lörinc’s visit to her son at the hotel where he lives, among other things, who had changed his name to Szilvester in the meantime, was shown on screens on the sides of the stage, and by projection over a cloud of smoke falling upon the apartment. This is the point where the concept gradually stops corresponding properly. The very need for this scene, especially when staged in this way, remains unclear and confusing. Its true that it brings up many associations and possible interpretations: Are these images a result of the mother’s imagination? Are they a result of the son’s imagination? Has this retrospect view and the memory of an uncomfortable parting, that infinitely hover somewhere above all that has ever happened and that will ever happen in the former home of these people? Although the possibility of alternative interpretation is very welcome in theatre, the clarity of such striking scenes, obviously important to the director should be better. The performance ended with a video projection wherein Szilveszter, whom we have never directly met on stage during the entire performance, returns home only to find a little boy there, its new tenant. Upon discovering that his mother recently passed, and a sight of Szilveszter holding a samurai sword in his hands, a text appears that’s about an actual case that happened in May of 2005 in Budapest. A Roma boy was attacked with a samurai sword and hurt severely. More than 300 protestors gathered in front of courts in Hungary, led by claims that the attack was race-based. The police ultimately found that the attacker was also of a Roma background. In this way, the director attempted to once again point to the reality that his performance imitates, although this trajectory was not all that necessary in order to show how much self hatred, caused by pressure from others, can damage an individual. There is the question of how great the need for characters of Veronika Fenyvesi and her son actually is. This question is largely backed up by the fact that after a single effective sight, such as the turning of the world upside down, it’s hard to do or say anything that would surpass its power and the meaning that it holds.
Written by: Benjamin Konjicija