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Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing, directed by Csaba Horváth. Forte Company in Szkéné Theatre, Budapest. Photo: Csaba Mészáros
Volume 3

Irish Colonial History on the Hungarian Stage

The English playwright Helen Edmundson’s play, The Clearing (1993), is set in County Kildare, Ireland, during the years 1652-1655, the period when the triumphant Cromwell launched a massive campaign of retaliation against Irish Catholics and also those Protestant settlers who had supported the deposed king and fought in the royalist army. Cromwell’s soldiers needed payment and were promised to be given land in Ireland. According to the imperial plan, Irish people were forced to give up their property, leave their homes, and retreat to the infertile and unhealthy areas of Connaught. Those unwilling to move were sent to faraway colonies or were hanged for the crime of “not transplanting.” “To Hell or Connaught!” was the menacing decree of Cromwell’s representatives in Ireland. Edmundson’s play begins with the birth of a child to a Protestant landowner and his native Irish Catholic wife, passionately in love with each other and ready to accept difference in the other. Both have friends in their own respective communities and hope to live an undisturbed life based on mutual trust and tolerance. However, the story of Edmundson’s play demonstrates the impossibility of a mixed marriage to survive in the troubled historical circumstances. Robert Preston, the husband, is pressed by the English Governor Sir Charles Sturman to support Cromwell’s rule with money and occasional hospitality. Soon Robert finds himself wedged between loyalties when Killaine, his wife Madeleine’s beloved, sister-like friend and companion, is caught by the English soldiers and Madeleine wants him to go to Sturman with her and plead for the girl’s release. The husband does not dare to face the consequences of such a step, while the wife risks everything, including their family’s peace to free her own. Madeleine becomes emotionally alienated from her husband, who, in order to save at least himself and their son from transplantation, betrays Madeleine leaving her out when appealing for pardon to the authorities. Before his return home and the arrival of the soldiers to capture her, Madeleine manages to escape with their son to join the Irish resistance group, the Tories. Among them she has an old friend, Pierce. Deprived of family and peace of mind, Robert chooses to serve the English government in Ireland. He tries to find his wife and son, but only in the closing scene does he eventually meet her. They stand on a clearing and all he gets from his wife is a map showing where their little boy is buried. Their love has given way to hatred, and behind them two armies appear ready to confront each other. The ruin of the marriage is a metaphor of “how the world divides,” as muses Susaneh, the wife of Robert’s royalist Protestant neighbor, Solomon Winter.

The play, directed by Lynne Parker at Bush Theatre, London, won many awards after its premiere in 1993. Since then it has been produced a number of times, also in Israel and in the USA and Israel, where Robert’s dilemma and split-personality were compared to the moral issues explored in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The Irish premiere (directed by Patricia Kessler) took place in Derry in the Fall of 2013. Lisa Fitzpatrick has written about this performance in Irish Theatre Magazine (http://www.irishtheatremagazine.ie/Reviews/ Current/ The-Clearing):

It is interesting that the play should be chosen for production in Derry, where it seems to speak to the post-conflict situation: firstly in the dialogues between the Governor and Solomon Winter, the former frozen in hatred and the latter willing to move forward in mutual respect—and secondly in the depictions of the family torn apart by circumstances and a conflict it cannot control. But in the lines spoken by the Governor, it resonates far beyond the local context, to raise the spectres of ethnic cleansing, massive expulsion of populations, and this century’s ‘War on Terror.’

Just months after the Derry premiere, the play was staged again in Ireland, in June 2014, by the Lír, National Academy of Dramatic Art. Undeniably, it is an emotionally charged drama, reaching poetic heights at certain points, and capable of making a strong impact on the audience by exposing situations and methods of brutal dehumanization. However, for some readers/spectators the portrayal of the conflict between the British and the Irish and its crushing of individual lives may seem too obviously polarized, without a wider range of shades to make the characterization more varied psychologically. The Clearing is composed in a realistic style of mostly short, pointed scenes that unfold chronologically. Today’s spectator, especially if bearing in mind the experimental “In-Yer-Face Theatre” of the 1990s, which was body-centered and experiential, might find Edmundson’s dramaturgy from the same decade too conventional.

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Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing, directed by Csaba Horváth. Forte Company in Szkéné Theatre, Budapest. Bernadett Ostorházi, Norbert Nagy, Andrássy Máté. Photo: Zsolt Puskel

In Hungary, the play was first performed by Csokonai Theatre in Debrecen in 1997, when the decades of communist rule involving severe constraints on individual freedom were still vivid in even younger people’s memory. The production remained true to the text and to express the dispossession and suffering of the prosecuted Irish, it established a ballad-like, moving tone. After a moderately enthusiastic reception, there was silence about the play in the Hungarian theatre world until early 2014, when the Forte Company in Szkéné Theatre, Budapest, ventured to stage it using a newly commissioned Hungarian translation by László Upor. Directed by Csaba Horváth, the premiere took place on March 1, and has had a hugely successful run. The members of the company are mostly young actors, some of them students of acting, ambitious to create a radically new theatrical work. The Clearing, deeply rooted in history, raised questions for the company about how to bring the Irish-British conflict and the resulting personal tragedies, so distant in time and place, close to Hungarian spectators today. The script has few stage directions, which seems to have inspired a great amount of initiative to realize a production providing the audience with a powerful, visually elaborate, visceral experience of the divisive and destructive effects of the brutality of colonial rule.

For the Forte production, Csaba Antal designed a non-realistic and stylized set. All action takes place in one space, which has none of the everyday, static pieces of furniture mentioned in the play’s text, directing attention to movement and change, external as well as internal. A big pile of white sacks fill the right side of the stage representing Robert Preston’s (Máté Andrássy) manor house. In the first scenes of the performance, the pile proves to be massive and stable, like the strength of the couple’s bond, respect for each other, and for their mutually accepted relationships. As the play progresses, the pile begins to disintegrate, paralleling the increasing threats to the Prestons’ and Irish people’s security. The characters move the sacks about, rearrange and scatter them on the ground and tear more and more of them open. What falls out of the sacks is sand-like peat, gradually covering most of the stage. It grows symbolic of the Irish land, over which a fierce and also tragically uneven fight is going on, ruthless and brutal on the part of the colonizers and desperate on the part of the dispossessed. Peat gradually covers all characters indicating their diverse involvements in the conflict. For instance, when Solomon, Robert’s Protestant neighbor (Márton Pallag) receives a transplantation order, the official (László Fehér) throws a lot of peat on his head, emphasizing the absurdity of Solomon’s subordination to the authorities for owning a well-cultivated piece of land. Once his appeal against the decree of transplanting to Connaught is rejected, Solomon becomes seriously ill and lies half buried in peat. Also, the material smeared on the faces of the characters makes them look dirty, thus they all seem to bear the mark of living at the time of such troubles when remaining clean and unaffected is impossible.

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Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing, directed by Csaba Horváth. Forte Company in Szkéné Theatre, Budapest. László Fehér, Márton Pallag. Photo: Csaba Mészáros

To evoke the appropriate atmosphere, the stage is dark and shrouded in mist, with traditional Irish music playing live on different instruments for most of the action (music is by Csaba Ökrös). A significant part of the set comprises a number of life-size wolf figures made of black rubber, which stand around separately or in a group, lying about or forming a line and the characters watch, touch, grab, pull or jump over them. The script makes references to the dangerous presence of wolves in the woods from where their howling is heard. Historian and novelist Peter Berresford Ellis writes in his “Historical Note” to the play’s text: “English soldiers were paid Ł5 for either the head of a wolf (then regarded as one of the great pests in Ireland) or the head of an Irish ‘rebel’” (vi). For Cromwell’s colonial servants, the “wild” Irish became equal with wolves that are hopelessly untameable and should be eradicated. On the one hand, the silent presence of the wolf figures in the Forte production suggests that it is not them but the colonist power that creates the real threat to this land, being more beast-like than the animals. The ubiquitous rubber wolves, on the other hand, also serve to embody the native Irish people and the characters’ changing attitudes and loyalties are visualized by their treatment of and spatial relation to the wolf figures. For instance, to demonstrate his power, Governor Sturman (Csaba Krisztik) lifts and throws a wolf to the ground when Robert and Solomon first visit him to ask about Cromwell’s plans. Similarly, we see Robert standing on a lying wolf figure after Madeleine (Bernadett Ostorházi) is back from Sturman, where she went (without the consent of her husband) to plead for the release of her sister-like Irish friend, Killaine (Nóra Földeáki). This way Robert stresses that Madeleine’s excessive love for Killaine only drives the family into danger: she should rather obey his orders to save them from Sturman’s anger and his impending decision about their transplantation.

Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing, directed by Csaba Horváth. Forte Company in Szkéné Theatre, Budapest.  Csaba Krisztik. Photo: Zsolt Puskel

Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing, directed by Csaba Horváth. Forte Company in Szkéné Theatre, Budapest. Csaba Krisztik. Photo: Zsolt Puskel

The costumes the characters wear (designed by Mari Benedek) are made of a kind of shiny, artificial leather, cut in a mode only vaguely reminiscent of mid-17th century fashion. Rather, they emphasize timelessness. To highlight the contrast between the antagonistic sides, two colors are dominant in the production: red and black. The native Irish Catholic characters and the Protestants who have been living in Ireland for some time, such as Robert, Solomon and his wife, Susaneh (Izabella Zarnóczai) are dressed in black, the color of loss and mourning. Cromwell’s men, on the other hand, wear red clothes, the color of blind rage against the disobedient and of blood, spilled or chilled in the name of colonial rule. With the progress of action, the characters tend to appear half naked, laying bare their real selves amidst the increasing violence and chaos. The soldier (László Fehér) who captures Killaine is naked to the waist, exposing his beastly ruthlessness. In the case of Madeleine and Killaine, nakedness reinforces the vulnerability and humiliation of the Irish, with the one emotionally, the other also physically wounded as well as raped when put on the ship to sail for the West Indies full of uprooted Irish people on board. Ireland under Cromwell is no country for innocent children. Therefore the baby son of the Prestons is played by a half-naked adult actor (Norbert Nagy).

Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing, directed by Csaba Horváth. Forte Company in Szkéné Theatre, Budapest.   József Kádas, Nóra Földeáki. Photo:Zsolt Puskel

Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing, directed by Csaba Horváth. Forte Company in Szkéné Theatre, Budapest. József Kádas, Nóra Földeáki. Photo:Zsolt Puskel

The emphasis on the physical and the body is the most important and the most conspicuous feature of the Forte production of The Clearing. Interludes of singing and dance enhance the expression of Irish communal bond and the rise of strong patriotic feelings. While closely following the text, the production re-interprets the story by deploying physical and gestural skills. Simon Murray and John Keefe’s Physical Theatres: a Critical Introduction makes a distinction between devised physical theatre and the strategy of bringing “visual and kinaesthetic scrutiny to text-based theatre” (4). Clearly, the Forte production belongs to the latter group, creating a very strong sense of the physical. The actors’ movements and gestures are often unusual, unexpected, grotesque and exaggerated, visualizing how the characters live and experience their British or Irish ambitions, allegiances, identity conflicts and divided loyalties. Madeleine and Killaine’s heart-rending farewell on the deck of the ship soon to leave dragging its Irish captives far away from their homeland is followed by a surreal scene: Killaine does not go back to the underbelly of the ship but jumps into the arms of Pierce (József Kádas), and they begin dancing. Their movements reveal Madeleine’s innermost feelings about belonging together and the need to keep up hope and resistance among the dispossessed Irish in spite of all hardships and suffering.

Edmundson’s play, claims Hungarian critic Csilla Bertha, in an essay in Irelands in the Asia-Pacific (168), is marked by “moral simplicity” in a “somewhat too black-and-white world,” not free from recycling stereotypes. Importantly, in the Forte production the characters are not merely represented by the actors as in conventional productions, but embody them with a great amount of physicality rendering greater depths of their inner world and imagination through movement, mime, and gestures. The staging of the tyrannical Govern0r, Sturman, is particularly interesting in this respect. On his first appearance, he is described by the author as “a slight man, full of thinly disguised anxiety” (20). The Hungarian actor playing him is short and slim. Throughout, his eagerness to combat his anxiety by demonstrating superiority and triumph over the enemy finds expression through a body language which not only complements his words but its very physicality carries additional meanings. The text itself suggests that in earlier life he must have experienced considerable frustration in his emotional and sexual life. In his first talk with Robert, his cherished memories and unrealized dreams collapse with his intensely felt anti-Irishness:

STURMAN: (…) there is a great deal of my heart in this work. You sat beside me at dinner once. … There was a lady in a lace dress. She sang, I turned the pages of the music.

ROBERT: I think I remember that.

STURMAN: (…) I remember it as I remember dreams. … There is a plan for Ireland, and not before time. Ireland is a whore. And whores cannot be trusted. She’ll take the weight of any man, Spain, Holland, France, as long as he can pay for her. (24)

Characteristically, Sturman here anticipates the colonialist feminization of Ireland in the most degrading terms. Jumping from one theme to the other, his words yet also create a link between past frustration and the eagerness to carry out the brutal plan presented in sexualized language. This aspect of the psychological make-up of the character is given more emphasis by means of physical movements, modifying his portrayal as a stereotypical villain. In the Forte production Sturman appears as a damaged and lonely man turned cruel and ruthless. Madeleine’s unexpected visit interrupts his privately performed erotic act, apparently charged with sexual phantasies about Ireland as a whore. He is sitting backward on a rubber wolf grabbing its long tail, growling like the animal, so that the wolf, representing the Irish people, functions as a fetishized object that can be both used and abused to articulate or satisfy his repressed desires.

Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing, directed by Csaba Horváth. Forte Company in Szkéné Theatre, Budapest.  Csaba Krisztik. Photo: Csaba Mészáros

Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing, directed by Csaba Horváth. Forte Company in Szkéné Theatre, Budapest. Csaba Krisztik. Photo: Csaba Mészáros

Such scenes grounded in the physical and non-verbal forms of expression constituted the core of The Forte production. That approach also allowed for a more complex and nuanced presentation of Robert who is usually treated as a weak and cowardly character. In Budapest, the critical scene of the performance with Robert in Sturman’s office after Madeleine’s intrusion shows him verbally beaten (the scene is full of screaming), humiliated, and abused. When at home, in the following scene, his very disturbed psychological state justifies his need for his wife’s help. She shows some understanding on the verbal level, but he meets with a chill rejection of any attempt at reviving intimacy: her gestures are evasive, emphasizing her refusal and wish to keep distance from him. Thus, Robert’s betrayal of his wife in the next scene, before the judge who decides about the appeals, is the act of a desperate, forlorn man, almost forced into an immoral compromise. Sitting on the ground, he is covering himself with peat, the symbol of his land that might sustain, he still blindly believes, his and his son’s life and identity. At the end of the last scene, set “In a clearing in a wood” (82), after Robert and Madeleine have no more to say, “the sound of a hundred guns being cocked” (86) is replaced by husband and wife looking at each other in hatred, straining fist to fist. They remain fixed in this combative position for a couple of minutes while the peat is moving under their feet, the land having its own pulsation (and thus, life) independent of them, according to director Csaba Horváth’s comments in a June 19, 2014 interview with the authors.

The above are just a few examples from a breath-taking production that keeps the audience nailed to their chairs, not noticing the passing of over two hours without an interval. What the Forte production of The Clearing has achieved through its varied physical and bodily strategies is comparable to the impact of the Derry production as described by Lisa Fitzpatrick. The Hungarian company made the play resonate with the contemporary audience in terms of Murray and Keefe’s contention that watching this kind of, in Peter Brook’s terminology, “holy” theatre, our, the spectators’ response is “physical, visceral, psychological, and emotional. We feel ideas, we think about feelings” (5). We are drawn to experience the bridging of ages and the timeless sharpness of real trauma, as well as compelled to see beyond the fragile barriers of our (seemingly) safe worlds.


Mária Kurdi, is professor in the Institute of English Studies at the University of Pécs. Her main areas of research are Irish literature and theatre. Her publications include three books on contemporary Irish drama, the most recent one being Representations of Gender and Female Subjectivity in Contemporary Irish Drama by Women (Edwin Mellen Press, 2010). She is also author of a collection of interviews with Irish playwrights published in Hungary. Among her edited works there are journal issues containing papers on modern Irish and Anglophone drama. Her scholarly articles have been published in various journals as well as in scholarly volumes. She has co-edited Brian Friel’s Dramatic Artistry: “The Work Has Value” with Donald E. Morse and Csilla Bertha (Carysfort Press, 2006) and hosted the ISTR Conference at her home university in 2011. Her latest works are the 2014 issue of the ISTR journal Irish Theatre International, which she edited with Miriam Haughton, and a volume of selections from the work of Marvin Carlson in Hungarian translation, edited with Zsuzsa Csikai.


 

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European Stages, vol. 3, no. 1 (Fall 2014)

Editorial Board:

Marvin Carlson, Senior Editor, Founder

Krystyna Illakowicz, Co-Editor

 

Editorial Staff:

Elizabeth Hickman, Managing Editor

Bhargav Rani, Editorial Assistant

Advisory Board:

Joshua Abrams

Christopher Balme

Maria Delgado

Allen Kuharsky

Jennifer Parker-Starbuck

Magda Romańska

Laurence Senelick

Daniele Vianello

Phyllis Zatlin

Table of Contents:

• The 68th Avignon Festival 2014, July 4 to 27: Protests and Performances by Philippa Wehle

• The Avignon Fringe Festival 2014 by Manuel García Martinez

• The Reality Bites of New Bulgarian Theatre by Dessy Gavroliva

• Happy Days: Enniskillen International Beckett Festival 2014, July 31-August 11 by Beate Hein Bennett

• Flemish Theatrical Exceptionalism Mostly Glimmers, Sometimes Wavers by David Willinger

• Shouting at the Devil (and Everyone Else): Yaël Farber’s Production of The Crucible at The Old Vic by Erik Abbott

• Mladinsko Theatre and Oliver Frljić’s Damned Be the Traitor of His Homeland! (Sibiu International Theatre Festival, Romania, 2014) by Ilinca Todoruţ

• Barcelona Theatre (2013): Responding to Spain’s Crisis by Maria Delgado

• Report from Madrid by Duncan Wheeler

• Irish Colonial History on the Hungarian Stage by Mária Kurdi

• Fantastic Realities: Actors as Puppets and Puppets as Actors by Roy Kift

www.EuropeanStages.org

europeanstages@gc.cuny.edu

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director

Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications

Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

The Graduate Center CUNY Graduate Center

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