In the theater world, a kind of Mitteleuropa still exists, and for many actors in the region, including Hungarians, Vienna has long represented the first step towards a career in the German-speaking world and beyond. For those wanting to do cutting edge theater, Budapest offers a limited and artistically limiting context: Most theaters, funded by the state, prefer to put on the classics, using traditional direction and acting methods. Then the current nationalist government bent decisions by theater managers even further toward conservative staging of conventional plays. While there are exceptions, particularly in smaller theaters, by independent groups and also – though who knows for how long – at the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest, those interested in more contemporary mainstream theater often go abroad, at least part time.
We have spoken to three leading Hungarian theater artists who now work in Vienna.
She had a special speech coach to master the requested perfect accent – what’s, in fact, known as Burgtheater Deutsch – and put on a deeply convincing performance as the true companion of her master who faces the devil in Mikail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, to reach eternal peace.
Láng, 45, has always searched for her own artistic truth and was led by curiosity rather than by playing a part in a well-oiled machine. Alongside acting, she is also a scriptwriter, and is splitting her life between Burgtheater and a small independent theater in Budapest. The contrast between the two cities are dramatic: While cutting-edge performances are staged at the top theaters in Vienna, the Hungarian scene is a lot more conservative, and most innovation is found in small, independent venues.
“I chose to commute as a Gastarbeiter,” she says. “My children have their family, grandparents at home in Budapest, while Vienna is my private, professional and pleasure time. I even need the 2.5-hour car ride to switch roles.” She adores the parks and museums and has her favorite cinema, Schikaneder in Margaretenstraße, to catch up on art films.
Children of the Revolution
After the deep-water debut in The Master and Margarita, Láng played in Die Hamletmaschine by Heiner Müller. She sees it as a portrayal of enraged children, like the young László Rajk, son of a communist interor minister, who was executed in 1949, and other children in exile: These actor-children replay the execution of the father of Hamlet (or Rajk senior), and there are scenes evoking protesters and street fire as in the Hungarian revolution of 1956. There is also a place for quotes from Vladimir Putin or Viktor Orbán.
“Rehearsing in fake blood centimeters deep puts you in a different state of mind,” Láng says. “You cannot disconnect yourself from the intensity of the color, the sensation.” The radicalism of this production would be unimaginable in Hungary, with the harsh lighting and rivers of blood which somehow create an elemental tenderness at the end.
Láng is also committed to bringing Hungarian culture to the Burgtheater: This spring, she staged a contemporary monologue online from András Forgách and another online performance based on interviews of another Lang, Professor György Lang – who is no relation – the surgeon at AKH who performed the world’s first lung transplant on a COVID-positive patient during the lockdown.
The Burgtheater will also welcome Hungarian director András Dömötör, 42, staging the Austrian premier of Thomas Melle’s, Ode, exploring the limits of what’s presentable on stage in the age of political correctness. These are fundamental questions, he says, that need to be asked and answered: What is allowed in art, and where its limits lie. Are there still any valid taboos left? He has made this a recurring theme: In Hungary, he recently staged Crossing Points, a Hungarian play on physical and mental borders. Similarly, he recently took on sexual abuse in Le nozze di Figaro, where the question of whether this was a step too far clearly divided the actors.
“My favorite genre is to mix dystopia with humor, particularly in contemporary texts,” he said. “Clearly I am not optimistic about the general direction of humanity, and in a bizarre way, I find here the space for creative playfulness and free fantasies.”
Dömötör is grateful to be in Vienna; the Hungary he once knew has been stolen by nationalism and the Orbán government, leaving him with a paradox: “I am at home in Hungary while at the same time suffering from home sickness,” he quotes his favorite rap line from Hungarian group Belga. He will miss Budapest, particularly little things like time in the spas. But he plans to get a bike to discover the best cafés and park spots, creating his own mental map of the city. Soon, he will be at home here too, he says. His spiritual home is Mitteleuropa, shaped by the Habsburg monarchy, an intellectual river flowing along the Danube.
Dorka Gryllus, 48, played in Hungarian director Viktor Bodó’s production of Peer Gynt last autumn, four years after her debut in Vienna, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s theater project Ganymed Dreaming, where monologues were inspired by, and performed in front of, paintings.
She adores Vienna’s cultural identity, which she describes as “a mix of Berlin and Budapest at their best.” In Germany, her jokes are misunderstood by her directors and colleagues, but they get a laugh here, she says. “Irony is a trait shared in Vienna and Budapest.”
Spending time in Vienna has also been a bit of a nostalgia trip – like Proust and the madeleine – rediscovering tastes from childhood visits with her Austrian great-grandmother. “Rehearsing Peer Gynt, I visited all the bakeries in the city to find the very best vanilla nut cake I so craved from when I was a little girl.”
She finds the Viennese public more independent-minded than Hungarians and ready to be provoked. And if they don’t like what they see, they will even get up and leave during the show or turn to their newspaper or mobile phone. It was quite a shock, she says, after the timid and well-behaved Budapest public.
Still, being Hungarian will remain part of her essence as an actress – her accent, for example, is probably here to stay! – and she looks forward to being back on stage later in the autumn after the birth of her second son. “I am curious to find out what the German-speaking world, especially Vienna, still has in store for me.”