The woman opposite me clutched her cigarette as she jerked with the movement of the train carriage. Her spindly hand hovered near her painted-on eyebrows. These lacquered smudges gave her an expression somewhere between surprise and disgust as she pondered my appearance and I hers.
Our train was puffing its weary way through the Hungarian landscape to the small north-eastern town of Miskolc, I was acting as companion to my stepmother who was a theatre director working there for the season. The worn carpeted seats and painted faces that surrounded us however, distorted ones certainty of time and place – it felt like I had travelled back to the late 1980s of my youth in England, a time when people had streaks for eyebrows and wore faded nylon clothes. But for Hungary, as it struggled to catch up with the rest of the developed world after the repressive rule of communism, this was their present day.
The unfaltering mass of ploughed fields that sat beyond the window were flat and endless. My expectations for what I might find in this small town amongst these plains of nothing were dwindling. But I was hasty in my judgement; little did I know I was entering a microcosm, a sliver of a world that existed in its own right, both deeply routed in society and outside of it.
We arrived on the wide high street, at the entrance to a grand old building with a portico front. Quickly, we were whisked round the side to the cast and crew entrance, a strange modern glass extension to the theatre that looked as if it should in fact be a swimming pool complex. Soon we were travelling deep into the heart of the building, leaving daylight behind. My stepmother enthusiastically explained to me that this wasn’t merely a theatre, it was a self-sufficient community, a vast institution reinvented by communism, with 310 inhabitants, apartments for the cast and their families and huge set-workshops. Once upon a time these theatres existed all over Hungary offering culture to the masses in the form of decent accessible entertainment. The ones remaining represent one of the few positive relics of those dreary years of communist rule. As the vast estates of tower blocks were erected and some of Budapest’s finest Austro-Hungarian architecture came crashing down, these little worlds were forming and multiplying in the town centres. Of course theatres existed prior to this period and Miskolc Theatre dates back to 1823, but the scale then was different and the audience more elite. Theatre under communist rule was heavily subsidised by the state and continues to be so.
We passed ornate auditoriums with scarlet curtains and endless rows of dressing rooms, whilst people in full costume argued in dingy prop-filled corridors and a man who’d been transformed into a tiger growled into his mobile phone. At the heart of the building was the Bufé: a bar for the theatre’s varying inhabitants where everything of significance happened. Scripts were read, meals eaten and strong post-performance drinks enjoyed. The Bufé had the same dark and smoky atmosphere that I had grown accustomed to in Hungary.
I sat in the corner for hours and watched the comings and goings of the various characters of this world. I drunk bitter coffee with villainous prison wardens from the operetta and watched closely as the costumes and characters took over these people for the season. The theatre was a world within the wider one, a place where outside reality could be ignored or at least put aside. There was Yuri, a senior actor whose drooping dog-like face would come alive when the day’s fresh batch of goulash appeared; and the angular dark faces of the young women who sat between rehearsals in bustles and corsets puffing on one cigarette after another. I once commented to my stepmother about the number of cigarettes consumed by this nation; ‘Hungary would not function without cigarettes, it would fall to pieces. It is one of our only joys’ she retorted with utter seriousness.
The performances on offer varied from light entertainment to Shakespearian classics and the national contribution; the ‘rock opera’. The first one of its kind some 25 years ago had told the story of Stephan the King, who brought Catholicism to the country and embodied Hungarian ideas of virtue. Originally performed during Communist rule in the 1980’s, the show echoed anti-government opinions and therefore gave the people an opportunity to relieve their anger and hatred within a contained space. The idea being that by the time the performance was over, this angry energy would be out of their systems.
On Friday evening we went to the operetta in the main auditorium.They are popular in Hungary as a nostalgic relic of the high culture of Vienna at its peak, as well as the conservative regard for tradition that underpins much of Hungarian society. The audience were locals, some young, some old, and neither rich nor poor because, despite the changes in Hungary since the fall of communism, this was still the people’s theatre. Women and young girls sat in long silk dresses; men wore suits and greased hair.
Back in the Bufé, the cast and crew, still in dress, knocked back their beloved plum palinka. Children ran around teasing the actors and two men sat at a table arguing in an animated manner. Then a deeply tanned man of 50 strolled in, a man of presence with leathery skin. He wore a dusty brown waistcoat, jeans and well-polished cowboy boots; a faded James Dean hat sat askew on his head. ‘What performance is he in?’ I asked bemused. My stepmother cackled hard, ‘That’s not his costume, they’re his clothes’.
I realised then that he was living out his own fantasy, based on all those photos and movies that painted an American Dream so unattainable to the life people were living under communist oppression. Where better to live out that fantasy than at the Miskolc Theatre, a smoky enigmatic world in a Hungarian backwater where the theatre of life and the life of the theatre never cease.
Miskolc National Theatre
Miskolci Nemzeti Szinhaz
Miskolc, Déryné u. 1
By Rosie Higham-Stainton