02. 02. 2007. 09:14

A wild Don Juan in Budapest

Viktor Bodó: The Great Sganarelle and Co.

Viktor Bodó claims to have used György Petri's translation of Molière's Don Juan for his new production staged in the Katona József Theatre, The Great Sganarelle and Co. Yet it seems as though Don Juan merely provided the original inspiration for Viktor Bodó to set about transplanting this mythic figure to a modern urban setting.

In order to understand how Viktor Bodó's work has developed, we must first consider his earlier works for the Katona Theatre. His breakthrough was a play entitled Attack, which he wrote and staged in the studio space. It concerned the lives of university students in Budapest and drew vast amounts of energy from its cast, most of them just graduating from the drama academy. (Many of them went on to find secure places in various theatre companies.) Bodó's bold visualisation of altered mental states – whether drug-fueled or madness-related – made Attack a one-of-a-kind theatre experience. It probably also owed its extended run to the many young theatregoers in the audience, no doubt grateful to see a play which reflected life from their perspective.

Bodó followed Attack with Hotel, an audacious, convention-exploding work for the main stage. Not only was the content provocative, featuring graphic scenes of sex and violence, its approach to storytelling also proved to be disturbing. As the performance ended, stagehands appeared and deconstructed the set, leaving the actors to finish the play in a black void.

Next to appear was Ledarálnakeltuntem (Ground Up and Disappeared), which continues to run in repertory. This play was written by András Vinnai and Viktor Bodó, based on a translation of Kafka's The Trial by Ede Szabó and Miklós Gyorffy. Present again were the striking visual effects and the theatrical use of space. Bodó used forced perspective to transform the studio space into an endless corridor. The play used canned music to create faux-musical theatre interludes and featured scenes of disturbing violence. Nevertheless, the work followed Kafka's plot in a surprisingly faithful manner, and the storytelling was far more linear than ever before.

The lesson, then, must be to expect the unexpected with Viktor Bodó. With The Great Sganarelle and Co., he gives us an adaptation that is not faithful, storytelling that is not linear, the same use of canned music (which the character alternately lip synch or pretend to perform onstage), and the same explicit violence which he uses to create scenes of black and even morbid humour. What is completely fresh in this piece is Bodó's ability to build to a profoundly tragic ending. There is no transcendence in the face of cruel fate, which gave his adaptation of The Trial a positive twist. Instead, we are treated to the sad, pathetic end of a demonic anti-hero.

The play kicks off with a number of framing devices. First, there is a Beckettian pantomime as a frustrated conductor struggles to begin the play, contending with various absurd obstacles. Second, once the curtain has gone up, we see a moon. As an onstage band pretends to play the overture, the sun rises. Our hero Jani (played by Károly Hajduk), the evening's Don Juan, is standing on his rooftop, where he can be “closer to God”, and watches the sun rise. Third, an unidentifiable actor with his face bandaged sits on the roof holding a conversation with a loud-mouthed female neighbor who screams from offstage. They are referring to Jani, the anti-hero, in the past tense. Fourth, an actor announces the beginning of Who Knows What? – a long-running TV contest that was launched in Hungary in the 60s. Fifth, the cast files in to rehearse a musical number (as though to trick the audience into expecting a conventional musical comedy). “Budapest is all I need,” they sing, “where everyone is happy to get up early in the morning!” Sixth, and last of all, Sganarelle (a young thug) shares a “foreign cigarette” with Uncle Joey the policeman. Their conversation becomes a prologue of sorts that finally gives way to the plot.

It is worth dwelling on these frames, because it is a device Bodó has used before, particularly in Hotel. In that play, we began with a simple setting in which the storylines multiplied uncontrollably into chaos and nothingness. All the frames were destroyed. In his other two works for the Katona Theatre, he concluded with multiple narrative frames, which made his endings rather drawn-out. Now, in his Don Juan play, he begins with multiple narrative frames, only to abandon all of them but one. At the very end, the suns sets, and the moon returns to musical accompaniment that may or may not be live. The effect here is not a play that disintegrates into nothingness. Instead, it is a play that begins in stream-of-consciousness chaos and coalesces into a tragic drama.

The first act is littered with non-sequitur skits – three actors do a good impersonation of a very bad a capella folk band; in the middle of an ensemble scene, the actors launch into a passionate lip-synch version of “Tonight, Tonight” from West Side Story. In other instances, though, these musical intrusions serve a dramatic purpose. At one point, Jani expresses through dance his character's devil-may-care euphoria. He is a man on top of the world; he feels he can get away with anything, fool or double-cross anyone. This will burgeon into megalomania and hubris, which will be punished in the second act.

While we never get a clear picture of how Jani's criminal operation works, we are given a few tantalising hits. We watch him stage a sham boxing match with two henchmen, thus tricking a local gangster out of a bundle of cash. We see him auditioning women (by having them recite poetry!) as models for pornographic photographs. Early in the second act, the rooftop rotates, and we glimpse what seems to be a murder taking place through the windows of the top-storey apartment. Who was killed? Was Jani, our Don Juan, responsible? What bearing does this have on the rest of the plot? We can never know – indeed, we are not meant to know – in the end, it is immaterial.

The most well-developed comic scene – certainly, the most Don Juan-esque – occurs in the first act. A repairman arrives on the scene with his girlfriend. The repairman leaves on an errand, and when Jani returns finding the young girl on her own, he manages to woo her in a matter of minutes, his serenade quickly becoming an over-the-top production number. The repairman returns to find his girlfriend in bed with Jani. She cries, and he cries; but when the workman comes to confront the seducer, Jani punches him. The repairman retreats, then returns again; Jani punches him, kicks him, stabs him. Each time the violence becomes more extreme. Jani is revealed to be a sadist, and the repairman is a downright masochist who keeps crawling back for more punishment. Meanwhile, Sganarelle takes the opportunity to inflict more punishment on the victim. Pretending to help him to his feet, he kicks the man while he is down and prods his fresh stab wounds.

All of this passes for comedy, but in the second act, Jani's actions appear less humorous. In fact, they are increasingly despicable and repellent. In some ways, he reminds one of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. Like Macbeth, the power he acquires through immoral means eventually seems pointlesss and meaningless. Jani expresses this by retreating into a state of catatonia. His allies slowly turn on him, and he grows increasingly isolated. Elsewhere, he is visited by the spirits of his victims, just like Richard III. In another respect, he seems to be an Antichrist figure. When he is visited by an old classmate who asks him where he has been, Jani lies and says he has been in hospital for an operation. “Show me your scar,” his friend insists. Unlike Jesus, Jani refuses to show his scar. There is none, and his friend, the doubting Thomas, is not converted.

Much of the success of this performance relies on the talented cast. Károly Hajduk, who gave such a memorable starring performance in Attack, proves once again why he is such an outstanding leading man for Bodó's works. Although an unlikely choice for Don Juan, he handles the role with grace and aplomb. He is fearless, versatile, and able to journey deep into the realms of abnormal psychology that Bodó's characters inhabit. In one moment, he is able to break character – announcing (in English), “I am Andrew Lloyd Webber. I wrote a new musical for you” – in order to introduce a dance number. In another moment, he cold-bloodedly kicks a baby off the rooftop. Lehel Kovács also deserves credit for his enigmatic and complex portrayal of Sganarelle, Jani's sidekick. As a deranged former lover, Anita Tóth delivers some impressive mad scenes; and relative newcomer to the company Adél Jordán appears in a rich array of cameos – as a dancer, a would-be porn star, an anonymous German woman who materialises for a spontaneous rooftop orgy, and the mother of Jani's child.

With this production, Viktor Bodó shows his typical flair for a dramatic use of space. The most difficult challenge with his rooftop set is to maintain the illusion of height. He finds a variety of creative ways to do so. Also, he has developed a unique visual style for this play. The special effects are impressive, beautiful, and completely artificial. We often become co-conspirators in his vision when he invites to suspend our disbelief – for instance, when a plane, terribly off scale, buzzes the set and an actor must carry it offstage.

Like all Bodó's plays, The Great Sganarelle and Co. is not for everyone. In fact, many audience members are caught off guard by the abrupt change of tone in the second act. However, anyone who can surrender to Viktor Bodó's disturbing and unpredictable vision is in for a thrilling and rewarding ride.

Patrick Mullowney

The Katona József Theatre's homepage

Tags: Viktor Bodó: The Great Sganarelle and Co.