Friday, 23 May 2008

Budapest, 17-18 May 2003

(In the process of putting together the Newcastle Gateshead Gypsy Festival at Northern Stage in 2003, Alan Lyddiard, the then Artistic Director of the theatre, and I traveled to Budapest to audition some Gypsy artists for our own show inspired by Romani stories and music – Black Eyed Roses. We were particularly concerned to gauge a level of authenticity for our show which would be performed by Geordie actors. On the trip we also met Alan’s muse Mitsou – a singer with a really distinct voice that Alan had admired, having heard her on a compilation CD. Mitsou was eventually hired for the show and given a singing part in it. I was asked to write this travelogue for the Northern Stage Newsletter – which eventually became quite a regular part of my job as the Company Dramaturg.)

When we arrive to Laszlo’s office, he pauses outside the door and begins a story: “One day I’m talking to my friend on the phone and I’m going – ‘Where is my mobile phone, I can’t find my fucking mobile phone’; and he says – ‘Mate, you are talking into it, it’s in your hand!’ Just like now, I’m looking for my key, and it’s in my hand.” He builds the suspense before he unlocks the door to his world, but we’ve been in suspense for almost 12 hours already – hours of travelling and waiting for the moment to get on with the business. In fact, Alan’s been searching for Mitsou for more than 12 months, and in an hour – she’d be there, in that office with massive windows and posters of bodies on the walls.

We are in the Merlin Theatre – a converted power station – which is the only English speaking theatre in Budapest. There is a spiral staircase in the middle of the building leading to a big trendy bar with a waft of goulash and a studio on the upper floor. Laszlo Magacs was one of the company’s founder members 12 years ago and now runs the place, bringing guest companies from Britain and elsewhere and making his own shows with both Hungarian and British artists. He tells us about the company in between making frenzied phonecalls to various people he wants us to meet. I’d first met Laszlo in Edinburgh some five or six years ago and we’ve kept in touch ever since. We recall how once upon a time he gave me a free ticket for Andro Drom – a Gypsy band he brought over to Edinburgh. He claims I met Mitsou on that occasion too – but I can’t remember.

When she finally arrives, she certainly leaves an unforgettable impression. Everything about her is miniature apart from her footware. It’s almost as though her military-style boots and her densely plaited black hair are there to prevent her from floating up. She looks less than half the size of her towering young manager with a blond pony tail and safari shorts. Laszlo keeps the manager back as we go into a semi-dark studio to talk to Mitsou with Laszlo’s assistant Emma. Mitsou perches herself on a chair with her back to a window which is half covered with a black curtain. Alan talks, Emma translates, Mitsou smiles occasionally casting some light from the shadows. When Mitsou starts talking, it’s a kind of voice you can listen to for hours, even in a totally unintelligible language. Still, Emma translates for us into a sort of tea-drinking, bridge-playing London variety of English, with impeccable precision. Alan smiles occasionally, casting some light from the shadows. It is immediately clear that Mitsou is quite interested in coming over to Newcastle but we’d have to handle her manager first. In come Safari Shorts and a list of questions which nobody seems to be very interested in. In fact, we have the next auditonee waiting outside and Alan keeps jumping from his seat. The highlight of our visit has happened already and if this was all a play – nobody would be interested

 from this point on. As Mitsou leaves with Safari Shorts in tow, Alan is quite evidently floating.In fact if this was a play it would most probably be called ‘Alan in Wonderland’. Its cast list – in addition to the above – would also feature the following:

Kristof – Suspicious eyes, polite manner and fluent English. Kristof wants to be an actor but in the meantime he’s working as a stage-hand and an extra in a big theatre. He is half-Gypsy, half-nobleman, he informs us. His Gypsy mother raised him on her own and he never learnt to play any instruments. He was in the States for a while – where he basically did his A-levels – during which time his mother fell ill with cancer but refused to tell him anything about it because she didn’t want him to interrupt his studies and come back. When she died, his relatives wrote to him, and he came back for good. As he leaves the studio, he pinches a cigarette from Emma, telling us how he was making a film the previous day and some Gypsy kids came along rapping and hip-hopping. Suddenly it all sounds perfectly logical, given the inborn Gypsy talent for music and Hungary’s forthcoming integration with the West. Move over Eminem, Gypsy kids are on the block.

Kriszta – She is genuinely happy to be here and she is happy with her life and happy with her job. She is 27 and hasn’t got any kids. She is the ninth of twelve children but her parents brought her up in a liberal non-Gypsy way. She had lots of dreams when she was young and they’ve mostly come true. When she was sixteen she met a teacher in her village and he brought her to Budapest where they now live. She is a manager in a cafĂ©. Once she was off work for two weeks and was called to come back immediately, her customers wanted her back! She is also a member of the Romani theatre company Maladype (as are all the rest of our protagonists). She got involved because her husband is a friend of the company’s founder Dragan Ristic. The company’s first piece was Lorca’s Blood Wedding which they did as a site specific piece in somebody’s house. She played the Maid in that. So, her dream to perform for people also came true and she’s been performing ever since. Her happiness beams in the semi-darkness of the studio and even though these auditionees look like those people on TV whose profiles are obscured to protect their identities, their stories come across in technicolour.

Rudolf – He was supposed to come tomorrow as he was performing in Vienna tonight. Rudolf plays a strange percussion instrument which is basically a bucket filled with water. As he walks in, he just slumps into a seat and starts firing questions at Emma. He has big striking eyes and a couple of moles on his face. He is very tired, he explains, and remains in a semi-horizontal position. On Alan’s request, he tells us a bit about himself. Apart from performing he is also going to school now because when he was at school the key thing was ‘being cool’, so he never really got any qualifications. Cool he definitely is, and remains the only one who we remember by his name afterwards.

Zoltan – Longish hair, styled eyebrows, Italian dress-sense. Zoltan is quite refreshing – supremely confident though he doesn’t really establish eye-contact with anyone. He is all too happy to talk about himself. His mother abandoned him when he was born, he was raised in an orphanage and put into a class for retarded kids, in keeping with the communist policy towards Gypsies at the time. When he was four a child psychologist looked at his drawings and decided that he was talented. His own personal power lies in the fact that whatever he decides to do – he can do it very well. So he is a very good painter, musician and performer. He knows all of the underworld too but he’s stayed out of trouble. He tried to get into an arts college four times and they told him there was nothing they could teach him and that he should ‘undevelop’ himself by some ten years if he wanted to get in. Even if Zoltan embellishes a bit, it’s all very charming and the story does sound plausible.

Eventually, we arrange our impressions. It’s been quite an afternoon. Apart from meeting Alan’s muse, we’ve also had the honour to spend time in the company of one Gypsy-nobleman, one infectiously happy woman, supremely cool Rudolf and a streetwise genius! What more could one ask for?

Well, wait till you see A-39 – A Russian cargo ship, the latest venue in town where all of Budapest’s hippest crowds gather. A French Gypsy band is performing there tonight and the French ambassador is present. They sound a bit like a tribute band to Gypsy Kings though, and we decide to wait for their Hungarian follow-up act – Romano Drom. A woman film-director meets us to give us copies of her films about Gypsies. She doesn’t speak English so we exchange goods and contact details with the urgency of backstreet dealers. Andrea – the brain of the ship and a former British Council officer – meets us and explains that her boyfriend is also a Gypsy. In the crowd, we spot – none other than – Rudolf himself. He’s perked up considerably and has an exceedingly beautiful blonde on his arm. She tells us she is learning flamenco – which she demonstrates with a particular emphasis on arm movement – but she plans to be a film director. Rudolf claps his hands with remarkable force and in perfect rhythm. A Gypsy-looking woman, slightly butch, but with a tiny waist and baggy trousers is talking to two guys not far away from us. She fills pauses in their conversation with dancing, doing some extremely intricate, fired-up footwork.

Finally, the Hungarians climb on the stage. They all have shirts on with brown and white fish-bone stripes. Aged between 20 and 50 they cut striking figures. Their opening act is magnificent. A man in a spotlight drums on a tin milkcan to the accompaniment of some consonant-rich vocal effects which he also makes himself. I don’t think you can call it singing – it’s something like the distant origins of what rappers now call ‘blabbering’. Suddenly another band-member starts dancing in a way that might have also been an ancient version of breakdancing. Call it a preposterous claim but somehow it all makes sense – Gypsies were making pop culture centuries ago – it is all in there…

Risking oversaturation with impressions, having been up for 20 hours now and knowing that we have a visit to a children’s Romani theatre lined up for tomorrow, we decide to go and catch up on some sleep.

The children’s theatre is a story in itself and it would have been wonderful to have met these company members individually as well. However, we had very little time and the project leader Oszkar told us about it instead. Oszkar is a famous stage and TV actor of Romani origin. He set up the youth group Karavan with the intention of giving disadvantaged kids an opportunity to work together creatively. Having auditioned some 200 Romani and non-Romani kids from difficult backgrounds, he picked out a dozen and created courses, performance opportunities and summer school retreats for them. They even came briefly to Anna Scher’s workshop in London. Even at the first glance, the kids are indeed quite intriguing in their own ways, but it was Oszkar’s underlying idea that really impressed us. In a way this company also symbolizes everything we experienced on our visit. None of the Hungarian Gypsies we met are necessarily completely marginalized but they are all in the process of overcoming that condition. As is Hungary itself – a massive ex-Soviet ship on its way towards the EU. They are all experiencing the drama of non-belonging. Some of them are happy, some of them are boisterous and some of them are cool about it, but at least the Karavan kids are definitely being given a chance to experience un-self-conscious integration.

So we set off back home quite pleased and inspired. Laszlo – ‘a crazy driver’ – takes obvious pleasure in driving us to the airport in his Saab. The only thing that’s lacking is an ice cream, which Alan was very much set on having and which he finally only had in Paris while we reflected on the whole trip. There are of course unhappy people who we never met but who we are anyway paying tribute to – it is just good to know that there are no stereotypes and that therefore there are no wrong assumptions. It is good to know that sometimes the thing you were looking for is actually in your hand.

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