Sunday, 7 February 2010

On travelling and homecoming

Even though my year started with an unexpected escape to Barcelona – right at the time of the snow disaster – I didn’t actually see any theatre on the occasion of that visit. Instead, I took ‘the Dragons’ – as my parents are endearingly nicknamed by my British friends – to meet the dragons of Gaudi’s Park Guell. The significant thing here was that this was the first time in nearly twenty years that my parents were able to travel anywhere in Europe without a visa. Ironically our planned trip to Spain in 1991 was thwarted by the outbreak of war in Croatia. What’s a bit of a snow emergency by comparison…

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So there has been nothing of note to report recently vis-a-vis theatre-related travels, but a chance encounter with a former student last week prompted me to rethink the strictness of my self-imposed brief for the content of this blog.

Eszter graduated last year in drama, and unlike many of her peers who found themselves catapulted together with their gowns and mortars straight into the heart of the British recession, Eszter went back home to Hungary and landed two jobs in the theatre and some independent commissions. I doubt that the general economic situation in Hungary is any better than anywhere else, but the point of this story is something altogether different.

I marvelled at Eszter’s quiet determination, a mixture of modesty and genuine wonder at her own ability, remembering her struggles as a student to find a platform for her creativity, even though she never tired of hard work servicing other people’s visions. She had arrived to her degree in England as a fully fledged professional photographer and therefore fell into the pigeon-hole of being every aspiring director’s designer, stage manager and an occasional dogsbody. She also struggled to find true admiration for a lot of professional theatre in Britain – as she often found it lacking in imagination.

Last week, as I waited to see the Old Vic’s new production of Six Degrees of Separation, I was having cappuccino with Eszter and she was telling me of her very busy new life – juggling two assistantships for two major Hungarian directors and working towards her own dreams. And then she mentioned, by the way, a project she created in her flat in Budapest. A show which took place in two parts – a week apart from each other. In the first half a girl arrives ‘home’ to find that she is pregnant. In the second, a week later, she is looking after a six year old girl. If the audience is temporarily led to believe that six years have passed in between the two parts and this was the child whose conception had been discovered in their presence on the previous occasion, this suspicion is soon demolished as the child’s mother comes to pick her up and our heroine proceeds with her plans for an abortion. 

I loved this concept and its dramaturgical structure and urged Eszter to consider bringing it over to the UK. The piece was very successful in Hungary too, getting her rave reviews and quite a few house visitors who left generous donations on their way out. It ran for four moths and she eventually had to close it because it lost its authenticity over time. Even though Eszter briefly considered my suggestion of relocating this piece to an Edinburgh apartment during the Fringe, she eventually explained that this would indeed be impossible. Part of the concept was that this had taken place in her apartment in Budapest, in the detail contained within its own d├ęcor, its opulence, the books on the shelves and a very particular light-bulb which needs replacing.

Eszter’s piece and the idea of it has played on my mind for a week now. I couldn’t quite work out what it was that was so compelling about it until the light bulb went on last night, and I realised that this piece was really about homecoming. A sense of belonging and of feeling ‘settled’, which breeds a creativity of its own. I have not had this feeling for seventeen years, and from this (unstable) position of an enforced nomad, this seems so appealing, almost painfully so. Maybe on some level, as a prodigal daughter herself, Eszter instinctively understands this too. One gains so much when one is displaced, but one loses so much more. Even if and when one returns home, s/he is never the same, and the sense of belonging is never the same. Having not had that experience really, I can only assume that one returns home with a feeling of pregnancy one is not ready for just yet, one returns with an added part of oneself which one temporarily wishes to abort or amputate in order to rediscover one’s roots… But there is an ambiguity about it too, because one knows that there is no going back, only going forward, and six years down the line you might well rediscover that hidden part of you conceived while you were in exile…

Travelling is the state I know and now feel comfortable with, but maybe travelling is a bit like casual, protected sex, it doesn’t really commit you to anything for any meaningful period of time. Living in exile doesn’t count either – exile is an arid zone. The only thing that counts is making a home, if you cannot return to one. Or failing that, making theatre itself – the illusion of a home and a sense of belonging.