LOOK BOTH WAYS
Kornel Mundruczo takes theatre audiences way out of their comfort zone. Shirley Apthorp travelled out of hers to talk to the director of the Adelaide Festival’s forthcoming
CRUELTY, violence, poverty and prostitution are the ingredients of maverick Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo’s theatre piece, a lay-down certainty to shake up next month’s Adelaide Festival. Hard to be a God is cheerfully described by its publicity material as ‘‘ confronting’’: Russian science fiction meets everyday sadism in a splatter of gore.
Run an internet search on Kornel Mundruczo, and the results are unsettling. Video snippets are drenched in loud music, soaked in blood, underscored with moans of agony or merely dark with grim foreboding.
A boy murders his parents. Neighbours slaughter a brother and sister in an incestuous relationship. A miraculous healer is butchered by jealous hospital staff. In the casting scene that features as a trailer for The Frankenstein Project, Mundruczo stars as himself, using his power as director in ways that smack disturbingly of abuse.
Hard to be a God seems darker again. The theme is human traffic, and the audience is required to witness horrors that could at best be described as stomach-turning.
An invitation to meet Mundruczo in Oberhausen is daunting in itself. The place must count as one of the most unprepossessing interview locations Germany has to offer. Even if Mundruczo shows less of a propensity for random acts of extreme violence than his artistic output suggests, Oberhausen itself could prove physically damaging. Germany’s Ruhrgebiet is the sort of area where it is normal to side-step flying beer bottles and edge around fist-fighting drug addicts on your way from train station to city centre.
Outside the grimy train station, rundown apartment blocks jostle for space. Bombed to smithereens during World War II, the town has slid from industrial hub to home of mass unemployment over the past 15 years.
‘‘ For me, it’s one of the strangest cities ever,’’ admits Mundruczo. In the flesh, the swarthy 36-year-old Hungarian is, happily, far less sinister than his on-screen persona. ‘‘ Our Eastern European view of the West is of a kind of rich, calm beauty. But here it looks rather like Eastern Europe — the same faces, the same hopeless people.’’
Mundruczo is solid and quietly intense, but also manifestly gentle. Like so many directors who happily saturate their casts with buckets of theatre blood, he has probably come no closer to acts of real violence than the unavoidable glimpse of a fracas at Oberhausen’s main station. He doesn’t look like a wife-beater. Has he ever actually been in a fight?
‘‘ I’ve never been in a place where somebody kills somebody else,’’ he concedes. ‘‘ But anyhow, every day I’m in it. I see newspapers, and there are televisions. Violence is everywhere. You can’t pretend that it’s not.’’
We live in an intellectual bubble, Mundruczo says, with our university educations and liberal political views. The real world is not like that.
‘‘ At least five of the six billion people on this planet live in a kind of no man’s land, in structures that we don’t understand. My morals and ethics don’t work in that no man’s land. We are a privileged minority. All my work is a kind of adventure beyond the civilised centres of Western Europe. I want to inform people that there is a world we hardly know, and let them experience fragments of it.’’ Violent fragments.
‘‘ Violence surrounds
us, more than we can imagine. Why leave that out of work that we create? Every day, billions of images come at us, like the revolution in north Africa, like war and crime. And we see these images without any emotion.’’
So he makes theatre in order to change the world? ‘‘ Yes and no. I’m not a god. It’s hard to be a god.’’ Mundruczo permits himself a half-smile at his own reference.
‘‘ I am not so optimistic. But at least through theatre I can bring you very close to these situations, and see if that makes you understand these images in a different way.
‘‘ Violence on stage is an illusion. It’s always ironic. It’s a genre game. In Hamlet, there are a thousand deaths. You go to the movies and see — as Fassbinder says — blood and tears and love, all together. That’s why we make horror movies. That’s why Shakespeare wrote Macbeth. Theatre works with that.’’
Mundruczo’s theatre career began when, as schoolboy, he decided that he didn’t have the talent to realise his dream of becoming a painter. He settled instead on acting. For four years he worked hard; then, abruptly, he quit. ‘‘ I felt as if I was a slave,’’ he says succinctly. ‘‘ I didn’t want to do any more theatre. Actors were not viewed as adults; they were not creative partners of the director. Theatre in Hungary was really conventional — text-based and oldfashioned. So I went to film school, and learned directing.’’
It proved a good decision. Every one of Mundruczo’s films has been presented at the Cannes Film Festival, two of them in the Official Selection; they have won fistfuls of awards. His penchant for brutality, disjunct narrative style and fondness for social outcasts all seem to strike a contemporary nerve. For five years, he didn’t set foot in a single theatre.
‘‘ I wasn’t interested. Most of the theatre I had seen was not alive at all. When I was 22, I thought, ‘ I want to live a modern life. I don’t want to be back in the 70s every night.’ ’’ Then he met Arpad Schilling, the director of Budapest-based Kretakor Theatre, and things changed.
‘‘ If the theatre is not a place of freedom and communication, it’s just a museum. You can repeat the same things over and over again in the same ways. Then there’s nothing at all to interest an audience that spends the rest of its time in front of the internet or television, where they pick up shocking emotional material every day. They come to the theatre and switch their brains off, and they have to go home before they feel alive again. How do you keep them alive? That is one of my questions.’’
With Kretakor Theatre, he began to find some answers. In the experimental company’s anarchistic freedom, Mundruczo found a way to translate his cinematic concepts into stage works — but in a way that bore almost no resemblance to the theatre of his unhappy student days. Working with Kretakor helped Mundruczo to find his own theatrical language. It is one in which actors are equal partners, where the stage is a place where anything can happen, and where the reality of proximity can exert a unique power over its audience.
‘‘ In the theatre, you can have an adventure that isn’t purely intellectual. In front of your computer, or the newspaper, or the TV, you can keep a distance. The theatre has its own physicality. It’s alive, and you can create interactive set-ups. You can work with the same images, but make them live.’’
Hard to be a God tells the story of prostitutes in a smuggler’s truck en route to Western Europe — or so they think. As events unfold, the real motivation behind the trip emerges: a young man is plotting an act of revenge against his father in a truly chilling manner. The prostitutes are his unwitting protagonists. An outsider, travelling with the group as an impartial observer, is drawn increasingly deeply into areas of moral ambiguity.
The idea of creating a story around the human traffic of Eastern European prostitutes emerged when Mundruczo was invited to create a new work for the 2010 Kunstfestival in Brussels. ‘‘ It’s a good topic,’’ he says. ‘‘ The traffic of girls is something that is known all over the Western world, and it’s really served by Eastern European countries. It’s a kind of uncommunicated slavery.’’
All of his projects, says Mundruczo, begin with extensive research. He and his team compiled plump dossiers of statistics, background and personal stories. As they were increasingly drawn into the underworld of the international sex industry, a dramatic framework emerged in the unlikely form of Soviet science fiction.
The 1964 novel Hard to be a God by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky places an interplanetary observer in a futuristic dystopia, forced to witness but denied the right to act as a world of increasingly horrific repression and violence unfolds around him. Mundruczo translates the device to the seedy setting of a highway parking-lot today, somewhere between Hungary and nowhere.
‘‘ Somebody would like to create a video. The girls don’t know what the job will be tonight, and anyway it’s all going to go wrong. It’s a very simple story, easy to follow. But there are lots of layers.’’
The Soviet construct gave Mundruczo and