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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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


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