Theater of the Body – Book of the Dead

Original Hungarian language version by ’littledevil’ appeared on on April 2, 2013. English language translation by Gábor Kálmánczhelyi.

Malomudvar Színházi Műhely is one of those places in Budapest, where many small theatre company go on the boards with experimental productions. The physical theatre performance, titled Book of the Dead came to be from inspiration by the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Physical theatre, ’growing out’ from dramatic theatre has a decades-long international history. It’s nearly 5 years now, that at the University of Theatre and Film Arts they hold a physical theatre director-choreographer vocational training course, so, even though the parquetry does creak under the seats of theatre managers nowadays, still we progress forward along with european contemporary cultural endevaours.

We live in a world where, thanks to social consumer customs, most of the words, statements and messages have been worn out, turned into boring clichés. In the same medium our physical body became a commodity, a home for available pleasures. Even so, casting off the limits of verbality there is hope, that the body without words is able to deliver a more honest, more deeply interpretable message. At times, physical theatre performances affect the viewer pushing the envelope of the body, returning to the roots of ancient cultures, mostly leaving the ’ambiguity’ or the emptyness of language, using gestures, movements, natural sounds – groaning, shouting, crying, laughing, mumbling – and it’s undoubtable that the effects are frequently visceral.

In me, Book of the Dead woke mixed impressions. The acting of Csaba Formanek and Lénárd Ilyés was soulful, even shocking on some points of the piece, nevertheless I think, if I couldn’t manage to adopt the substantive message of Book of the Dead, it depended more on the dramaturgy and directing, and – running a risk -  on me, the viewer.

In the first part of the piece, laid out in three parts, we are faced with the relationship between a soldier and an aged woman. For a short time, the aged woman tends to the injured soldier, then the tables turn, and the old lady stands in need of aid, along to the point, where the soldier helps her through to the afterlife. Out of mercy? I didn’t get an answer for that. The grotesque humour, mentioned in the proposal, shines through time and again, the repeating motifs (for example, the pebbles) frame the story nicely, with flashes of old-age, defencelessness, death, interdependence, humbleness to each other and moments of unexpected madness. It was a heart-rending scene for me, where the soldier washes up the old woman, it called into my mind the circle of change, how we fall back on care in the beginning and the end of our lives.

The second story tells the meeting of a young mother and an old man. The mother is searching for shelter with her baby, and eventually, the old man accomodates her. I lost track at this point of the play, caused maybe by my own aversion. There were some stylishly great situations – I shall pick one out, in the hands of the old gentleman, the baby starts to howl and he desperately holds it away from himself, then puts him/her down on the ground, and looks about helplessly, as if he was saying ’What should I do with this little waster?’

Even so, probably because of the dramaturgy, the character of the mother was malformed, extreme for me – which surely served the source of the grotesque humour. I wonder it the part had been played by a woman, or the nature of the character had been shaped by a female director, would I have indentified myself more easily with the mother busily humming lullabies?

The third story of Book of the Dead is the journey of two monks on the path of the interim existence. The most balanced part of the piece, in which the beauty of nature, friendship and the peaceful worldview of buddhism equally looks back at us. Here, the rhytm of the piece is less upset, the movements of the bodies, the sounds and lights summoned are more layered. One of the most beautiful moments of the piece: our monk is sitting under his small paper umbrella with delightful peace and his friend is ‘watering him’ with grains of rice from a big bamboo bowl. For a few minutes, I forgot I’m in an auditorium and with them, I lived through the unimitable freshness of summer showers as drops of rain are dancing on my umbrella and on the sidewalk; and I’m walking home on the hill, I know someday I will die, but everything is all right, because nature and I are one.

As a curiosity, I should mention the character of the soldier, rising up time after time, who weaved together the three stories into an integrated sequence. In my eyes, he displayed the suffering of the man, who is forced to go to war, to kill and he has to run from his pursuers and fears (his death?).

Book of the Dead is a journey between life and death through the land of fear, an astonishing and at the same time amusing adventure. I recommend the piece for the more willing and daring theatre-goers, who is not confused by the encounter with a creation build upon different technical and formal elements, and other intellectual concepts than what is common in prosaic theatre.

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