Under glaring flourescent lights, Krisztina Urbanovits, of Hungarian theatre company Dollár Papa Gyermekei, takes off her shirt and bra and rests her head on the crotch of her colleague, Tamás Ördög. “I can feel the heat of your nipples through my pants,” he says, disgusted in some obscure way. Members of the audience are less than six inches removed from the actors’ bodies. Avoiding eye contact, they watch the queasy moment in a mirror on the other side of the room. Máté Dezső Georgita, playing Urbanovits’s son, punctuates the painful stillness by crunching on some cheese puffs. This adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1907 chamber play The Pelican by Dollár Papa Gyermekei was so visceral as to be almost nausea-inducing. Unlike the original, which ends in a blaze that kills the entire cast, Dollár Papa Gyermekei left the story on a note of ambiguity. “We keep it open,” Ördög says, “the fire is too easy.”
Dollár Papa Gyermekei was founded by the actors Ördög and Emőke Kiss-Végh about a decade ago, shortly after their graduation from Kaposvár University. Finding themselves without a place to work, they started performing in Ördög’s 12-square-metre flat in Budapest. All together, there was enough space for three actors and six spectators. In 2010, tired of having guests in the apartment, Ördög and Kiss-Végh wrote on their blog that “anybody could order [the group] to come to their own home” to see their adaption of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1891), a play they chose as a “good starting point to do intimate theatre and talk about the problem of relationships,” Ördög says. “And suddenly, someone wrote us that she wanted us in her apartment.” The company arrived three hours early that first evening. In the nervous waiting period before the performance, they hit on an idea which they’ve since held onto: using their real names. “We started to practice our lines, and the play has Norwegian names — and we felt stupid because we were in Budapest, talking about our own problems, and we were using these names like Hedda and Jørgen,” Ördög says. Their adaption of the Ibsen play draws from true stories from their lives, he adds: “It’s a mixture of fiction and reality.”
Since that first staging, Dollár Papa Gyermekei has performed in over 220 private homes. The company has refined its process, now arriving just 15 minutes before they’re due to perform. “It’s much more interesting not to look around, to just go and do it,” Ördög tells me. But the intimate realm of the flat means that the actors have to be ready to enter into the complicated social dynamics of the people hosting them. Early on their career, Dollár Papa Gyermekei were hired to perform at a surprise birthday party by a wife for her husband. “The husband arrived late — everybody was there, and we were waiting for him. He came home really drunk and fed up,” Ördög says. “The play starts with us saying, ‘Hi, welcome, we live here.’ And the husband started arguing: ‘What the fuck are you talking about? I live here. Who are you?’” Eventually, the man got up and left his own apartment during the performance.
There are several similar theatre companies in Budapest, which you can order to arrive in your own home “just like a pizza”, says Attila Szabó, a theatre scholar and deputy director of the Hungarian Theatre Institute. They are compact and highly flexible groups, both artistically and administratively. Unlike many independent theatre companies in Hungary, which must rely on increasingly intransparent subsidies, they are funded directly by the audiences who hire them — either a flat rate or voluntary donations — giving them a particularly grassroots character.
It took a painfully awkward time for the actors to realise what was going on: the guest was under house arrest
Every apartment theatre company has its stories of awkwardness and adventure. A group called Trainingspot RePlay performs a jagged adaption of Richard Linklater’s 2001 film Tape in private homes. The piece was chosen for the questions it poses. “Should I feel guilty if a victim doesn’t remember an event?” actor Tibor Boda asks. “For how long should we be punished for our sins, not according to the law, but morally?” The production starts by having the audience contemplate an empty space, which means the actors have to hide beforehand. In the autumn of 2018, some people who hired Trainingspot RePlay got lost on a forest walk; the actors ended up huddling in an outdoor pantry for over an hour before they were finally able to begin. Another time, they hid successfully from the audience — but the hosts’ dogs found them. “There were these little dogs around and we were talking about all these horrible things,” Boda recalls.
In February 2019, the members of House Tuz Nezo, an amateur troupe, took their interpretation of French playwright Yasmina Reza’s Art (1994) to a home where one person was wearing an electronic monitoring device. Because the host had only told them that someone would be present who “wasn’t able to move,” it took a painfully awkward time for the actors to realise what was going on: the guest was under house arrest.
The history of apartment theatre in Hungary goes back to 1972, when Péter Halász, a performer who worked with audience participation and improvisation, was banned from public venues in Budapest. He responded by performing in his own place at 20 Dohány Street. Although the communist-era secret police kept an eye on goings on, the atmosphere was still highly communal. “Individuals isolated in a society that proclaimed collectivisation could, there in that flat, experience the feeling of interdependence, all the more so as they knew that they were taking part in something forbidden,” the critic István Nánay writes. Halász was exiled to New York soon after and went on to form the company Squat Theatre; after his return to Budapest in 1989, he continued to put on deeply eccentric productions, including a staging of his own funeral, shortly before his real death, where he lay in a coffin and spoke with visitors.
Halász’s form of defiance feels relevant again in Hungary. Viktor Orbán’s right-wing Fidesz party, which has been in power since 2010, proudly advocates for so-called “Christian illiberal democracy,” stoking xenophobia and anti-Semitism, undermining the institutions of democracy, and creating extreme polarisation. As Elisabeth Zerofsky reported in The New Yorker at the beginning of this year, “around 90 per cent of Hungarian media is now owned or controlled by people with personal connections to Orbán or his party, and 80 per cent of Hungarians who listen to the radio or watch television hear only news that comes from the government.” Peter Eötvös, a Hungarian composer and conductor, says: “the problem is that there’s something new every day in politics. We are very active, but it’s so exhausting.”
Alexis Latham, an English theatre-maker who first came to Budapest in 1995, says that “Hungarian society has grown into these 50-50 divisions, and people have started to have partisan cultural institutions.” (He believes that pro-government theatres often veer towards slapstick comedy.) Attila Szabó tells me that Budapest’s Katona József Theatre, for instance, is anti-Orbán, although not radically so, while the Újszínház New Theatre is run by an actor “who is massively pro-Orbán and is quite a nationalist character”. In July, George Soros’s Open Society foundation announced a “€1.1 million grant to support independent arts and culture in Hungary amid growing concerns over the influence of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party in arts funding decisions.” (The Open Society Foundation says it will have no input on which artistic projects get funded.) Apartment theatre, while never apolitical, manages to sidestep many of the debates around funding, thanks to its compactness.
“It’s tough in Hungary to make real political theatre. What we can do is go into social questions.”
Unlike Halász’s avant-garde performances of the communist period, when the only acceptable critiques of the prevailing order were highly oblique, contemporary apartment theatre in Budapest is often pointedly realist. Its techniques include linear plots, vernacular Hungarian, stories that take place in “real time”, and, in the case of House Tuz Nezo, improvisations that make use of the audiences’ names. Boda, of Trainingspot, says of their performance Tape that, “the only thing in the play that isn’t real is the cocaine.” (Even the smells feel accurate: during a performance I saw at one small theatre, Boda reeked of cheap cologne, while Ádám Boros, who played a down-on-his-luck character, trailed the stink of sweat.) Budapest apartment theatre companies often induce a feeling of voyeurism and complicity in their audiences, like visiting a friend who is too depressed to shower.
But while apartment theatre groups are aesthetically opposed to Halász’s work, they retain its most important aspect: the forging of transient yet intimate communities. Iván Fischer, the conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, who hosts an apartment theatre in the flat where he grew up, tells me he founded the venue out of his “love for intimate theatre and close contact between performers and listeners.” He adds that the venue is “a counterpoint to current trends,” by providing “personal closeness and human contact.” Kinga Keszthelyi, who works at the apartment theatre, tells me that one of the regulars is an 87-year-old woman who often stays so late after the performances that she misses the last bus, and needs to take a cab home. In October, Ádám Nádasdy, a linguist, poet, translator, and professor at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, performed an evening of sentimental songs with his daughter Vilma at the Iván Fischer Apartment Theatre. A woman pressed her palms together and raised them in front of her face as they sang, as if transported back to a more poetic time. Afterward, over wine and pasta salad, everyone sat and talked about the music.
When a 2011 email from Iván Fischer to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, warning her about being seen as too friendly to the Orbán government leaked, some media outlets praised Fischer as a hero, while others accused him of attempting “smear Hungary to the Americans.” In 2015, István Tarlós, then the Fidesz-aligned mayor of Budapest, said of Fischer’s Budapest Festival Orchestra: “If three or four people visit pensioners and play music for them, then that’s a nice project, but it isn’t a concert.”
Iván Fischer is unusually outspoken, but even within the apartment theatre scene, political divisions are evident. The members of Trainingspot are critical of the government: “Often, we’d like to go deeply into politics,” Boros says. “But nowadays it’s not good if you do political things — then you are choosing sides. It’s tough in Hungary to make real political theatre. What we can do is go into social questions.” The members of House Tuz Nezo, on the other hand, see anti-Fidesz political activism as overblown. Áron Schmidt, an actor with the company who also works as a TV reporter for his day job, tells me, “I don’t think that politics has such a huge impact on people’s everyday lives here. Those who say so usually don’t agree with the government.” And yet, apartment theatre groups almost always stay after their performances to talk with the audience, breaching fraught issues like economic jealousy and sexual violence with people with whom they otherwise have little in common. In other words, they are practicing a brand of small-scale politics — removed from the churn of the daily news, examined under a powerful microscope, then dissected in search of truth.
In 2017, Alexis Latham began performing a radically microscopic show. Latham was inspired by an acquaintance who had been recruited as a teenage informer on the arts scene by the communist secret police; the person told him he planned to admit this to a friend, with whom he had been out of touch for nearly 30 years. In Latham’s play, Confession, he invites a single person into a box-like subsection of his studio, and admits that he informed on them. At the end of the 30-minute piece, Latham asks for their forgiveness. One evening, he performed the piece for a woman who worked for a non-profit organisation that tried to help Bosnians forgive their Serbian neighbours following the genocide. Latham recalls: “She said, ‘I’m a professional in forgiveness. I’ve been going around telling people how to forgive, and about how I learned to forgive. And when you asked me, I suddenly realised that I’d been lying.’”
“We enjoy being close to our audience, this intimate theatre,” Tamás Ördög of Dollár Papa Gyermekei says. “To be there, to be real, to not lie, to not act. I used to play on stages — it’s much easier to lie because of the distance, the lighting. Everything helps you to lie. But if you’re in a flat, you’re using your own name. If you make something fake, the audience will say it’s shit. Or it’s theatre. But I really like when the audience has the feeling that it’s life.”