„Not everyone would agree on this, but theatre wouldn’t make sense in any other way.” – Interview with Róbert Alföldi

I sat down with Róbert Alföldi in the hall of Radnóti Theatre, just a few days before the premier of his newest direction, Incendies. Wajdi Mouawad’s drama deals with the numbness of the native soil as well as the perspectives of migration to a safer land. Through a women’s tragic fate, we can see how quickly individuals can become the victims of history.

Nawal share long hidden secrets in her will of testament. Her twins, who grew up sound and safe in Canada, discover the truth about their father, still being alive somewhere. The twins decide to embark on a journey to the Middle East: along the way, they get to witness the ongoing horrors of war and the sorrow of the people. They soon realize, that their mother only tried to protect them by concealing the truth of their past.

In a previous interview, you said that this play won’t be directed at the current political situation with regard to migration, it will rather be about “how can you stay human, how can you not differentiate one migrant from another, but see that they are all human beings. This play tells a classic story, it doesn’t make any judgements or tuck the topic into a special context. The story is shocking and it offers several patterns to make sense of reality.” Not directly political – that still indicates that it has something to do with the current political situation. What do you think about theatre and art having to form an opinion regarding such delicate matters like the issues of migration?   

Art doesn’t take sides. Art has to prompt certain discussions and pose questions. Theatre can’t have any other role but to talk about social issues that are related to us, that interest us as this is the only field of art that reflects to the present. In my opinion, if theatre doesn’t talk about the current issues, then to me, it is a dead thing. Of course, not everyone would agree with me on this – many people believe that is should be more about gods and heroes, but I think, every age and social conflict has its own gods and heroes – that’s the story theatre has to tell you. It wouldn’t make sense in any other way.

Earlier, you also said that „most of the theatres have no social effect, with a few notable exceptions. Everyone is making friends, they want to mingle in the crowd, calm and silent…If someone put something out of the ordinary on stage, they immediately have to excuse themselves. To my mind, this is absurd. Theatre should affect the way you think about things. This is a problem now, because these days, they try to tell you what to think about certain things.” – What do you think the feedback will be with regard to this play? Do you think it treads on delicate ground? 

I don’t really care about that. Other people might, but I don’t. What interests me is if they will talk about it or not, will it make the audience think harder or change their views in any ways?

Did this play require a more serious cultural research?

It’s not a scientific work, it’s a play. Directing is an instinctive thing. However strange it may sound, you don’t need to know much about the Roman Empire to put Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar on stage. A good play has its core and conflicts, despite being connected to reality or not. If we would want to stage the results of social researches, it wouldn’t be art, it would be some sort of a scientific thing. To make sure nothing takes my mind off of what I’m doing, I always do my research after the play have already premiered.

How important was it to you during the work process to stay objective?

Wajdi Mouawad’s play is not about the immigrant issue / migrating issue. It tells a human story, a story of an immigrant. That can’t be approached objectively: you can’t not relate to such a story with no subjective thought or feeling at all. That, again, wouldn’t be what theatre is about. This play is not exploring the problems of migration, it doesn’t form any sort of judgement or opinion, it doesn’t want to tell you who’s right or wrong. It doesn’t offer any patterns for the solutions, either. It just tells a story about someone’s past, struggles and life changing moments.

Do you think that plays like this one could urge the acceptance of different cultures? Hungarians are not really famous for being the most tolerant people on the planet…

I believe that if the people who scream terrorist and migrant angrily wouldn’t act the same thing if they were standing face to face with another human being. The problem here is that we only see the crowd, not the individuals – that’s what we were taught to see. This drama is just exactly about that: there are faces and individual stories in the crowd, everyone has their own unique story, fate what we can only scrape the surface of. If we would actually listen to them, try to get to know them that would make the real difference. Of course, at this point, we are not expected to do all these things. And because we are stressed and worried enough about our own problems, getting angry is real easy. Why Hungarians have the tendency to this – I’m not sure about that, it might have to do something with our own past and history.

I’m not completely sure if you said this or if it was someone else, but I have a vague memory from my childhood about you giving an interview, and when you were asked what would be the biggest achievement of your life, you said that once you pass away, you would like that to be in the news. Can you recall this?

Yes, yes I did say that! (Laughing) It’s accomplished, so I might as well retire now.

If that is fulfilled, what is the dream now?

I would like this play to have a nice and smooth premiere.

If you could change one thing in Hungary, what would it be?