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Staying or going, humiliation and independence

Kornél Mundruczó talks to Matthias Pees (Wiener Festwochen) about Disgrace

Matthias Pees: After working on Coetzee's novel for such a long time, what do you feel lies at its heart?

Kornél Mundruczó: Increasingly I've mainly had the feeling that it's a novel about us. About us Europeans, us Hungarians. That's actually what I've been afraid of for six years since reading it for the first time. Anyhow it was great being able to work with a novel again. The last time I did that was with Vladimir Sorokin’s "Ljod" ("Ice") where my world and the novel’s meet in this way. Coetzee was just as big a discovery for me because I got a lot out of the novel without having to give anything of myself up. That was confirmation for me that you're allowed to handle contradictions, that these contradictions are the very meaning itself. Because "Disgrace" isn't a story, it's not the plot that's interesting. And yet there are two important stories in the book: one is about a white man and his fall, the story of his path to disaster and the other is the story of the country's reordering. That's something we also have a good understanding of.

MP: Is it about a reversal of relationships in the balance of colonial power and ownership? Are we, the world's former colonial masters, now being colonised?

KM: Yes. I really like the fact that Coetzee never criticises European culture and society, but given his portrayals we can't help but admit that colonisation, therefore the exercise of power and exploitation, is ultimately the only thing – it appears to have been the only impulse – started by white people or that has remained.

MP: There are no black performers in your production of "Disgrace", no performers made up as black either. What role does skin colour and racism play in this social and historical-cultural worldwide issue of possession and power?

KM: We live in a white country in the heart of Europe. Therefore my idea of South Africa is an absolutely imaginary world. All white nations and communities have their black people. And every black society has its whites. For me this is an absolutely abstract state of human existence, therefore in the end a question of people's power over people, and what kind of animal man himself is. Ultimately my production is precisely about this animalistic consequence of racism.

MP: Your theatre work radically explores the question of the conditio humana and at the same time questions the state of our humanism. How does that fit with our entitlement to a dignified life, with human dignity in reality? Is theatre a catalyst for enduring extreme degradation and humiliation because an actor can also stand up after the most awful scenes and situations, look the audience in the eye and sing a song?

KM: For me it's about revealing the intellectual and showing the naked mind. For this I need gestures which may be near the knuckle and not usual in theatre, even unbearable to some. A different activity and collectivity. So that theatre isn't just a place for thinking, but for actual experience, a real experience. It only comes from people's existence. Deep down all my theatre work is romantic too. Not in the sentimental sense, but in the sense that everything comes out of wounding, out of pain. We have plenty of experience of humiliation. I think the only way to maintain dignity is by being independent. When independence is taken away, it's hard to maintain your dignity and be a free person. That's why this theatre group works so well. It's not me, it's the group that manages to keep its independence, despite huge difficulties. They're all independent people, although half of them don't have any work at the moment. The performance is about everyone being free. In the final scene, the dogs are sold to the audience. They're told that every dog comes from a different Hungarian town – the towns where the actors were born.

MP: Is the reason for the extreme political and social situation in Hungary, the majority of its laws and extreme laws, also a cry for independence, for wanting to be different even in a repulsive sense?

KM: Every humiliation gives rise to extremism. The Germans learned this in the 20th century from experience. Hungary has frequently been humiliated during its history as well. I think people in Hungary can really identify with the character of Lucy. Initially I found her decision not to report her rapists, not to terminate her pregnancy and not to leave the place of the crime, her country, but to subordinate herself to the new circumstances completely absurd. But I don't any more. The question of staying or going is a very Hungarian issue for me. There's no rational explanation for staying, this decision comes from somewhere else completely. Generally people very rarely have answers, they simply can't come up with them. Lucy in herself is an answer.
I have the sense that I've never done such a Hungarian play, although my source material, in this case Coetzee's novel, has never been set so far from Hungary before. Initially it seemed very far away, utterly alien. Yet the more we worked with the text, the more surprised I was by how close its issues were to me. It's about us. It's much more Hungarian than "Ice", "Frankenstein-project" or "Hard To Be A God". There are huge shifts taking place on the political map at the moment and I'm eager to see how topical the issue of reordering will be.