György Schwajda's Hungarian staging of "The Tempest", with original music by Vangelis.
All throughout his career Vangelis has composed music for stage performances, such as plays, ballets and even a night of poetry readings. In the late nineties however the output stagnated, and since 1996's Cavafy movies core, there had not been any new occasion to hear Vangelis' music participating in the art of story telling. It's all the more pleasurable therefore to see the trade being picked up again, first for Las Troyanas in 2001, and now more elaborately for György Schwajda's staging of William Shakespeare's "A Vihar" - a Hungarian translation of the "Tempest" - opening the brand new National Theater in Budapest.
At night, the new "Nemzeti Szinhaz" theater building is more than an impressive sight. The tastefully lit building can be seen clearly from all along the Danube River, and the closer you near it, the more details take over and the more enchantment the whole setting evokes. The history of this theater's design and building process is long and political, surrounded with controversy, and many changes of plans and even abandoned construction work in the middle of Budapest's center. The final building is situated outside the busy areas of the city but still relatively close and easy to reach from the center. Yet even this location was cause for heated debate. But the vast amount of space allow for wonderful views on the building from all sides, and hosts a park that makes for a truly dignified entrance to the theater.
The building appears different from any angle you try, and forms a combination of elegant modern and classical design. The look is dominated by pillars, glass walls and decorations with statues and other unnameable shapes. But when glanced at from another specific angle it seems to portray a ship, sailing on a bridge of water, navigating past a sunken temple to remember the old theater that was demolished so many years ago. It's a delight to wander around the area and explore the park and the building's many faces, before entering the building for the night's performance.
A theater of this national importance - forming a symbol for the nation as well as a haven for its language - needed something special as opening performances, so its opening season was formed by three expensive and impressive stage productions.
Director György Schwajda chose for his staging a Hungarian translation of Shakespeare's "The Tempest". The play - full of mystical, comical and dramatic aspects - in short takes place on an Island, controlled by the mighty and wise Prospero. By means of a storm he has caused for a number of characters to be stranded on his Island and he manipulates them by controlling the Island's supernatural inhabitants.
Traditionally, the Tempest is presented as quite an audio-visual feast, with use of special visual and audio effects as well as music so that the audience is drawn into the play's mystical elements and atmosphere as effectively as possible. And that's where this theater's most unique aspects comes in handy. The stage floor is an amazing technical wonder that is split up in a large number of segments that can effectively change the shape of the floor at any given moment. Even during the play's ongoing performance. On top of that the stage is build to be very deep, creating the possibility to work in many layers of setting, using both fore- and background presence.
The play itself would better be reviewed by someone who speaks the language, but from a foreign perspective it's interesting that even though the performances appear rather expressive to anyone who can't follow the words, the humor and drama still come across very well. Together with light and screen effects, the result is a visual feast that can be enjoyed regardless of whether you speak Hungarian, or not.
But then there is ...
Vangelis wrote passionate music for the play. His original synthesizer performance was recorded and comes from the speakers in the theater. The melodies are strong and memorable. The general tone fits the period in which the play takes place. In a way similar to El Greco and 1492, Vangelis uses sounds that suggest to be old and authentic, but are used to evoke the feeling of the period rather than to imitate its sound. He mixes them with his a warm and full pallet of timbres, as we are used of him and as such we can even hear a touch of "Blade Runner" electronics when the storm is about to swell to its heights.
Sometimes the play goes on without music for quite a while, but when it returns it is always well worth the wait. The most important recurring theme has a sense of medievalness, it's dramatic but also passionate. The sounds are wonderfully rich and fill the entire theater. At other moments the music takes a back seat, quite literally as it plays from speakers in the back of the stage rather than the front, serving rather as a background to the actors acting out their parts.
The only problem - from a Vangelis fan's perspective - might be that many parts of the music are relatively short. Sometimes a piece is used as a small burst of music to signify a change of scene, and the piece is then not always allowed to fully develop, as the play has to continue on it's proper path.
The spirit Ariel's part - who in this staging is interestingly represented by and as a lady - includes an actual song, her lines being performed live by the actress in an enchanting Eastern European styled melody. Ariel's appearances are usually introduced by a delightful little tune that appears in many variations, seemingly taken from a longer recording.
The play's wedding scene is opened spectacularly with a dance by the spirits of the Island. The music is breathtakingly beautiful, while swirling lighting effects perfectly synchronized to the music take the excitement to an even higher level. Later on, parts of the wedding include an interesting rendition of Beethoven's Ode To Joy (9th Symphony) in a very unexpected way, as well as more well spirited festive dances. All together this scene functions as the play's musical highlight.
The entire performance of the play lasts well over 2 hours, interrupted by a break in the middle. This provides for an interesting opportunity to wander around the theater and explore it's shiny interiors. It covers multiple floors, with balconies on the inside, but also on the outside to enjoy a nice view over the park at the building's entrance. Visitors can find the production's official program offered on tables inside the theater. It includes two full pages on the music with two unique pictures of Vangelis and also a small section about Konstantinos Paliatsaris, the tenor who previously appeared on El Greco and makes a brief appearance in the very last piece of music appearing in the show.
The play has been performed since late March, with some small adjustments possibly still being applied until its official opening gala evening takes place on Friday, April 12. This entire season - all the way up to June - has been sold out completely, but next season caries the promise of another series of dates for the very same production. More details will appear on this site's news section as they become available.
To find out more about the story behind this staging of "A Vihar", and of course the music, we had an exclusive interview with director György Schwajda, who besides directing this play had a big part in the realization of the theater, and plays a very important role in Hungary's cultural movement.
Mr. Schwajda's office is located at the third floor of the theater building, and has a wide view across the Danube river. As one can see when looking down, some work is still being done on the surroundings of the backside of the theater. Work is still in progress on a concrete shape resembling the biblical tower of Babel: the Zikurat, that is to be part of the garden. The theater itself, however, is perfectly finished, and everything inside looks bright and shiny new. We're sitting on a sofa in a comfortable setting for a short interview about the play, "The Tempest".
It's the day after the final rehearsal - with selected audience - that has marked the first time a public has witnessed the show on which Mr. Schwajda and his team have worked so hard. The show - as it happens with dress rehearsals - had suffered some technical glitches, but everyone seems optimistic for the public performance that will happen in the evening. Mr. Schwajda is as calm as can be. And it's hard to imagine he is ever any different.
- Is there a specific reason to choose the Tempest as your opening play for this theater?
"There are basically three reasons. The first is that I really like the play. The second is that the play contains wonderful and miraculous elements. The new stage technique that is designed especially for the new theater is really unique. So it is suitable to show all the miraculous elements of the play. Finally, as you may have heard, this was supposedly the last play by Shakespeare... I started building up this theater and recently, in a way, finished it. This piece represents my last piece to be put on stage, and I am in a way saying goodbye to the theater in a similar way as Shakespeare did."
- This means you consciously chose a play that has an emphasis on using audio-visual
means to present the play. Did you ever do something like this before?
"I haven't had a theater like this before, it wasn't possible in the past."
The stage should be seen to fully appreciate this fact. It's one thing to see the stage reshape into a staircase that lifts each step into position only moments before the actors step on to it to further ascend. But the moment you have gotten used to those mechanics, the very same floor starts to elegantly rotate a number of frozen characters around the stage. All without making a noise to interfere with the music or acting.
- How important is the music for this play?
"We use it in a lot, it is really used a lot. When I originally asked Vangelis to write music for the Tempest, I asked for a 20 or 25 minute long piece. But it's much longer. It was originally I think 70 minutes long and then he added something else to it. But I don't know how much of this musical composition is used because that's the responsibility of Frederick Rousseau and musical director György Selmeczi. But it's much longer than we originally set out for."
- How did you work with Vangelis? Did you give him directions, or were you perhaps inspired
the other way around, by the music?
"We met in Athens, just before Christmas and spent two days together. There we discussed my ideas about Shakespeare and the Tempest. On the 2nd of January rehearsals started in the theater. There was basically a 3 month period for Vangelis to write his piece. That resulted in the first 70 minutes of music. A few weeks later another piece was sent over that was about 2 and a half minutes long. And the wedding scene, which you saw yesterday, this piece of music was brand new. It was sent just a week ago. So he was constantly working on it."
"He is really inspired by the figure of Prospero. That's what Vangelis was really interested in."
- So the music was written based on your ideas and then when you received it, the
results were used to underscore the play?
"Vangelis didn't write for a concrete performance. He was inspired by Shakespeare, and "The Tempest" as a drama. These two factors inspired him. And then he wrote the music which we used in the performance."
- Almost as if you were using pre-existing music?
"He wrote it on his own, but it was directly written for this play. It has never been written before and he didn't use any of his older compositions. It's brand new."
Interesting to note about the way the music is used here is the fact that sometimes it seems as if the music is not just a form of story telling but is actually a part of the world that is portrayed on the stage. Not only can some of the characters seemingly hear it at times, but they can even interrupt its performance with a gesture. Something that happens more than once.
- Is there a reason to break this barrier between music as background and music
appearing in the play itself, as part of the proceedings? It is almost as if
the actors can hear it or control it. Is the music almost part of the story itself?
"You saw that quite well, because the actors' performances, the stage and the lighting give a sort of harmony..." He pauses and smiles: "Yesterday it was not so obvious but it is getting better and better."
- There are also times when the actors start singing. Did Vangelis compose
the melodies as well, and did you request for these songs to be included?
"As we discussed earlier, all of the music that is heard is composed by Vangelis. He divided his piece into 11 parts. The second part of this musical composition is used as the so-called Ariel lines. And what she sings are basically the lines that Shakespeare wrote. She sings Shakespeare's lines along with the music. And it's recurring in the piece."
- Is this a common way to handle this play (The Tempest)?
"Originally Shakespeare wrote, or marked, these parts as songs. So it's sung everywhere. Just not necessarily to this music because this is brand new. So these are pieces of songs that Shakespeare wrote."
- Music is a powerful force to express emotions. The actors are also transferring
their emotions to the audience. Were you ever afraid of using music in a play?
"I was not afraid at all, because as you know the history of theater itself involves music and prose parts of the pieces together. The old Greek tragedies used to have many parts sung. And Shakespeare himself has notes on his manuscripts that these parts should be sung. The wedding part for example in the play is especially a musical part. It is now kind of new, as you mentioned that theatrical performances really got divided. You've got musicals and purely prose pieces: dramas. But it's not a new idea to involve music and actors performances in one play."
- The performance as a whole is, in a way, very much an audio-visual spectacle.
For instance, even though we don't speak Hungarian, we still loved watching it. Do
you think maybe it is also possible to present this in a more international
way, to foreign people or maybe in other countries?
"We cannot really go on tour with this piece, because of the theater. It's absolutely unique in Europe. So, there is no other stage in Europe that is suitable to present "The Tempest" or any other piece or drama in this way, with all this lighting and stage technique. Because it was designed especially for this theater and it is unique."
Is the play becoming what you want it to be, are you satisfied?
"What people imagine can never be carried out, unfortunately. If I could start from the beginning, I would probably do many things differently. But to clear the picture we must admit that this is a really new stage. We just moved into the building three months ago, and we would have needed a longer period to really try out what this stage could do. If I had more time I would try to do different things."
- As you explained, it is your final play to direct. Are you going to be
doing other things, or are you really retiring? Can we expect to see you
in other fields?
"My real job is a drama writer, and when I retire I would like to write.".
That evening, the play is performed in front of a public audience. Things indeed do go more smoothly, where audio as well as lighting are concerned. When the performance comes to an end, it receives an endless ovation. The actors look as if they are slightly relieved at the warm goodbye that the audience delivers. Mr. Schwajda is not on stage and as such his reaction cannot be seen. But one can imagine him somewhere behind the stage catching a glimpse of the audience's reaction. And, hopefully, he joins in their satisfaction.