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Hungary’s Political Theatre: New Government Targets Artists


It is hard to imagine Nick Hytner getting the push from the National Theatre for political reasons. More than anything else theatre just doesn’t seem to have much political clout in the UK. Politicians don’t see theatre directors as a threat to their authority. Most of them are a non-entity as far as they are concerned, barely even showing up on a politician’s radar.

Not so in Hungary. For Hungary’s premier Viktor Orban, bringing the cultural institutions to heel is important. A true Hobbesian, he is currently doing his best to annihilate opposition to his centre-right coalition, and artists are among the targets.

You would be forgiven for not knowing a great deal about Hungarian politics; since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hungarian political headlines rarely reach western Europe’s press. You may, however, have heard that the centre-left government collapsed in the wake of the credit crisis after it emerged that the Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, lied about the national finances to help win elections. He was voted out in 2009 after a vote of no-confidence, to be replaced briefly by Gordon Bajnai before a landslide victory for the centre-right coalition, led by Victor Orban of the centre-right party Fidesz (Federation of Young Democrats). Fidesz now enjoys an unprecedented two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament, while the far-right Jobbik party (meaning literally ‘the right ones’ in both senses of the term), who share the coalition power, brought in 17 percent of the vote.

Orban has been accused of using his two-thirds majority to push through constitutional and legislative reforms deliberately designed to isolate opposition. He has also been accused of pursuing a soft power sidelining of outspoken cultural figures. The most high-profile victim of this strategy so far is Robert Adolfi, Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Hungary, in Budapest, who recently found his term as Director prematurely brought to an end  by the Human Resources Ministry. Robert Adolfi had already been under pressure from Viktor Orban and the government for the last two years for his political views and his homosexuality. They have repeatedly called for his ouster. The Jobbik party even organised protests outside the theatre at which homophobic slogans were chanted.

The move has barely been reported in western press, bar one article by the International Herald Tribune, reproduced in the New York Times here. It comes amidst a general policy of sidelining all cultural figures that present any opposition to Viktor Orban’s right-wing coalition: opposition radio stations have found their frequencies moved in favour of less political stations, newspapers can now be heavily fined for violating “public interest, public morals or order”, leading left-wing academics have found themselves faced with trumped-up legal charges of embezzlement and theatre directors are finding that any political stance that opposes the government sees their funding cut or worse their job.

Robert Adolfi’s ouster came in the form of Attila Vidnyánszky, a right-wing alternative who has wholehearted support of the government. Vidnyánszky recently outlined his vision for The National Theatre of Hungary at The Sports University in Budapest:

“A paradigm shift will come and as a part of it we’d like to establish a true and great National Theatre. The National is a church, it is a spiritual and sacred place born out of the nation’s soul. (…) The National Theatre was built and kept alive by a rightist idea, and we all saw what the other kind has made out of it.”

Vidnyánszky is also the author of the recent legislation reforming arts funding which has been described by Krekator’s Artistic Director Arpád Schilling as a deliberate attempt to “bleed out the theatrical avant-garde” by annulling support for independent companies and artists not directly associated with individual theatres.

This is by no means an isolated trend. The director of The New Theatre, István Márta has been forced to leave too. He is being replaced by György Dörner, a moderately successful actor who does the voice-overs for the Hungarian versions of Mel Gibson’s films but has no experience as an artistic director. In his application he wrote that he wanted to rename the New Theater as the “Home Front Theater,” but that he would also put an end to “degenerate, sick, liberal hegemony.”

It is a pretty strange situation: Orban’s strategy of attacking not only political opposition but also cultural opposition is frightening. The new media laws mean that insulting the ‘spirit of the Hungarian nation’ is now a crime. For theatre-makers this means making controversial work will become more and more difficult. Government funding has shifted to effectively cut out the avant-garde, but it was only just over twenty years ago when all the radical art was amateur anyway, with the communist state only funding what they liked.

Most likely the cultural scene in Hungary will be pretty resilient, less can be said for the thousands of Roma, homosexuals and Jews in Hungary who are subjected to increasing intolerance from their ruling coalition. I hope that by attempting to sideline so many articulate and talented artists – Viktor Orban inadvertently creates a powerful opposition, but the reality is that he remains popular. He has made a good political career on blaming economic hardship on those who are different. There we find chilling parallels.

Toby Jones is a freelance theatre director based in London. He specialises in political theatre. You can find out more about him and his upcoming projects on his website.