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Secrets and spies

Hungary's second city, Debrecen (population a little over 200,000), is a tranquil and attractive place.

Bela Pinter, left, as opposition activist Imre Tatar in Our Secrets
Bela Pinter, left, as opposition activist Imre Tatar in Our Secrets

The centre is dominated by fine, Habsburg architecture, even if many people still live in the kind of Stalinist era, Le Corbusier-inspired concrete-block housing that continues to blight towns and cities across central and eastern Europe. Debrecen is home to the DESZKA Festival, an eight-day showcase of Hungarian theatre, which recently celebrated its eighth edition. The festival also hosted the latest young critics' seminar of the International Association Of Theatre Critics, in which I, as a director of the seminars, was joined by eight young theatre critics from across Europe and North America.

In truth, much of the work presented by the festival was not what one would call an advert for Hungarian drama. There was, for example, a disappointingly unpoetic rendering of Samuel Beckett's novella First Love. Staged by the festival's host theatre, the Csokonai Theatre of Debrecen, and played by an ill-equipped actor, who is, in any case, much too young for the role, the production had me longing for Peter Egan's splendid performance of the monologue for Dublin's Gate Theatre, which played at the Edinburgh International Festival last year.

However, there were two particularly noteworthy productions. The first was the fascinating and enigmatic Songs Of Wilhelm, a piece by the famous choreographer and theatre-maker Josef Nadj. Based upon the poems of Otto Tolnai, (who, like Nadj, hails from the Hungarian minority in the former Yugoslavia), it combines the banal-yet-poetic ruminations of an old man (acted beautifully by Istvan Bicskei) with a captivating, disquieting, comic and wordless performance by Nadj, who wears an extraordinarily expressive rubber mask that evokes another ageing male character.

The highly accomplished performances, in both spoken language and with choreography/mask, are complemented by moments of object theatre, which are presented in a little puppet theatre and projected, via live film, to a large screen above the stage. By turns humorous and disconcerting in their surrealism, these strange little works of live sculpture contribute purposefully to a work which, ironically, evokes the existential atmosphere of Beckett's writing far more successfully than the Csokonai's staging of First Love.

If Nadj's piece impressed, the undeniable highlight of the festival was Our Secrets, a superb, tragicomic work of politics and recent history by leading Hungarian dramatist Bela Pinter and his Budapest-based company. Imagine Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's superb 2006 film The Lives Of Others (which explores the oppressive surveillance by the Stasi in the old East Germany) crossed with the stinging wit of Oscar Wilde and the tense inter-personal relations of Harold Pinter, and you have something approximating to the Hungarian writer-director's excellent drama.

The play focuses on the infiltration and surveillance of the Hungarian folk music movement by the Stalinist secret state in 1980. It has many moments of laugh-out-loud comedy; not least in the relationship between ardent Communist Bea Zakarias and folk dancer Imre Tatar (played fabulously by Pinter himself), who is, unbeknown to Zakarias, editor of an underground oppositionist newspaper. However, when it turns darker, the piece goes further than Donnersmarck dared. Where the German filmmaker had an actress blackmailed on account of her drug addiction, Pinter has Tatar's close friend and confidant dragged into the State's net when his paedophilia is discovered.

Cleverly written and brilliantly acted (often by way of cross-gender performances), the play ends with a sharply satirical dig at Hungary's current, deeply compromised capitalist democracy. Better, as a play about Stalinism in eastern Europe, than Tom Stoppard's much praised Rock 'n' Roll, Our Secrets is worthy of inclusion in any theatre showcase, including the Edinburgh International Festival.

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