Award ceremonies, especially annual ones, do not exist in a vacuum, and so it is with the 39th Theatre Critics’ Awards for the 2017/2018 season. What dominated this year were the number of big-name winners, as well as nominees from the countryside (i.e., outside Budapest) and even beyond the present-day borders of Hungary (Sepsiszentgyörgy, Újvidék, and Kolozsvár).
The latter phenomenon can be seen as a positive trend, or possibly reverse snobism – a reaction to those who have claimed that theatre critics, especially in past years, were oblivious to productions outside of Budapest. Katona József Theatre, which in previous years dominated the awards, collected a more modest number of nominations this time. The highly successful Örkény István Theatre was nominated only once in the best costume category.
Another strong influence has been the POSZT (National Theatre Festival in Pécs), where many critics had the opportunity to view the distant productions that were later nominated. The POSZT, which has taken place annually since 2001, has been the target of criticism before – from the murky mechanics of its competitive portion to the make-up of its juries. Consequently, not only the line-up of shows in Pécs, but also the winners of that competition can have an effect on the Critics’ Awards.
The winner for best production at the last POSZT was an ultra-modern staging of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm from the Hungarian State Theatre of Kolozsvár [Cluj-Napoca, Romania], although a few professionals I spoke with expressed reservations about that particular show. Here, as though to balance the overabundant praise it received in Pécs, Rosmersholm was nominated in just two categories, and it only won for best set design.
Notable awards for theatres outside of Hungary were for best production (A Tomb for Boris Davidovich from Újvidék [Novi Sad, Serbia]), best entertaining production or musical (Goldoni’s Brawling in Chioggia from Sepsiszentgyörgy [Sfântu Cheorghe, Romania]), and best costumes and music (Alice, based on Lewis Carrol’s work by the accomplished director László Bocsárdi, again from Sepsiszentgyörgy). We can also talk about venues outside the big city receiving notice (nods to Kecskemét, Miskolc, and Szombathely, where the Weörös Sándor Theatre took home a special prize for its first 10 years of operation).
Still, in terms of the winners, big names dominated. Róbert Alföldi won for best direction (for Miller’s The Crucible in Szombathely, beating two other celebrated directors, André Şerban and János Mohácsi) and for best actor (as Richard III at Radnóti Theatre). This double win could reflect the critics wish that Róbert Alföldi would make more acting appearances, but it could also signal their steadfast support of this artist who was rudely removed from his leadership position at the National Theater and replaced with Atilla Vidnyánszky on purely political grounds. The latter’s son, Atilla Vidnyánszky, Jr., was also nominated for best actor as Hamlet at the Vígszínház. Passing over him in favor of Alföldi may have seemed a retribution too sweet to resist. (Vidnyánszky, Jr.’s popular poetry-based show was nominated in the children’s theatre category, but that lost to the trendier K2 company.)
Best independent show went to the four-hour adaptation of Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight, helmed by popular theatre artist Vilmos Vajdai. Long-time actress and television personality Judit Hernádi beat out two less famous contenders for best actress, while the awards for supporting actors went to established performers Adél Jordán and László Zsolt. In the latter two cases, I can give my strong support. Adél Jorden was the emotional core of Pintér Béla’s Tamás Acher in Háromszék at the Katona József Theatre, practically single-handedly holding the play together for the last half. László Zsolt appeared in several small memorable roles in Richard III, showing off his great range and versatility.
Awards, of course, are always debatable and subjective. A good number of these decisions I cannot weigh in on, simply because I haven’t seen all the shows that were nominated, quite difficult for the out-of-town productions. If there were any upsets, however, the first would be in the category of most promising newcomer. Miklós H. Vecsei seemed to have this locked down, since he has stolen audiences’ hearts as Nemecsek in the musical adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s Paul Street Boys at Vígszínház, in addition to being nominated separately for his writing and dramaturgy. Alas, Miklós took home no prizes. The best newcomer award went to actress Janka Korodi from Sepsiszentgyörgy. (Although some web sources claim it was a tie between Ms. Korodi and Eliza Sodró of the Radnóti Theatre).
Just to make things more confusing, the Hungarian Critics Theatre Association and the Dramaturges Guild give out separate awards for best new writing for the stage and best new drama, respectively. In the past 20 years, they have selected the same play on roughly five occasions (Headman’s Holiday by Kornél Hamvai, Our Secrets by Béla Pintér, and three pieces by János Terey: Table Music, Jeremias, and Niebelung Park). In general, the critics tend to focus on successful productions, while the dramaturges often choose works by accomplished authors for their literary (not always stageworthy) merits.
Yet, both groups have been slow to recognize the contributions of female writers to the theatre (arguably because their plays are rarely produced). In its long 39-year history, the critics have only awarded best drama to a female writer on two occasions: last year for a play by Zsófia Znajkay, and a children’s piece written by Dániel Varró and Borbála Szabó in 2009. This year, predictably, they chose the nominee with the most accolades to his credit, Pál Zavada for A Market Day at the Radnóti. However, for the first time in the 20-year history of their award, the dramaturges singled out a female playwright for best drama: Anna Eszter Szilágyi for her work uncovering prostitution abroad, Nyíregyhaza Street.
Finally, it seems, these groups are beginning to pay attention to women dramatists; although they overlooked my favorite plays of the past two years, both written by female authors. For more details, please read the related article.
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