News – 6th October, 2006

A surreal journey

Kornél Hamvai: Castel Felice

News–6th October, 2006


Masquerading as a naturalist drama, Hamvai's Castel Felice uses the metaphor of ship's journey to explore a no-exit situation with national and existential dimensions.

A Hungarian woman on the brink of middle age prepares to disembark. She has undertaken a month-long voyage on board the ship Castel Felice. Her destination: Australia and a second husband, a man she has only communicated with by letter. She pauses at the rail. Silently, she spots him. A second of inexpressible uncertainty passes. Then, she waves to her future spouse and leaves the ship to join him onshore. This brief, wordless scene, brilliantly performed by Adél Kováts, is perhaps the most touching moment of Castel Felice, Kornél Hamvai's latest play. Still, this is much more than a play about one expatriate, or even a group of expatriates. Suffice to say, Castel Felice is far more complex than it initially seems.

 Kornél Hamvai has no one consistent style; rather, he is a great mixer of genres. His most successful play to date, Headman's Holiday (presented in English at the Merlin International Theatre), presented a panorama of Paris during the French Revolution in a series of seamless pointillist scenes. With its cast of dozens, it relied on the Katona József Theatre's remarkably versatile company of actors to perform the feat. Kitty Flynn followed at the Pesti Theatre. The story of two conmen who use an unsuspecting, though fetching cleaning woman as a tool in their deadly duel of wits, it was a mind-bending blend of crime story, musical theatre, dance, high drama, and suspense that left most of the audience scratching their heads. Hamvai's Castel Felice at the Radnóti Miklós Theatre is something different altogether. Masquerading as a naturalist drama, it uses the metaphor of ship's journey to explore a no-exit situation with national and existential dimensions.

As for the setting, the eponymous ship Castel Felice embarks for Australia with an eight-member contingent of Hungarian expatriates. The time is October 1958, only two years after the revolution; and each passenger, naturally, seeks to begin a new life abroad. Adél Kováts's character is off to meet her new husband. András Bálint and Mari Csomós play an estranged older couple, traveling to join family. Most everyone else is betting on brilliant new prospects overseas. Tibor Szervét, a photographer, quickly courts and woos Viktória Szávai, a fellow passenger. Gyula Szombathy, as a loudmouth nationalist, Virág Marjai, as a wannabe femme fatale, and András Márton, as an inscrutable mystic, complete the cast.

The company gets the audience laughing with a series of comic encounters as the various characters climb aboard the ship. The conflict only really begins when Adél Kováts seems to recognize Tibor Szervét. She believes he was one of the soldiers responsible for assassinating her first husband, a dissident in the recent revolution. When she confides her suspicions to Gyula Szombathy, he takes it upon himself to confront the accused, as a matter of national honor. Things only grow worse when Gyula unaccountably goes overboard. Was it suicide, or (as most everyone else suspects) did Tibor Szervét murder him, hoping to elude punishment for his crimes?

On the one hand, the stage is set for a naturalistic, dramatic examination of the national conscience. Removed from Hungarian soil, these expatriates and refugees must come to terms with the recent social upheaval. The detailed, realistic set and period costumes prepare us for such a scenario. Yet, historical analysis is the least of Hamvai's concerns. Early on, the nationalist character breaks his only pair of glasses and must borrow a pair from Mari Csomós, the old, dissatisfied wife. This incident hints that faulty, or altered, perception is to blame for the escalating conflict. Then, take for instance Tibor Szervét, who quickly becomes the focal point of the drama. The more he swears he is innocent, the less his fellow passengers believe him. The less they believe him, the more desperately he pleads. Consequently, he is trapped in a vicious cycle, not unlike the one Kafka's protagonist faced in The Trial.

Consequently, the play is torn between two counterproductive goals. As a realistic drama, it never quite works. We may sympathize with Adél Kováts, but her predicament is too general, and her accusation too sketchy. Her character seems good-hearted and well-intentioned, but could she not have imagined the whole incident? Her character speaks relatively little, and the script never adequately delves into her personality. Also, there is the abortive romance between Tibor and Viktória. She refuses to have anything more to do with him, while he insists that he still truly loves her. Yet, how sincere can his love be if they only just met on the ship? It is difficult to sympathize with either character's plight when the relationship never seemed real in the first place. On the other hand, all these details merely get in the way of the existential dilemma. On this no-man's-land in the middle of the ocean, what do questions of identity, history, and conscience mean? Still, the characters tread and retread the same ground. The conflict never becomes universal, never transcending the confines of a quasi-murder mystery.

As director, Péter Valló has put together a very attractive show and assembled a talented cast. Nevertheless, he cannot overcome the play's inherent flaws, and the actors are left to salvage what they can. Tibor Szervét has the least enviable position, being the cynosure of a drama that eventually runs aground. Adél Kováts makes the best of an underdeveloped character. Virág Marjai and Mari Csomós capture the humorous side of their characters well. However, Gyula Szombathy proves the best comedian of the bunch, and his character is sorely missed in the second half of the production.

The weak link in the ensemble is András Márton, just returning to the Hungarian stage after a long period abroad. He is never truly credible as the world-roving mystic, which is a pity, since his character is so essential to the plot. A man of mystery, his fellow passengers seem to confide in him instinctively. He eradicates pretension and always seems to materialize at exactly the right time. Just as András Bálint's character, the sad husband, is preparing to commit suicide by jumping overboard, the mystic appears, and the old man reconsiders. He also somehow holds the key to the nationalist's mysterious death. In the end, only he seems to know what truly happened.

Was it murder or suicide? Kornél Hamvai never quite answers the question. Was it a false accusation, or was the photographer actually guilty? This matter is never resolved either. Kornél Hamvai leaves us adrift in a surreal cloud of ambiguity. Castel Felice guarantees its audience plenty to ponder and plenty to discuss with friends after the show.
Patrick Mullowney

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