Innocence in the underworld

RS9, one of Hungary's most innovative theatre companies, brings The Song of the Fool to Edinburgh this year.
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The Independent Culture

A rubble-strewn cellar on the edge of Budapest's wartime Jewish ghetto seems an unlikely base for a revival of independent theatre, but the last 10 years have proved that the RS9 company can bring an eclectic vivacity to the world of Hungarian drama. Co-founded in 1987 by Dezso Dobay and Katalin Laban (grand-daughter of the Hungarian dance theorist Rudolf Laban), RS9 takes its name from its address: no 9, Rumbach Sebestyen street in downtown Pest, a few minutes walk from the steel and glass towers that mark the arrival of capitalism in this historic quarter of the city.

Even now, the surrounding buildings are still pockmarked with bullet holes from wartime street-fighting, the damage only adding to the area's echt atmosphere. RS9's devoted members spent months clearing out piles of rubbish and debris from the former bomb shelter before it hosted its first performance in 1989. Its tunnel-like dimensions provide excellent acoustics, with the actors' lines resounding across the space. Small and intimate, the theatre provides an intense experience for the audience, which is just a few feet from the performers, with an atmospheric underground bar to relax in after performances.

RS9 is performing for six nights at Edinburgh, with director Dezso Dobay's production of The Song of the Fool in English. With texts by writers including Samuel Beckett, Rainer Maria Rilke and Hungarians Janos Pilinsky and Bela Hamvas, the performance is based on the symbolism of the tarot cards. The Song of the Fool follows the progress of a naive wanderer as he meanders through the world, sometimes engaging with those he encounters and sometimes regarding them in wonder, but always learning something on the way.

"There are three parts to the play as we watch the development of the Fool. In the beginning he asks what he should do with his life, to find a path, and a point of reference, as he begins to understand human relations," explains Dobay. "Then he descends into hell, before returning back to earth."

A performance by RS9 is usually an intense experience and The Song of the Fool is no exception. The actors bring a powerful dynamism to their roles, accentuated by the intimacy of the space. Booming sound effects that make the audience jump and imaginative sets using hand-made papier mâché figures, faces and giant hands add to the otherwordly feel of the Fool's journey, while his coarse and raggedy clothes give him a vagabond air.

Although the performance will be in English, not all of the actors speak the language fluently, which presented an extra difficulty with learning lines. Krisztina Kovacs plays a long-legged temptress, whose flirtatious ways outrage the staid burghers of her neighbourhood, as well as a ghost. "It was definitely a challenge to perform the play in English, because not all of us are fluent English speakers. You need a lot of emotional power to play these parts, and it was hard to translate that intensity into another language."

The subject matter has a special resonance in post-Communist Eastern Europe, says Dobay, where many people are searching for a new way to live. Since the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989 and the replacement of Marx and Engels by Marks & Spencer, Hungary, like its neighbours, has suffered from a spiritual vacuum. What to believe in when old certainties are discredited? "Our life in Hungary, like elsewhere in the world, is too materialistic, too much based around money and people don't know what to believe in," says Dobay.

"The old system of Communism was based on at least the idea of changing human nature, to have a new emphasis on idealism. But under that system the only philosophy available was that of Marxist-Leninism. Now in Hungary there is a new wave of books on ideas such as oriental philosophy as people are searching for something, that will bring more meaning to lives than the pursuit of money. There is a desire for a new kind of thinking, for exploring a new way of living and the Fool can help show us the way."

The answer, as with many questions, is a kind of compromise. Hungarians love going to the theatre. The population is barely 10 million, but five million tickets are sold every year, about one in six for some kind of independent theatre event. Under Communism Budapest enjoyed a vibrant cultural life, with tickets to ballet, classical music, opera and theatre all subsidised by the state, as a means of bringing the classics to the masses. Thankfully, that easily available culture has continued under the free market, and tickets are still very cheap, compared to those in the West. A first-class night of theatre or ballet can be had for less than £10, and it costs far less for the cheaper seats, or to see work at independent theatres such as RS9.

The country has a strong tradition of theatre says John Nadler, the Budapest correspondent for showbusiness newspaper Variety. The city's renowned academy of film and dramatic arts gives its students a thorough grounding in Shakespeare and the Russian Classics. "Just as in Britain, many film actors trained in the theatre and are very talented. It's not like in the US, where people come in through commercials and TV."

RS9 survives on financial aid from the Ministry of Culture, Budapest City Council and the local area council, among others. George Soros's foundation has also supported them. But funds are never enough: so much so that the company is travelling to Edinburgh not by aeroplane, but by minibus, and will be staying in a friend's flat rather than at a hotel.

Whatever the cash-flow problems, RS9 are set to give their all at Edinburgh. Their last performance there, in 1993, entitled Desire to Become Indians and based on Kafka's novel Amerika, received critical acclaim for its evocative portrayal of the immigrants' struggle in the new world. RS9 have come a long way from clearing away the rubble at their eponymous address.

'The Song of the Fool', Rocket Venues (Venue 123) 0131 228 7555, to 11 Aug, 9.30pm (10.25)