Formally laid out on the long table is a row of silver dishes each bearing a single rosy apple. The cast line up by their places and then, dispensing with everything but their avid mouths, fall to devouring the fruit to the core. Amplified guzzling noises underscore the ferocious greed of this scoffing session. A caricature of a precipitous fall from innocence, the opening sequence in Laszlo Hudi's production of Tragedy of Man is a portent in more ways than one, for the Mozgo Haz Theatre Company, now visiting LIFT, make a joky, grotesque meal of just about everything.
Imre Madach's 1862 play is unknown in this country, but in his native Hungary, it is spoken of in the same breath as the works which inspired it – Paradise Lost and Goethe's Faust. Written after the failed 1848 uprising against Viennese rule, the piece takes Adam, Eve and Lucifer on a sneak-preview tour of history (from classical times to 19th-century London and prophetic fantasies of socialist utopias) and on an exploration of the purpose of human life. Its message, according to the LIFT programme, is that "for humans to have a blind, unqualified faith in any system of ideas is ultimately self-destructive, because none of them can be followed without misgivings of one kind or another".
The play sounds a fascinating proposition. But Hudi's production is by no means a straightforward way of plugging this sizeable gap in one's cultural knowledge. He uses fragments of the original text simply as the pretext for his own pell-mell multi-media remix, with a techno-opera soundtrack and live video images of the grey-suited cast in bizarre "historical" improvisations that are superimposed on a hurtling filmscape of clips from classic historical movies.
Like a parodic emblem of the tidy-minded approach to the past which this staging violently eschews, three monitors at the centre of the set flash up entries and "topic trails" from the Encarta encyclopaedia. Down on the ground, we witness such perplexing spectacles as a pair of Greek warriors comparing their wounds and pulling out fistfuls of white feathers from them, or a woman whose hand has to dodge the blade of a tiny guillotine as she sneaks a model of the Eiffel Tower back and forth through it. Or, in the pre-Renaissance section, there is a lady with sealed eyes who wrestles with a man wearing a binocular head-set.
Some of these images (like that last) have a surreal suggestiveness, but too often, the production's treatment of the ideological shifts in its tour of time make the National Theatre of Brent's forays into cultural explanation look like the documentaries of Simon Schama.
Nor do things improve when Hudi and company cast their gaze into the future. There's a charmingly funny bit with a chap whose fervent belief that man will one day fly keeps absurdly inflating his white suit, but what exactly do we learn about the projected fate of our species by watching a woman dunking her head in a tank in an attempt to catch a clockwork fish in her teeth?
The huge technical talent of this outfit is never in doubt and I laughed aloud several times. Perhaps the production seems more daring and impressive if you know the work it is bouncing off. As a way of introducing us to Hudi and his actors, it might have been better to bring across his Cherry Orchard.
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