Staging Shame

Kornél Mundruczó’s adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace aims to shock at the Wiener Festwochen

A scene from Szégyen (Shame) at the Wiener Festwochen | Photo: Márton ÁGH

“What happened to me is a purely private matter.” In J. M. Coetzee’s 1999 novel Disgrace, Lucy is describing rape by strangers – and also telling her father the reason she won’t go to the police about it.

It’s a comment that could only come from a novel, a meta-philosophical, meta-rational, meta-religious decision, that Lucy makes in the depths of the South African countryside where her disgraced father has joined her after a sex scandal with one of his students.

Unlike playgoers, novel readers hunger for “themes”, but themes proceeding from the individual case, from the depths of idiosyncrasy itself: Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, or Ahab in Moby Dick.

But when Hungarian stage director Kornél Mundruczó decided to bring Coetzee’s novel onstage, it had a different kind of life, whose triumphant result, Szégyen (Shame), was presented in May by the Wiener Festwochen. Mundruczó is the best, most impatient of opportunists, always at the adaptee’s side, rather like a camp counsellor who transforms an introverted nine-year old into a lusty volleyball player in two weeks. To this end, Mundruczó’s stalwart actors rip their clothes off, defiantly simulating sex and violence onstage. They also expose their shocking differences: Instead of  the exquisite uniformity of a great writer’s style, rarefied into Arial typeface, we suddenly have ten typefaces, 10 shapes of love handles.

Novelists have to limn characters, but when they’re in the same theatre with you, Mundruczó shows you just how agonizingly unlimned – how deranged – Lucy and her father become. The rape is depicted as graphically as possible, but the fake blood and dependable stage dirt flung on Lucy by the Afro-wigged Hungarian actors are even more crushing than Annamária Láng’s realistic, piteous cries.

Life has been sliced, but it’s bleeding theatre.  On Mundruczó’s stage, Coetzee’s theme-bearers – a.k.a. human beings – are inchoate works-in-progress like you and me, yet elements of chance seem as shatteringly precise as they only can in theatre, where there are light cues and a prop table.

And Mundruczó’s characters know this.  Author Coetzee anoints the father’s first stroll with student Melanie with spring rain, but Mundruczo’s Melanie wields an insecticide sprayer filled with water, upping the ante on one of the book’s most important themes: Fate seems so personal, so wilful that we can’t imagine we aren’t somehow steering the boat ourselves. As my New England great-uncle said, shame originates on the outside, from disgrace, and therefore poses a more complex problem for us than guilt. When we take our disgrace to heart, we’re swallowing an entire world – the world that pointed its finger at us – and we can’t spit it out again. (That’s why it’s so important for Lucy to keep the baby resulting from her rape.)

Eros has come knocking at dad’s door in the form of waiflike Melanie, a mediocre student in his Romantic Poets class. He puts Mozart clarinet music on the hi-fi, they fuck, and Eros is swiftly overtaken by disgrace. Although he makes a pro forma apology, Professor Lurie refuses to let the disciplinary board at his college tell him what to feel (they want him to do therapy), preferring to resign and go to live with Lucy in the sticks: Relocation is also a quintessential novelistic structure, far less resonant onstage. Mundruczó doesn’t try for that; his unit set is a jumble of kitchen sinks and dog runs. But Sándor Zsótér twists and turns with the wind as 52-year-old Lurie, whom time has made shameless, while Kata Wéber (Melanie) stands her petite ground (“I’m not so crazy about Wordsworth”).

Lili Monori is the only actress I know of who can raise her voice without becoming the weeest bit histrionic. Here, her Bev Shaw, an animal shelter mama playing God over euthanasia-bound stray dogs, could be called the play’s moral anchor – except Monori’s acting is a matter of fact, not of fiction. When she chats up the audience, trying to get us to buy one or two of the abandoned animals, we sense she’s making her pitch too late; she can’t hide her smirk of anti-climax. But I’ve never felt such tickles of shame in a dark theatre.

Perhaps no play entitled Shame should be without a live acting dog. At the performance I saw, terrier Miska gave a flawless (albeit histrionic) performance for which he might well expect a barrage of fan mail. He walks on stage wagging his tail (how many actors do that?), but is far too good a listener to steal the show. When other actors roamed the stage impersonating dogs, Miska barked at and with them. On Bev Shaw’s veterinary operating table, he crumpled trustingly. Animals onstage are always savvy behaviourists, since unlike people, they neither care what they look like nor try to hide behind their price tag.

But Mundruczó, the director who prodded Coetzee’s novel onstage, is just as savvy a behaviourist as Miska.

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