The only performance I watched on Sunday evening was Joseph and His Brothers by the Örkény Theatre from Budapest and I myself was happy that it was the only one and not because of the massive five hours it lasted, because length in itself is unimportant. If the material didn’t ask for it, it would be a whole other story, but it surely did.
Speaking of stories, Ildikó Gáspár’s adaptation is based on the idea of telling the story of Joseph. It’s an obvious dramaturgical direction but not an easy one, since storytelling goes hand in hand with the problems of the impossibility of telling a story – in this case, of describing a world, a culture – and, ultimately, with the questions of where does a story begin and end; how do different characters step into it; and where do we, the audience, come in?
On the stage old Jacob is recounting his dream, the nightmare of Abraham, to young Joseph. In the dream he stands in front of an altar made of stones, holding a knife to the boy’s throat, sweating heavily. Well, but you know this old story and how it ends, so why were you afraid, asks the actor Patkós of Gálffi, you know very well that in the last minute the Lord will speak, you will see the ram, you will take it, etc., etc. Yes but when you are inside the story, inside its presence, responds Gálffi, you are always overcome by fear that the Lord will not speak.
We follow a series of repeating motifs in the performance – the blessing of Abraham means, after all, a series of tricks, betrayals, and miraculous escapes. Jacob tricks Esau to obtain a blessing. Then Laban tricks Jacob into marrying not Rachel but Leah after seven years of service and Jacob, as he is in love with Rachel, has to work seven more years to be able to take her, too, as his wife. Joseph is given a coat by Rachel, a sign of blessing, so his brothers vengefully sell him off as a slave for 20 pieces of silver. Judah kisses Joseph before he betrays him. Joseph will kiss his brother back but there’s a long way until that can happen and this kiss will lead us to times that are so far ahead, they might not even have happened yet.
The dramaturgy of the performance asserts that stepping into the order of repetitions is possible through diversion, that a known story, a fable can be opened through the doubt that whatever has happened might never happen again. These issues also relate to the nature of theatrical representation. The directing (celebratory repetitions and retellings, liturgical dramas, comments Jacob ironically) reflects this in many ways – swapping between, handing over and inheriting roles, different characters appearing in the shade of one another or next to each other, the act of stepping in and out of the narration. These all serve to make this story from the past become present for the audience. Or, in other words, so in this wheel of basic motifs we can recognise our own lives and become its participating actors; to finally understand that the child, sitting on the edge of the abyss is none other than us.