Joseph and His Critics – A workshop discussion

Hanga Aradi, Noémi Becsey-Imreh, Tímea-Éva Bogya, Sára Gábor, Alex Mircioi, Zsófia Tölli, Berni Zárug, Ema Onofrei:


Ema: Joseph and His Brothers is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s (long, wry, psychological) 1943 novel on the (relatively short) Biblical story of Joseph (Genesis 37-47). The novel speculates how life might have been in those times, proposing that the lifestyle may have been less pure than the unwary Christian could have been led to believe.

Hanga: Mann’s novel is a big challenge to adapt for stage. The creators (directed by Tamás Ascher and Ildikó Gáspár, adapted by Ildikó Gáspár) challenged themselves and I have to say: they succeeded. My only question is: why five hours? I felt like I’m watching a very nice, very nicely presented story but nothing more… I think if the creators could have found a more radical way to tell us this story it would have felt more like it is worth watching for 5 hours.

Noémi: The length might seem frightening in advance, but after watching the show I see it as totally reasonable. Not only because it is an adoption of a 2kg novel, but because the mise-en-scene plays with this szerepösszevonás (multi-role-playing), which on one hand solves the problem of showing a lot of characters – plenty of relatives and family members, servants and courtiers – but on other hand, by changing actors and diversifying their roles, it makes new connections and possibilities of association. In this labyrinth of characters and actors the audience has to be guided, with constant references and underlining, and that takes time.

Berni: Before the performance, I had been sure that I would die of this 5 hours, based on an extremely long novel (and this did almost happen, thanks to the lack of oxygen in the tiny, sold-out dance studio). However, after the first intermission, I realised that it is not too hard to stay there for that long, and I will totally survive it. This was mainly because of the self-irony they used to adopt the story.

Alex: I really didn’t like the show… I don’t mind the emphasis on text and acting, but the lazy everything else was a real turn off for me. For me, a directorial stand-point is important in a show, and this doesn’t really seem to have this. It feels very much like a prestige production, an adaptation of Thomas Mann, by a very well-known director Ascher Tamás, with well-known actors, that turns into a showcase of young talent for the other ones. It’s halfway to being stripped down, but it’s still kind of haphazardly adding costumes (Why are some dressed in H&M basics and others in full on velvet costumes?) and sets (what’s up with the linoleum?). @Berni, I see you mentioned self-irony, is it meant to look like a just-thrown-together thing? Like saying “we couldn’t do a better play then the book so we’re not even gonna try”? I don’t want to seem patronizing, I’m just asking whether I just missed this part.

Berni: @Alex, I mean the characters use self-irony towards themselves.

Sára: For me it was a huge experience in the original space a year ago. I felt as during the show a complex Universe is building around me. Naturally here it worked on a different way.

It’s performed in the the Örkény Theatre on the big stage, with a few hundreds seats, while here it was seen in a small studio. It’s just like to move from a countryside castle to a small flat. I can’t measure the exact size differences between the stages, but the dimensions of the spaces are uncomparable. The shouting has to be speaking, the speaking whispering and the whispering just soundless gaping.

Hanga: @Sára, I agree, I also felt that this tiny little space limited their possibilities. It was like not only the audience is suffering because of the lack of oxygen but also the  actors, the musicians and the whole „world” they tried to create on that stage. I’m sure the performance is working much better at the original space where they designed the set. Here sometimes I even saw on the actors faces the desperation while they tried to play and move around the set in the same time to create some place for the interactions with the others… so at some points it was really messy.

Sofia: The sections are badly proportioned. The back-story is only needed to get these cycles between parents and children….  For me the main idea seemed to climax on family karma in a cycling, unknown paths of life. Parents have a position above all, their challenges are the legacy for the children as well. @Noémi Although the ensemble work is exciting – playing different roles, each actor has to be very focused from the very beginning  through all the almost five hours they are on stage. I think they absolved that task.

Noémi: @Sofia As you say, the actors need to be very focused, in the same time because of their multiple roles, but also because all the roles have two sides: one the character (me) the other the self narration (he/she). This combination needs really good skills for having a sharp border and a strong connection between the two. Although I find many gaps in the director’s concept, the talented actors kind of save the show for me.

Sofia: @Noemi I totally agree. And also young characters and their mature versions are on stage, sometimes at the same time. The only props to make out this duplicate are sometimes only a scarf (like with Jacob). Also the actor of young Jacob becomes the mature Joseph – history seems to repeat itself, and it becomes very clear in the visuals.

Noémi: Well…

Sofia: Vivid colors illustrate Jacob’s and Joseph’s emotions and their status in hierarchy. For instance in the first act there were more earthly tones of maroon and brown, costumes were mostly casual clothes. The second act has more of blues and greens, relating to the water and rushes of the Nile with huge dream-like flowers. The third act has the least props, Joseph’s signature blue shade is all over the set, with a hint of royal gold when his power is increasing.

Noémi: @ Sofia About the scenography, the intense separation of the three acts ( according to certain story phases) is clear, through the use of different colours, different costume materials and styles. The common set elements are the huge plastic animals. In the beginning I found it ridiculous and kitchy, but in the end so ridiculous and kitchy that I actually liked it. Esthetically, what bothers me is the combination of all this visual layers, although I can get the whole symbolic aspect. The colours describe atmospheres, ecological statuses, the zoo style invokes the story of Noe, the wooden house the birth of Jesus. Clear.

Ema: The symbolism is just too inexplicable and that’s really annoying. I felt like I needed more, but the action was just going forward so I couldn’t understand everything concerning a particular scene.

Éva: @Ema I think the use of props, the animal statues for example, bring a certain type of irony, humour and playfulness in it. They fit in this strange universe, created by the language (which could be hard to understand for the non-Hungarian speakers), where the inside thoughts are communicated in a direct way to the audience. On the circular screen above the wooden house  are projections relating to what is happening on stage or sometimes reflecting it (when Joseph arrives to Egypt, it shows a projection of a hour-glass from which the sand falls in the shape of the pyramids). They are kindly kitschy and they add a certain meaning to the whole show.

Sara: @Alex It’s so refreshing and somehow astonishing to read comments, which miss the context. Eg. without knowing the previous works and aesthetic of the stage designer Lili Izsák, the irony of the kitsch and creative use of trash confronted with the too serious topic can look a cheesy, tasteless chaos. In my opinion to see this production so sharply as a prestige production – anyway it’s an interesting to associate to the megalomania in case of these kind of challenging and enormous artistic projects – is the lack of the understanding the Hungarian text. It’s somehow always a question if a theatre performance has any other goal than just to do it. But this text and show had a kind a reflection, and most evidently on the end about a basic and central humanistic and moral statement which was addressed to the audience in a historical period when the politics is so deep and miserable, and no ideologies help to find the direction.

Sofia: @Sara I think that the moral part of the story had too much emphasis. The song at the very end going “hallelujah” and lines were a bit too much, too didactic. Less would have been working out more for me. I can relate to the universal meaning in and beyond the text of Mann, but the directors could trust their audience more – we can interpret that without the emotional choir telling us what to feel at the closure.

Berni: @Sofia I totally agree, all the signs appearing in the first two acts have been working out so well, we don’t need that “forced emotional impact” in the end. Also, other signs became a bit confusing in the third act, for example the huge plastic polar bear, which looked more like a pure joke. I can find a meaning for it, but I think I would just construe something into it.

Sofia: @Berni The polar bear was my favorite, even though I didn’t figure out how that connects to the symbolism of the performance. The other animals seem to show Joseph’s changing place in the hierarchy and society. In the second act his “totem animal” was a black panther, much smaller than the one Potifar’s wife had. In the third act however, as the right hand of the pharaoh Joseph was situated on a white tiger. Quite a change and a quite transparent one.

Alex: @Sara, I agree with @Sofia on the symbolism of the matter, but I’d also argue that it’s not kitsch. I really did not find it kitsch at all. Everything was too… small to be kitsch. It’s not campy, it’s just poorly made. But now that I understand that this is her authorial mark, I at least understand where she was going with it. It’s very… middle ground – not „fancy” enough for a Big Budget Production type of thing, she’s not stripping it down, and it’s definitely not trashy. (I think you can’t go less trashy then H&M basics.) I really would have loved a contrast between the material and the show, but it’s just too little. It really does feel like a formula of canonical book + a lot of good actors = good theater. And for me it does not.

Sára left the conversation.

Sofia: @Alex, such a nice formula, thanks for coming up with it! Agreed, like.

Éva: @Berni I loved the unexpected polar bear joke! But I don’t think that it had a specific meaning more than the wealthiness of the pharaoh’s empire . The third act has a more elevated, expressive and abstract acting style, which can bear (ha ha) a more drastic combination of the visual elements, a real life size polar bear in a cleared-out all blue space. Puting Joseph on a white tiger (which is a sign of wealthiness too) aside with all his brothers in the little wooden house, gives a strong visually contrast between them.

Éva left the conversation.

Hanga: Guys, just let it go and let’s have a drink.

Hanga left the conversation.


Berni left the conversation.

Sofia left the conversation.



*The opinion expressed in this article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the festival’s organisers.

*The workshop In/Between Reflex(ions) is organised by Tamási Áron Theatre, in a partnership with the Romanian Cultural Institute.