BUDAPEST, HUNGARY–It’s little wonder Mike Kelly and Matt Devere are working up a serious sweat on stage. Not only is it swelteringly hot in Budapest’s Merlin Theatre (they don’t have any air condition in the building) but the two London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) trained actors are running across the stage, flinging on and off costumes as they play a myriad of characters including fish, a French knight and little boys. The show “Arthur—The Legend Begins” is a fantastical romp loosely based on the legend of King Arthur and the two men do an amazing job switching everything from accents to genders and using props like a rocking horse-styled dragon and swords. After the show I ask the two actors, who have lived in Budapest for over a decade and co-founders of Madhouse Theatre, what is so special about the Merlin Theatre, which later this year will be celebrating its 20th anniversary. “I think the main thing that sets Merlin apart is that it is truly an internationally theatre,” Kelly tells me, as he tries to talk over thudding drum beats (a musical group are performing traditional Native American music in the theatre’s café.) “It is the only place that consistently brings over English, Russian, Japanese—you name it—artists and shows. It provides a variety [of performances] that you certainly do not have in other theatres here.”
The theatre scene in Budapest is incredibly vibrant and diverse with everything from classical Hungarian plays to experimental theatre constantly being showcased in the several dozen theatres across the city. But what Merlin does is unique in this landscape in that the theatre—which is really a “receiving house” says Merlin’s director Laszlo Magacs—mixes a host of genres on successive nights. Each evening throughout the theatre season, which runs from late September until the end of June, provides a new experience. Mondays and Wednesdays are dedicated to English-language performances (though Madhouse perform regularly at Merlin there are troupes from places as far away as Canada who have performed here) while Tuesdays are dedicated to showing off the latest in modern—and traditional—dance performances. Thursday evenings the theatre, which does not have a permanent company of actors but works with six local troupes and has spawned five companies that have spun off from the theatre, plays host to Hungarian-language productions both from Hungary and neighboring countries like Romania, Serbia and Ukraine. Fridays and Saturdays, Merlin (like its wizard namesake) transforms into a dance club, with partygoers coming to sway to the latest European dance beats. The theatre—which is housed in a former power station in central Budapest—also offers poetry slams, discussions, workshops and readings scattered throughout the season. Merlin has become, says theatre critic Judit Csaki, a specific brand on the theatre scene in the city. “It is part educational, it is part experimental, it’s a very trendy potpourri,” she tells me.
Since its founding two decades ago, Merlin (which as a private theatre relies on grants and tickets sales to cover costs) has been focused on showcasing offbeat programming. “The original idea was to set up an English-language theatre for tourists and expats during the theatre season,” Magacs tells me as we sit in the café. “There used to be something like 100,000 expats who lived in Budapest and so the first few years it was dedicated to that community.” Now he says the audience for the English language performances tend to be 70 percent Hungarian and even higher when they perform pieces from Shakespeare. “I never work with Hungarians on English productions, I mostly bring them over from the UK,” says Magacs, who has been with the theatre since it began but took over as director in 2003. “I remember the first time we did a Hungarian classic and the English actors did not understand [the context] and kept asking me, ‘What is this.’ And they started asking more questions and their point was so different from mine so it made me read the play from a different perspective. So that is the beauty of an international collaboration.” Over the years plays from Merlin have been performed at the Edinburgh Festival as well as in India. “Laszlo has done a lot in terms of building bridges [by] showing Hungary to Europe and vice versa,” says Csaki, who, also as the head of the theatre department at Hungary’s Kaposvar University, has had her students perform pieces at Merlin.
Merlin has not only built bridges among European theatres and companies—including LAMDA and the Dresden-based Russian theatre company Derevo—but also with several Japanese theatre and dance companies, thanks in part to a season of Japanese theatre that was held at Merlin two years ago. Aside from hosting a weeklong anniversary celebration in the autumn—something Magacs jokingly says is such a big job that “I do not want to think about it now”—the upcoming season will also feature more Japanese programming including a Japanese/Hungarian Butoh opera. There are also upcoming plans for a dinner circus (Magacs says it is similar to what Cirque de Soleil do), productions of the second part of the King Arthur legend and Hungarian and English performances of a play based on the film “Hard Candy”, with Magacs directing the English-language show and the Hungarian-language piece being directed by noted Hungarian film director Krisztina Goda. Magacs says he also hopes to do more work with younger actors and playwrights. “The future is to move Merlin into a more contemporary [direction],” he tells me. “I am not saying we are going to be the Budapest version of London’s Royal Court Theatre but something like that.” Whatever direction Merlin goes, it’s likely to continue to showcase some of the most innovative theatre and dance seen in the Hungarian capital. “It’s part of the fun that you never know what you are going to get,” Csaki says. “Sometimes you go there and maybe it’s a Polish theatre group and you cannot understand what the piece is about but still you have seen something different.” And isn’t that the whole point of theatre anyway?