From the road: fitting up at the Armel Festival

Tuesday 30 June 2015

Here in a very warm (though not so warm as London) Budapest the Armel Festival opened last night with a production of The Magic Flute from the Southern university city of Szeged, which has a jewel box opera house and a full-time opera and ballet company. The production was by Róbert Alföldi – he is a colourful figure in the Hungarian theatre, and I have been told he represents for many the liberal values they don’t find in the government. The show sold out weeks ago, and I was squeezed into the back of a box. The audience was quiet during the show, but when he came on stage the applause went on and on and on.

I nipped back to the hotel after the first act, and met our own cast, just returned from another Southern city, Pecs, where they were rehearsing with the excellent resident orchestra and conductor Jeremy Silver. It turns out that this means seven and a half hours of bumpy bus travel (return), as well as six hours of rehearsal, which is far from ideal. They have this morning off, thank goodness, but we have to have one rehearsal in the theatre this afternoon – because of the Thália Theatre’s challenging acoustic, and even more particularly because the show has to be re-lit from top to bottom with the equipment that we have found here.

I am amazed at how calm our technical team is; it seems that we cannot move many of the lamps, so Tom has had to resurrect a number of old lamps from storage in the basement and repair them in order to effect some of the side lighting in the original plan (not common here, but stock in trade of UK touring shows because it reliably ‘sculpts’ figures on stage). They have been at it since midnight last night (it’s just coming up to midday, and somehow they need to get a break before we rehearse at 2).

(Pause for gentle comedy; I am the only customer in the large theatre cafe, but a very vigorous cleaner has just taken full ten minutes to rub down all the upholstery in my immediate vicinity, perhaps for my benefit or for my company. Certainly I am now covered in a nice dusting of crumbs…).

We had a long visit to the theatre yesterday, while the Szeged show was fitting up. We came across a very generous and helpful marketing manager who translated for what one calls the ‘yes’ meeting: everything, it seemed, was possible. Everything except for clearing the access corridor of the detritus of many old productions from another theatre, which meant that we had to cut into pieces the large, revolving stage piece which dominates our set, and which had been carefully preserved through two long UK tours, fitting even through the narrow ingress of the Blackpool Grand Theatre. I have just seen the sawn pieces banged back into shape, and wait with excitement to see if it will still revolve as the action requires.

The ‘no’ meeting which follows every ‘yes’ meeting was sometime after midnight, while our guys waited with the local crew for the arrival of the truck with our set and costumes (my chair legs and indeed my own legs are now being brushed by the same, very thorough cleaner). Ryan (manfully taking over for Production Manager Steve Hawkins) finally texted me at 1.40am that the truck had arrived. Apparently it had been parked in a lay-by an hour away, and they had forgotten about the delivery. Ryan managed to reach by phone the slender and impressive Fanny, a Festival assistant who had just done her final university exam that morning, and Fanny did not mince her words with the trucker, who spoke no Hungarian so probably did not mind to much.

So they are getting on with it, cheerfully, and the local crew seem hearty, willing, and bemused by what it is we have built. Our terrific wardrobe mistress has had to go to hospital with nose bleed that just wouldn’t stop, but the festival is making sure she gets good care. On the hospitality front, they score highly.

As for me, I spend a lot of time asking if I can help, but the lads take one look at me and know that no is the right answer. All in all, I am humbled by how hard everyone works, and how generous they are in their relationship to ETO. I know that a significant group have to be at rehearsal in London on Wednesday, so after the show tonight are leaving for the airport at 3am for a flight at 6am.

I had not quite reckoned that The Siege of Calais will be streamed live tonight (at 7pm local time, 6pm in the UK) from Budapest on ARTE. No wonder the whole team is putting heart and soul into making it look good. My heart is thinking a little rapidly – either from the very strong coffee, or from the thought of what we must try to get through in the rehearsal this afternoon, and still not tire out the poor, wonderful singers.

It’s eventful, difficult, interesting, and deeply tiring for the whole team – but still, what great good fortune to be working with such strong and generous artists and technicians, to collaborate with such a scrupulous orchestra, and to show Budapest and the international audience for ARTE the kind of work we are lucky enough to tour live in the UK. I am proud of this show, and chuffed to have another chance to show people what an eloquent, political and moving opera is Donizetti’s The Siege of Calais.

James Conway
General Director, ETO and Director, The Siege of Calais

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