Two men are seated on either side of a table in a cafe somewhere in Hungary. No eye contact is made, and they are evidently uncomfortable; reluctant to be in each other’s presence. They have no similarities physically, in their dress, or in their philosophical countenance. They could be strangers, with nothing in common. Except we are told they are brothers.
The tension is there from the start. Each is critical of the other and antagonistic, as siblings might be. The strait-laced business executive cannot fathom the plebeian lifestyle his brother indulges in. And in retaliation, the boho brother shovels said plebeian food into his mouth like he’s never eaten before. Soon they regress into a familiar childish bickering. The audience is drawn into this captivating dialogue as it ping pongs from topic to topic, hinting at but never settling on the real issue between them. Their conversations are circular, almost a drunken diatribe; silly, witty, and endearing. The bickering is peppered with innuendo and for a moment, I was unsure if they were brothers or ex-lovers! Just for a moment…
The two clearly share some deep childhood trauma; a door to which they are the sole guardians. ‘The key’ is the only fragile connection the brothers cling to, even as they rebel against their connection and mutual history. Both actors share great chemistry, and they give a great performance.
The second act takes place in the younger brother’s flat. It’s in artistic disarray and a contrast to the minimal cafe. We are treated to more of the same humour and circular dialogue but there’s a rapid influx of the rest of the cast and the drama builds until it hits a crescendo. At this point the story becomes less believable, but no less humorous, with the implication of six degrees of separation between them. Suddenly there is silence, as the brothers are left alone at the end to their introspection.
The writing in the first half stands out against the jumble of dialogue in the second. There’s a lot to process, though funny and outrageous (like watching a car crash). The second half contrasts with the witty repartee between the brothers in the first, which was engaging, intriguing and interspersed with comic relief from the waiter. We are left wondering how did they get here? What made them such polar opposites? Why are they estranged? The fact that the play is set in Hungary within a normal affluent yet dysfunctional family only spotlights the relatability across cultures and families around the world. Coming from an ethnic minority background myself, it was refreshing to see this.
There is also a sexual fluidity to the romantic relationships portrayed, which is beautifully normalised. It is quite a statement made by the writer considering the current political climate in Hungary with its tight rein on LGBTQ rights and freedom of speech. Society across the globe is regressing and devolving on human rights even as we try to progress, and this portrayal plays a small but important part in highlighting this.
The author Andras Forgach was in the audience for the opening night to witness this UK debut of his play. The translation was done in collaboration with Mateusz Mirek, Susan Brooke and Michal Nowak, who also form part of the cast. The transaltion maintained the characters and accents of an affluent Eastern European family, clearly a deliberate decision to move away from the stereotypes and caricatures. And it shows that the team also worked hard to translate the nuances of language, culture, and humour into this piece.
Choreographed well with good timing and snappy delivery it kept the audience engaged. I was in stitches and came away thinking I’d like to see more from this team.
Written by: Andras Forgach
Translated by: Andras Forgach, Mateusz Mirek, Susan Brooke and Michal Nowak.
Directed by: Mateusz Mirek
Produced by: Other Space Productions
The Key plays at White Bear Theatre until 5 November. Further information and bookings can be found here.