Back in a previous life, many lifetimes ago, I lived in London. For about 18 months, I went to the theatre at least twice a week. I caught pay-what-you-can shows on the fringe. I watched for deals for shows at the West End. I was fortunate enough to have a good friend who had access to free, last-minute tickets for many of the big names, the classics. I was in heaven. I could ignore the humdrum, nearly robotic existence that was my lot in London as I didn’t have the bank balance to make it otherwise. I had an escape.
Budapest has many things in its favour. It’s a gobsmackingly gorgeous city with plenty in the line of music but not enough in the line of English-language theatre. So when I get the opportunity to see a show when I’m travelling, I’m never one to say no.
In Bath recently, the gorgeous MC had gotten tickets for the last night of Intimate Apparel, a 2003 play by American Lynn Nottage about a seamstress in 1905 New York which was enjoying its British premier. Esther (Tanja Moody), single and in her 30’s, makes underwear for rich women and harlots. She buys her material from a Romanian Jew (Llan Goodman), betrothed to a woman he has yet to meet. The chemistry between them is electric, but theirs is a forbidden future. All of my silent urging couldn’t make it happen. It was 1905. New York. She was black. He was Jewish.
Esther receives a letter from George Armstrong (Chu Omambala), a labourer working on the canal in Panama. Illiterate, she asks one of her rich, bored clients, Mrs van Buren (Sara Topham) – who herself is trapped in a loveless marriage into which she has failed to bring a child – to write a reply. Through van Buren’s life we see that money can only make up for so much. Esther’s landlady, Mrs Dixon (Dawn Hope), mothers her. Dixon’s life is founded on an inheritance from her dead husband whose wealth was a compensatory factor – he was neither socially ept or good looking. The correspondence thus continues and by the intermission, I find myself thinking of any potential suitor as ‘my man from Panama’. But as is often the case, I changed my mind.
Esther’s best friend Mayme (Rochelle Neil) is a hooker, clothed in her friend’s creations. She, too, is in on the romantic correspondence. George finally arrives in town and he and Esther get married. His life as we see it mirrors that of many immigrants, lost in a world they know little about, trying desperately to find a way to fit in.
We sat in the front row – up close and personal – in the Ustinov Theatre in Bath. It was a mesmerising production. There wasn’t a weak performance on stage. For nearly three hours, I sat enthralled, transported to another world, completely engaged in the lives that were unfolding before me. The disappointment I felt when nothing worked out as I wanted it to was real – very real. I went from love to hate with a passion that surprised me. I found myself making excuses for the characters, as I might with real friends, forgiving them their foibles and rooting for their success. I felt their pain, their frustrations, their fleeting joys. When the final curtain came down, I was exhausted, mentally and emotionally. I felt as if I’d been through the wringer; I’d been to the theatre.
The play is about intimacy, the politics of which are understated but well understood. Intimacy between friends. Between men and women. Between women and women. It is a compelling piece of work, one that is worth seeing again and again. Nottage’s plays are about people who have been marginalised. Her intent is to write forgotten voices back into history. See it if you can.
Back to Budapest, though, and good news for English-language theatre. This week saw the evolution of the much-loved Budapest Secret Theatre into Budapest English Theatre. A new show, PreText, is planned for this autumn. And that makes me happy, very happy indeed.