Yard Theatre, London – until 4 March 2017
The reasons that bring an audience together, sitting in a room and witnessing the vision that a writer concocts, are all linked by a vast number of coincidences. Past events had to happen in a certain way for everyone to end up congregating together – our ancestors had to have survived the plague, World Wars and the French Revolution. Deborah Pearson sits behind a desk, with a black and white 1950s foreign film playing in the background, reminding us that this film could easily be amongst the series of choices that result in us being present to watch. Certainly the film has a direct impact on her being a writer, a performer and the person in front of us – as we slowly find out throughout History History History, the star of the film is her grandfather and takes place in one of the most turbulent and historically relevant periods for Hungary after the two World Wars. It fans the flames of revolution; causes her ancestors to flee their home country and seek refuge in Canada; subconsciously provides her with the inspiration to pursue performance arts. It’s in her blood and she was totally unaware until a few years ago.
The film is subtitled and since I don’t speak Hungarian I am forced to trust that whoever wrote the translation is accurate. But history isn’t neat, isn’t so easily edited and likewise the commentary doesn’t quite fit the film. Pearson doesn’t speak Hungarian herself and only ever watched the first few minutes of A Csodacsatár as a child. Her mother speaks the language, but always got bored of translating for her, so Pearson doesn’t really know what the rest of the subtitles should be. The language slowly strays off course into guesswork and interpretation – the film isn’t as neat and polished as the audience might expect.
The picture keeps playing, but Pearson dips in and out of the action to give colour and vibrancy to her explanation of the events unfolding. She speaks in English (her mother tongue) and is eloquent and erudite. Her commentary has pause, pace and precision, a naturally lilting cadence synonymous with magnetic storytellers drawing you into their world. She provides context, bringing the historical significance of the film in line with the political landscape of the time, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and personal conversations had with her 90-year old grandmother. Grandma is the hidden star in History History History – witty, no frills yet always oddly evasive about her Hungarian roots. Pearson still cannot believe that the revolution occurred in the city all around their apartment and neither grandpa nor grandma so much as stepped outside to support them.
The foreign film, without accurate subtitles, swiftly becomes alien to us; we get a flavour for the overarching story, but never any specifics or details. It feels fuzzy, frustrating as our comprehension is nearly within reach. If an actor lives through their language, then to lose the ability to communicate is to lose a part of their lives. Pearson struggles to imagine how difficult a choice it must have been for her ancestors to flee their homes, speaking no English, and attempt to make a new life in Canada. In many ways, her inability to express this conveys more than any actual words could – we recognise that our best efforts in understanding the film reflect every waking moment of her grandpa’s final few decades of life. A Csodacsatár was initially heavily censored when it was first broadcast, among fears that it portrayed too radical a political message – this censorship was stifling, yet Pearson censors much of her interview audio with her grandma out of compassion, love and respect.
History History History is about a film that is frozen in time, but simultaneously moving. It remembers a period long ago but lives through the relations of those affected by it. Pearson sits in front of us, proof of the movements, the lives and the set of unknown choices that brought her to be here today.