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Greg Dorey

Diplomat

Part of UK in Hungary

24th September 2011

Habeas Corpus

Many important 20th anniversaries have been marked in Central and Eastern Europe recently. But so far no one has recalled that it is 20 years since the British Embassy in Budapest staged Alan Bennett’s “Habeas Corpus” to an ecstatic local audience.
At that time there was a dearth of Englsh language theatre in Hungary. The Embassy then had a proper, full-time stage in a side hall, a facility too good to waste. So in 1990 we had performed a revue, “The Late, Late Christmas Show” (we took until February to bring it to perfection!). Some will remember that as the occasion when the then-Deputy Head of Mission and several other male colleagues dressed as ballerinas in wellington boots performed “The Dance of the Hours”. But it was thought by higher authority that our satirical though sympathetic observations on the developments of the time might be too controversial for an external audience.
In 1991 we went a step further and performed “Habeas Corpus” for some of our key contacts and friends, who paid to see us. (All proceeds went to charity – in those days 25,000 Forints of profit could achive more than just a very good dinner.) The show was directed by the Head of Commercial Section; I played the louche Dr Arthur Wicksteed; and my wife, colleagues and a Hungarian friend performed the other roles. Which is how we brought this extremely well-written and witty take on the 1960’s permissive society to Hungary.
What did we achieve, aside from the charity? We drew attention to some fine, modern English-language literature. We broke down some barriers and showed local opinion that we were more accessible and relaxed than they thought. And we brought pleasure to the audience (according to some of the feedback I still have) – a number of whom went on to greater things later (including at least one future State Secretary for Culture). Finally it was a break for us from a grueling schedule of high-level visits to Hungary (everyone was pushing to visit in those days) and a chance to enjoy putting on one of the funniest plays ever.