Madhouse of horrors

Actors Lili Monori (in bed), Roland Raba (standing) and Laszlo Katona (in bed in background) in a scene from Dementia.
Actors Lili Monori (in bed), Roland Raba (standing) and Laszlo Katona (in bed in background) in a scene from Dementia.PHOTO: MARCELL REV



Proton Theatre (Hungary)

Singapore International Festival of Arts

Victoria Theatre/Thursday

It is the rare show that causes you to emerge from the theatre as if waking from some sort of vivid, fantastical nightmare.

Your brain is in overdrive, trying to piece together fragments from the production's visions of madness and violence that were hellish and yet so utterly electrifying.

Dementia begins in the crumbling premises of what remains of a psychiatric hospital.

Four patients wander around, each exhibiting awful but uncomfortably funny symptoms of mental disorders.

Their alcoholic, self-aggrandising doctor and sexually frustrated nurse are attempting to run an open house for the audience.

They have formed a twee "Dementia Band" for "music therapy", but halfway through, they are interrupted by a wealthy, dashing man who declares that he has bought the building from the Hungarian state and that they must all leave by Christmas - which is in several days' time.


  • WHERE: Victoria Theatre

    WHEN: Today, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $30 to $60 from Sistic (excludes booking fee; call 6348-5555 or go to


Ah, you think, this is going to be a realistic and blackly comic take on Hungary's callous attitude towards the marginalised.

But then the play takes a sharp left turn, sprinting through a slew of other genres from both theatre and film - the operetta, the musical, the slasher flick, the pulpy B-movie, the "Blair Witch" hand-held camera horror trope.

The result is a textured social critique that draws from the most recognisable and enjoyable elements of each form.

Dementia comes from the dark, deliciously demented mind of Hungarian film director Kornel Mundruczo.

Those familiar with his film work might recognise the casual violence and gleeful misanthropy, but also a strong sense of social justice.

His acclaimed film White God (2014), which won the coveted Un Certain Regard prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is also about an oppressed, voiceless community - a group of street dogs.

But Mundruczo is a cynic at heart. This tiny community in Dementia soon becomes a little house of horrors - like its title, it alludes to our historical amnesia about the worst crimes of humanity.

It is more comfortable to forget than to remember anything at all.

Mundruczo's combination of matter-of-fact film documentary with the "live" quality of theatre is what gives Dementia its serrated edge.

During a series of horrifying scenes in which Dr Agoston (Roland Raba) and the Villainous Capitalist Janos Bartonek (Janos Szemenyei) try all manner of ways to trick the patients into signing a contract, Mundruczo goes to the camera.

He forces the audience right into the faces of his actors. The camera lingers on their widening eyes, their flat uncomprehension of their fates, and the effect is intimate and heartbreaking.

You might laugh at the ridiculous musical interludes or deliberately bloody violence (sometimes both at once), but beneath the stylised layers, Mundruczo's knife is turning in your gut, reminding you of the constant brutality to which humans subject one another, whether it is shocking sexism or outright abuse.

All this takes place in a cleverly designed two-storey set, its prisonlike open showers situated above a ward cluttered with beds, dying plants, chairs, musical instruments and a refrigerator full of surprises.

Dementia is rated R18 for nudity and some sexual content - all necessary and often painfully confrontational.

My additional warnings are: Beware of lots of blood and your own creeping fear of mortality.

You will want to remember what you have just seen - but perhaps you are already forgetting.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2015, with the headline 'Madhouse of horrors'. Print Edition | Subscribe