Juraj Benko on bringing Honey Badger to the UK with Nordisk Teaterlaboratorium

Honey Badger, a co-production between the Danish company Nordisk Teaterlaboratorium and Slovak actor Juraj Benko comes to The Cockpit in London for five only this month. The deeply powerful and visual one-man performance about the consequences of childhood abuse on an individual.

Drawing parallels with the harshest aspects of parental roles in the animal kingdom, the performance explores the unpredictability of parent-child relationships, and the almost inevitable cycle of perpetuating mistreat and trauma from one generation to another. Combining multiple real testimonies of people who suffered physical and psychological violence in their childhood from one or both parents, the piece’s U.K premiere coincides with Child Abuse Awareness Month, and aims to raise awareness of this topic.

Following a sold-out premiere in Holstebro, Denmark in September 2023, Benko’s debut solo performance will bring a taste of international theatre to London audiences. Joining Benko in the creative team is the internationally respected actress, pedagogue and director Roberta Carreri. Carreri joined the world-renowned Danish ensemble Odin Teatret, founded by Eugenio Barba, in 1974, and remained a core member until the group’s separation from the Nordisk Teaterlaboratorium in 2022.

We caught up with Benko to find out more about what its like to be collaborating with Nordisk Teaterlaboratorium and what it’s like to be bringing the show to the UK.

Q&A with Juraj Benko

What can you tell us about Honey Badger?

Honey Badger is an intimate confession, punched into the faces of the spectators. It’s an honest storytelling with which even if you don’t relate, I can guarantee, you will find something in it for yourself. Drowning into the core of family roles and relationships gives a perspective of what is happening inside a human mind in the time of distress and how difficult it can be for an individual to cope with the injustices of human nature.

Most of us bear inside themselves the battles which we have to confront every day. Fights with the inner demons which don’t allow us to see another day and we stopped believing in the light at the end of the tunnel. Honey Badger was born on this battlefield. But transformed itself into something more than just a statement of abuse and inequality. This performance is a powerful dance of different physical languages, text, music and energy whose main goal is not only to point on the problematic but also to look beyond. With all the transparency and without any masks. I wouldn’t say Honey Badger is giving any specific answer, but it gives options.

During my work I came across this beautiful quote by Viktor E. Frankl and I think it nicely fits here:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” That’s what Honey Badger is about.

How does it feel to be transferring the production to the UK?

I feel thrilled, and a bit nostalgic, about bringing Honey Badger to London. For several reasons. One is personal, as you may not know, it was here where I started to create first drafts, experiments and ideas which later became this performance, Honey Badger, and which I then brought to Holstebro, Denmark to work with Roberta Carreri. And another reason is historical as it has been 10 years since Nordisk Teaterlaboratorium visited with their work to the United Kingdom and I feel honored that it is our collaboration which brought it back to the British Isles.

And I am delighted that it is The Cockpit where this exciting event will happen. We have been talking with Dave Wybrow, director of the theatre, for a long time about the possibility of presenting this production in his venue. We have met many difficulties during this process and to make this happen definitely wasn’t easy for us. But from our first conversation he was always very helpful, supportive and enthusiastic about our work and the way of creating. Thanks to him, and the incredible work of Arielle Zilkha, who is bringing this piece to London and made all this happen, we are just a week before our UK premiere at The Cockpit. So it feels more than right that it is happening right there and it brings me a huge joy and satisfaction that all the hard work of these amazing people, and our creative team, will come to its conclusion and its long awaited first show.

What has it been like working with Roberta Carreri and Nordisk Teaterlaboratorium?

It was an incredible privilege. I spent years living and working in the Nordisk Teaterlaboratorium, in Holstebro, Denmark. I had the chance to meet unbelievable artists from all around the world, dancers, actors, scholars… And I have been participating there on multiple exciting and enriching performances, shows and projects. I can honestly say, I became the actor and artist I am today in that place. It was an honor to meet, listen, work or train, with the greatest theatre masters of our era in that theatre, house, kingdom or planet, as we used to call it. It was a dream to just be there, never mind performing or later collaborating with them.

And for me, the greatest master I ever met was and is Roberta Carreri. I remember, after seeing for the first time her legendary solo performance ‘Judith’ I thought ‘ I am not searching anymore. I want to learn everything from this woman. She is the greatest actress I ever saw.’

After many talks and finding the possible ways, she accepted me, as her pupil and apprentice. Honey Badger, as an idea or a feeling in the beginning, appeared and became our goal, our training place but also a common journey. I can’t really imagine anyone else with who I would work on this project, or to whom I would trust as much as I trust her as a director. In her work, I discovered the path I wanted to follow and learn from, and also a tenacity and the tools which I admired and longed for. But also an empathy and understanding which this topic and theme needed. I truly wish for every artist to find such a place. Someone who they can fully trust, admire and honestly follow and call a master. As it is something very unique today. I can’t thank her enough for everything she gave to me. Her guidance, wisdom, care and kindness.

How challenging was it to develop a production that uses the testimonies of real people who have suffered child abuse from a parent?

This performance, even though it’s not an autobiography, started from myself. From my artistic need and my personal need to confront my relationship with my father, which I never really found peace with. Or maybe I just didn’t want to. First of all, I had to face my own inner demons, before I could start thinking about the ones of others or a dramaturgy. To make my own journey throughout my past and find a reconciliation with myself and what has been, or what never will be. That was my first big challenge.
Another big challenge is the fact that I speak about a topic which touches more people than you would think. Lots of people went through physical or mental abuse, from relatives or people who they trusted and this leaves very sensitive scars, which do not always heal. I was never very concerned about how the critics or art community receive this performance but this group, people who know what I am talking about, have always been on my mind. There were moments during the process where I wasn’t sure if I am able, or if I have a right, to speak to all these people.

One has to visit some very dark places. And I will speak about this as an actor and also as a creator of this piece, as the process I would describe is very similar. Before I even started to create first propositions I delved into the real stories of people who suffered in their past by physical or mental abuse. Starting from my relationship with my father, and later I interviewed a group of people from my family or who I met in this process of research.

For more than a year every book I read, every movie I saw, or composer I investigated was connected with the topic of child abuse. Not only to prepare for the role, or find inspiration for the creation but to really understand what those people of different genders, backgrounds and stories went through and what it left in them.

It was very important for us to not only retell these autobiographies, nor to give advices or find solutions, but to listen and understand the layers of sorrows and then try to find a way to relay them. The biggest challenge is always when I stand on the stage, knowing that there in the audience is probably a person who lived through what I am saying, and how it will be received by them.

What do you hope people take away from the performance?

Reflection that everything is possible, and a pinch of hope for a better tomorrow. I never anticipate or predict the reaction of the audience. My perspective is that the beauty of the theatre, and art in general, is that it is so individually perceived. What is the most touching and outstanding performance for one spectator can be boring or banal for another one. And vice versa.

I wish each spectator will have an experience with this piece, no matter how it may appear. The topic can appear concrete, but this play is something more widespread.

I desire for every spectator who enters the auditorium of The Cockpit to do it with an open mind and ask themselves in the end, do I recognize anything what has been said ? And what does that mean to me and my sounding?

And maybe, if I can be hopeful enough, my wish would be that the message of this performance can hit the audience with the words: ‘Yes, I can do it, there is a way’

Honey Badger is at The Cockpit, London from 10 to 13 April 2024