Maria Zărnescu*

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The “Csiky Gergely” Hungarian State Theatre of Timişoara, Romania. Koldusopera (Beggar’s Opera) by Kokan Mladenović and Kornélia Góli, after John Gay’s play. Music: Irena Popović, lyrics and directing: Kokan Mladenović, set design: Marija Kalabić, costumes: Tatjana Radišić, choreography: Andreja Kulešević. Cast: Géza Aszalos, Attila Balázs, András Zsolt Bandi, Emília B. Borbély, Zsolt Csata, Attila Kiss, Rita Lőrincz, Etelka Magyari, Zsolt Imre Mátyás, Bence Molnár, András Csaba Molnos, Levente Kocsárdi, Emese Simó, Mónika Tar, Andrea Tokai. Orchestra: Cosmin Hărşian, Cristian Csaba Dragalina, Csongor-Zsolt Szabó, Ilko Gradev, Marcelle Poaty-Souami. Date of the premiere: 4 April 2015.

There have been more than a few national “firsts” that make the Western city of Timişoara a special, unique place in the Romanian geographic space. These include some widely known ones (first city to have gas lamps, later electric lamps lit streets, first emergency ambulance service, first trolley bus line, first horse-driven, later electric street tramcars, first stem cell transplantation or oldest attested brewery), and some less known or simply ignored ones (Beethoven’s first lover was the wife of a former city official). The first elementary school was opened in Timişoara, so was the first public library with borrowing services, and it was also here, starting with the middle of the eighteenth century, that a permanent theatre season was inaugurated. Later, the “Franz Josef” Theatre was built in Neo-Renaissance style by the famous Viennese architects Fellner and Helmer. It was inaugurated in 1875 with a play by the local author Csiky Gergely. The monumental building still marks the city centre and hosts, at present, the Opera and three separate theatrical institutions, acting in Romanian, Hungarian and German, which is a unique feature in Europe. As officially acknowledged by the designation of Timişoara as the European Cultural Capital in 2021, we are embraced here by the specific energy of a cultural diversity melting pot.

Actors take over The Beggar's Opera in Timişoara. Photo by Márton Bíró
Actors take over The Beggar’s Opera in Timişoara. Photo by Márton Bíró

No wonder, then, to find classical and contemporary mixed in the production of Koldusopera (Beggar’s Opera) by the “Csiky Gergely” Hungarian State Theatre of Timişoara. The eithteenth-century story, originally taking place in London, surprisingly (or not) hints explicitly to the present-day world. But let’s go back to history. In the beginning, there was The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay, an Englishman, in 1728. It is a satirical melodrama, on the one hand criticizing the social and political realities of the time (by means of a sentimental parody) and on the other hand satirizing the Italian opera, a genre that was very much loved in the Europe of the Enlightenment, but not so much in England. This was a so-called ballad opera, defying all the established conventions of the time. The action no longer concerns the upper class but, rather, shifts to the “mud” of London’s society (beggars, thieves, prostitutes) and—surprise!—all the behaviors observed “there” are familiar “here”: frivolities, hypocrisies, vices, betrayals, cupidity and social climbing desire. The work is also a caustic pamphlet with allusions to the Italian opera, whose representative, Georg Friedrich Händel, was living in England at the time. In the Beggar’s Opera, Johann Cristoph Pepusch’s music does not sound like Händel, although—oh, the irony—the thieves’ entrance is marked by the march from Rinaldo. . . .

Two hundred years later, Bertolt Brecht rediscovers in this writing the day-to-day life, the typical attitudes of the contemporary man towards the social evolution, and writes, in 1928, Die Dreigroschenoper (The Three Penny Opera), accompanied by Kurt Weill’s music (and his famous Mack the Knife song). By distancing himself, to a certain extent, from the original story, Brecht emerges with the perspective of his time (Berlin, the twentieth century), with an attempt to demonstrate that tensions between different social groups may be corrected through the theatre. The spectator can exercise his judgment on the world brought on stage. There have been numerous renderings of the play (starting with the one made by the author himself) and, still, almost a century later, the text has not lost its power to fascinate through its actuality and, foremost, through the countless possibilities of placement in time and space.

Attila Balázs (left) and Andrea Tokai, the sharp couple of Mr. and Mrs. Peachum. Photo by Maria Ştefănescu
Attila Balázs (left) and Andrea Tokai, the sharp couple of Mr. and Mrs. Peachum. Photo by Maria Ştefănescu

The Serbian director Kokan Mladenović found himself attracted by these possibilities and, together with the writer Kornélia Góli, re-wrote the play in 2015. The result was—at first sight, only—a story with no time or place indication, with no country or nationality clue, but, alas, so contemporarily familiar. A story with hookers and beggars, with petty thieves and highway robbers, about our world, where corruption is a normal fact, the moral values no longer exist and our lives are exclusively controlled by money.

Kokan Mladenović (b. 1970) is one of the most acclaimed (and controversial) directors in Serbia, where he stages performances in Serbian and Hungarian—often with messages to embarrass the establishment. For the “Csiky Gergely” Hungarian State Theatre of Timişoara, he chose to adapt The Beggar’s Opera, based on John Gay’s play, as its message is quite applicable to the present and refers to the obvious connections between the high level politics, the judiciary and police systems and the banking institutions, with criminal groups. It results in a critical approach of society—not Romania’s, Hungary’s or Serbia’s, but the contemporary global world’s, in general. It is the director’s opinion that the human society has not made any anthropological progress; there is only technological and artistical evolution. Man will continue to need ilusions and more than that, stories—possibly delivered by the theatre.

Consequently, the action takes place in a present-day theatre, where, just like in a brothel, there is no democracy, the actors are mostly unemployed, living and working in precarious conditions. Theatrical art and beggary seem to be fed by the same soil. Nevertheless, the artistic egos are of a size different from that of other professions, and that explains why the characters do not shun from excesses of one kind or another. The most innocent seems to be the manager (played by Attila Balázs, the actual manager of the Timişoara theatre), who finds himself between the hammer and the anvil: the hammer of the authorities and the anvil of the employees. The latter want either to go on strike (some of them), or to play the premiere (all the rest). As expected, a compromise will be found: the show will be played, but it will be the actors’ own version, in which the original story alternates with the performers’ improvisations. The “theatre in theatre” mode is activated and, from then on, everything is permitted on stage.

András Csaba Molnos (right) and Emese Simó, the young-but-not-so-romantic Macheath family. Photo by Adi Marineci
András Csaba Molnos (right) and Emese Simó, the young-but-not-so-romantic Macheath family. Photo by Adi Marineci

As is the case with Gay’s and Brecht’s plays, the present text has received its own music by means of the songs composed by Irena Popović, an old associate of the director (who brought with him a complete artistic team from Serbia). A mixture of rock, jazz, symphonic and pop is to be found in the music of the new Opera, performed live by a small orchestra and by the fifteen actors of the cast. They seem almost genetically qualified for such productions combining acting, singing and dancing. Choreographer Andreja Kulešević “exploits” the team’s potential and the incredible rhythm of the show captivates the audience for two short hours.

Attila Balázs, in the role of Peachum, the “Beggar’s Friend”—a businessman of no scruples, and Andrea Tokai, in that of Mrs. Peachum, his wife, recreate humorously and with (self) irony the typical couple ambiance (which they have already created in other productions of the Timişoara stage). Together, they educate their young daughter Polly, played with a delightfully dissimulated candor and equally much humor by Emese Simó, whom they try to persuade that times have changed and love is only for fools. “If you’re smart, you leave him without his dough!” is a wise parental piece of advice. However, the girl dreams of love, reads books and writes poems, vowing eternal love to bandit Macheath. Playing the latter, András Csaba Molnos impresses through his physical presence and a bad-omen-bearing smile. In spite of the exchanged vows and the regular wedding, Macheath has to confront some of his ex-lovers: Lucy Lockit, the daughter of the prison’s boss, and Jenny Diver, a young woman once seduced, abandoned and left, thus, on the no-return path to the brothel. Playing these two roles, Emília B. Borbély and Etelka Magyari complete the feminine triangle of jealousy. The main roles are accompanied by the performance of the troupe, functioning remarkably both in the supporting roles and (especially) in ensemble scenes. “The Beggars’ March,” “The Whore’s Song,” “Corruption Tango / The Prison Dance” are only some of the most appreciated by the audience.

In theatre's "times of crisis," T-shirts with printed characters work as costumes. Photo by Márton Bíró
In theatre’s “times of crisis,” T-shirts with printed characters work as costumes. Photo by Márton Bíró

Successful moments are, also, the irresistibly comical ones, reflecting the parody of Polly’s and Macheath’s love scene. Following a letter received from a former fan spectator (now a nervous one, displeased by the too serious content of the theatre’s productions), love becomes again the main theme on stage. And not in a single random interpretation, but in a choice of three versions: the Indian Bollywood-like movie, the hot Latin passion or the drowsy Titanic-inspired aspiration towards the Absolute. The audience’s reaction is not long in coming, so that the fictitious (but perfectly plausible) fan is now rewarded by the spectators’ laughter.

It is also in the parody mode that the set is conceived (design Marija Kalabić, costumes Tatjana Radišić), illustrating some of the “principles” so often invoked in the theatre: “cheap and good” or the use of whatever is to be found in the storeroom. No wonder, then, to see chairs, a chandelier and a ladder, veils, balloons and plastic flowers, barrels, buckets and pistols. At the same time, the crown-hats and the crinolines, the bellies and the humps are all reduced to their “fleshless” skeletons, while the characters are suggested by simple costume elements.

The songs’ verses (variations on the same theme) emphasize the message of the Timişoara production: the world is doomed to a whore’s fate; the country is rotten and falling apart; there is always an escape route from the law for the corrupt; if one has money, one has no problems; ignorance and not wisdom is in fashion nowadays; we beg, we steal. . . . In this context, the Mayor’s classical cue in Gogol’s The Government Inspector reveals its universal meaning: “What are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourself.” 


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*Maria Zărnescu (b. 1969, Bucharest) is a Romanian theatre scholar and critic, PhD Senior Lecturer at the National University of Theatrical Arts and Cinematography “I.L. Caragiale,” Bucharest. She is the author of Muzici şi Muze (Music and Muses, 2015) and Sunetul Muzicii de Teatru (The Sound of Theatre Music, 2016). She was also authored theatre and music reviews, studies and essays published in Critical Stages, Time Out Bucharest, Teatrul Azi, Yorick, Concept, Theatron. UNITER (The Romanian Association of Theatre Professionals). She received the award for Best Theatre Critic in 2015. She has consolidated experience as a radio journalist and manager, TV editor, and event producer.

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A Ruthless Rewriting of The Beggar’s Opera in Timişoara