Maria Zărnescu*

INTERFERENCES International Theatre Festival, organized by The Hungarian Theatre of Cluj, Romania. Nov. 26 to Dec. 4, 2016.

Ubi bene ibi patria,” the famous Latin saying has become, in time, a motto for all the emigrants. The meaning of the migration phenomenon should not be, however, reduced to the “benefit of the bread.” In a more comprehensive way, migration represents a conscious translocation in the pursuit of new horizons. People, animals, ideas and technologies leave towards places where the constraints that pushed them to embark on this action no longer exist. Migration may be a fertilizing phenomenon, bringing along with it new meanings to life, new shapes to beauty and, by its very nature, the adventure of the Quest. It adds to the existent, thereby forcing a change of values. However, this change carries, most of the time, an estrangement. . . .

The Stranger’s Odyssey was the title of the fifth edition (2016) of the biannual Festival INTERFERENCES, organized by The Hungarian Theatre of Cluj. Who am I and who is the Other? Are we aliens in the world, in our own home country, in our own hometown, in our own home, in our own family, in our own skin? These were just a few of the questions which the festival attempted to answer, under the artistic direction of Gábor Tompa, who is manager of the institution (since 1990—such longevity is an achievement!) Despite the theme and the diversity of the program, the performances did not seem “estranged” from one another.

Miklós Bács (as Satin) in The Lower Depths. Photo by István Biró

“In Gorky’s playwriting canon, The Lower Depths is the most inspired, contradictory, beautiful, and relevant play. It echoes the world we live in today: the loneliness of the individual, of a social group, of a nation, and the constant struggle to be a part of society.” This is Russian director Yuri Kordonsky’s motivation for choosing this text, performed by The Hungarian Theatre of Cluj. The pessimistic atmosphere of the play has been emphasized since its opening (1902), and its production in the twenty-first century does not convey anything different. Now, the Scenes from Russian Life, showing some outcasts living in a night shelter near Volga, in a “cellar resembling a cave” happen—paradoxically—in a contemporary attic that could be located anywhere. The set designer Dragoş Buhagiar creates a shabby and dark loft directly opening towards the sky, with just some plastic wrap to protect its inhabitants from the wind and cold outside. As for noise protection . . . that is out of question. Cars, horns and other urban sounds penetrate the space; a shattered radio set tries to broadcast the news. . . .

Zsolt Bogdán (as Luka) and Júlia Laczó (as Anna) in The Lower Depths. Photo by István Biró

There is much dampness in the lower depths: ordure, blood and the water used to wash—the living and the dead alike. Here are society’s derelicts. The characters are homeless. They do not have families, jobs, money, means of existence, or hope.

There is a lot of misery in this parallel, underground world, displaced at the upper floor, as an intermediate stop on the way to the Heavenly Empire. Will they ever reach there? The characters live in a world where God has almost ceased to exist. So, the director asks himself: “How far downward can humanity go?”

Redemption may come from faith. Brilliantly practicing the uplifting lie, Luka the pilgrim carries the stone cross on his back. He is a fervent follower of Jesus and uses a sacral language. In the lower depths, the inhabitants embrace many different religions or none, but the whole atmosphere feels strongly Russian, orthodox. Light comes from the candles that are lit one by one.

Redemption may come from theatre, too. One of the most touching moments of the show is the play within a play, when a scene from the novel Anna Karenina is dramatized on the spot. Theatre “lifts any souls,” even those that are at the very end of their limits.

The end of the show gives one goosebumps. In contrast to other productions of the play, which function like a concert for soloists and orchestra, Kordonsky’s show looks like a symphony: the quality of the ensemble prevails. Such is the case of the team of The Hungarian Theatre of Cluj, a model of artistic force and creative discipline in Romania’s last decades.

Tamás Keresztes in Diary of A Madman. Photo by István Biró

Another must of Russian literature, Diary of A Madman (1835) by Gogol, raises another question: “Are we mad or has the world around us gone mad?” The performance, directed by Hungarian Viktor Bodó, a co-production of Katona József Theatre / Orlai Production Office / FÜGE / MASZK Association, does not try to answer it, but restores totally our trust in the theatre, in the director, in the actor. (In case some of us had lost it.) It is an example of high level arts syncretism, an excellent one-man show. The story of the humble clerk, Poprishchin, who gradually descends into insanity, is narrated in the first person by a total actor: Tamás Keresztes, who is also author of the set design. His little room, a crooked space with acute angles, becomes a ship, and a prison and, in the end, it turns upside down. A capsized world, just like the character’s life. Once contact with reality is lost, the frail, insignificant little man becomes a rock-star, and a preacher, and a devil, and Jesus with a crown of forks. He is assisted by a remarkable lighting design, but also by an invented character, an alter ego meant to emphasize his dual, schizophrenic state. It is the “music” that he creates himself (with the help of a loop mixer) from little household sounds and onomatopoeias. He is no longer alone. Let there be light and let there be sound!

Tamás Keresztes in Diary of A Madman. Photo by István Biró

Tamás Keresztes passes from awareness to trance, and expresses mental disorder by making use of experiences related to psychology, psychoanalysis and psychiatry. He makes an astonishing jump from his first anodyne appearance, swinging between graciousness and grotesquery, frailty and force. The special humor of the director, Bodó, can be perceived all the time, as he instills his actor with a sense of estrangement from the character, without thereby making him less credible or impressive. Even at the moment of death, he produces a gestural aparté that triggers the succession of final cues: “Mother, mother, have pity on your sick child! And do you know that the Bey of Algiers has a wart under his nose?”[1]]

The Fuchsiad. Photo by Mihaela Marin

A predecessor of Dadaism and Surrealism, the Romanian writer Urmuz (1883-1923) was himself a character. His Weird Pages were written at the beginning of the twentieth century (posthumously published in 1985) and have ever since been a model of anti-prose, a cry of revolt against any kind of Establishment, against “the old lady Mrs. Logic and the eternal Mr. Profit.” Literary and behavioral rebellion, and an inexplicable suicide at the age of forty. The Fuchsiad, a production of the German State Theatre of Timişoara, is a tribute to the avant-garde and to this insomniac, eccentric man of letters, also a brothel habitué. It is a theatrical installation by Helmut Stürmer, assisted by Silviu Purcărete and accompanied by Vasile Șirli’s music. The “heroical-erotic” poem tells the story of the piano player Fuchs: from his birth “through one of his grandmother’s ears (as his mother was completely deprived of ‘a musical ear’)” until the revolver shot that put an end to the fantastic nocturnal journey in the “temple dedicated to the Vestals of pleasure.” The show itself is a visual and musical poem of overflowing imagination.

Yury Rumyantsev (as Escalus), Alexander Arsentyev (as the Duke) and Andrei Kuzichev (as Angelo) in Measure for Measure. Photo by Johan Persson

Shakespeare’s story about mortality and mercy in an imaginary Vienna moves in a modern, but equally rotten, city. The British company Cheek by Jowl and The Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre presented Measure for Measure, directed by Declan Donnellan. The individual drama remains the same, suspended somewhere between corruption and purity: “some rise by sin and some by virtue fall.” The action takes place in an apparently democratic country, where, however, the means of oppression are perfectly in place. A symbolic red overflows the set designed by Nick Ormerod. The show was conceived as a tense thriller, even more outrageous than it was four hundred years ago. It conveys the balance of themes—law and order / sexuality—as well as that of performing styles—Russian viscerality / British composure. The director’s ironic look floats above everything, while a Viennese waltz and the crowd’s ovations put an end to scenes that seem taken from Julius Caesar.

József Biró (as Hamm) and László Zsolt Bartha (as Clov) in Endgame.
Photo by Zoltán Rab

An avid chess player, Samuel Beckett has imagined an Endgame (1957): just four human pieces are left on the game board of a depopulated world. They vanish, one by one, while searching for their own individual identity, oscillating between existence and non-existence. The production of The National Theatre Târgu-Mureş—”Tompa Miklós” Company, directed by Gábor Tompa, seeks the purification of the spectators. At first, through words. Then, in the end, water floods the whole set designed by Judit Dobre-Kóthay. The musical structure of the text allows the actors to perform mathematically, as accurately as performing a score. The director considers that Beckett’s plays urge us to a continuous reflection on our daily life: “In his texts we can find the appropriate quote for absolutely any situation.” It is just an answer to a possible question.

A multitude of questions related to what it means to feel alone or a stranger have been raised in the productions shown at these INTERFERENCES. But, as Chekhov said, “the role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.” Even if only for this reason, the festival has done (once again) its duty. The festival may rest (until 2018, its next edition). 


[1] It seems that certain texts carry a strong appeal for the selectors of the festival. We could also find good adaptations of Diary of a Madman and Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan in the program of the previous edition (2014): http://www.critical-stages.org/11/jaram-lee-updates-brecht-in-cluj/ 


*Maria Zărnescu (b. 1969, Bucharest) is a Romanian theatrologist and critic, Associate Professor at the National University of Theatrical Arts and Cinematography “I.L. Caragiale” Bucharest. Author of books: Music and Muses (2015) and The Sound of Theatre Music (2016). The Romanian Association of Theatre Professionals UNITER Award for Best Theatre Critic in 2015. Consolidated experience as a radio journalist and manager, TV editor and event producer.

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The Present Meaning of “Stranger” Revealed in Cluj
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