Aglika Stefanova-Oltean[1]

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Georg Büchner: Leonce and Lena, directed by Gábor Tompa at the Hungarian State Theatre in Cluj, Romania.

Of the few performances of Leonce and Lena I have seen in my life, all of them treated Leonce and Lenaas nothing more than additional material in relation to authors such as Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet as if Büchner’s text itself was insufficient to catch and hold the public’s attention for an hour and a half. As a result I had some very unclear images and suspicions about the theatrical value of the text itself. I had never clearly heard the voices of Leonce and Lena on the stage and, to be honest, never understood what it was all about. It was sabotaged by other noises all the time.

Then suddenly, at a time when in Romania everything is analysed through the notion of money, economic crisis, immediate profit and the necessary cut-off from the cultural budget, the Hungarian State Theatre of Cluj and the director Gábor Tompa opposed the ésprit du temps, shook the dust off Leonce and Lena and gave them time, silence and attention. Carmencita Brojboiu (costumes and set design) gave them an abandoned, closed and quiet space. It looks like a found space, though it is a set built in a theatre studio.

Silent groups of individuals in classical, aristocratic suits first look timidly through broken windows, gently and silently stepping into this ruined, perhaps once splendid palace. These silent ghosts stay inside the shadow and look at us.

Rosetta (Emőke Kató) and prince Leonce (Balázs Bodolai) © István Biró
Rosetta (Emőke Kató) and prince Leonce (Balázs Bodolai) © István Biró

Suddenly white light and gentle music offer them shelter. With a lot of sensitiveness Gábor Tompa asks the characters to open their lips and try to speak again. After a moment of concentration and recalling the words, these fairy-tale puppets enter the light and start to talk. First with hesitation, then with ever-increasing self-confidence, they recalled their old play – an exaggerated eloquence from times gone by, a senseless rhetoric of dolce far niente.

And we had the pleasure of discovering the beauty of the text, the humour and poetical imagination of Büchner, the forgotten taste for fairy tales from our childhood where the princess always finds the right prince (as it is supposed to happen), and we admired the majesty of theatre, executed as a divine ritual by an excellent team of actors. They reminded us that a good performance has the power to change human lives, minds, directions and destinies; it reminded me of how I fell in love with theatre in my adolescence and why I have chosen the difficult position of a theatre critic. I have to confess that after almost 20 years of practising theatre criticism, I most often hate theatre and only sometimes I love it (an adaptation of one of my favourite Artaud quotations: ‘Theatre is more often terrible and only sometimes magnificent’).

Leonce and Lena in Cluz: Rehearsal with the citizens for the royal wedding © István Biró
Leonce and Lena in Cluz: Rehearsal with the citizens for the royal wedding © István Biró

They simply reminded me of why I love theatre, by showing me the pure power of theatre. This performance was a ritual revealing of the substantial motivation of existence in art and for art – a declaration of love made to theatre. The last line of the performance is added by Gábor Tompa and it says, literally: ‘Let’s build a theatre, let’s build a theatre’. The actors sing it in an oratory way, with airy voices that are joyful and light-hearted. Incidentally, this oratory element fits the spirit of Büchner’s masterpiece excellently.

The music composed by Vasile Şirli gives a happy artistic perspective to the whole concept: each character presents himself in an oratorio style, through melodic song and some key words describing his situation: ‘I’m lazy, I’m not doing anything’ is the refrain of the servant Valerio. These short melodies label the characters as a set of figures from a luxury musical box. The characters are sweet, joyful, predictable and controllable. They also dance in an elegant, old-fashioned way, carefully moving their feet as if they might break (choreography by Florin Fieroiu).

The satirical line of the play is still there, but it is not aggressive and it is not connected to any actual fact or real figure (although we have had a lot of them in Romania lately).

Beginning of the performance. All characters, hesitating to enter on the stage © István Biró
Beginning of the performance. All characters, hesitating to enter on the stage © István Biró

Valerio (Gábor Viola) and the Governess (Csilla Varga) represent some burlesque elements such as big noses in their appearance. Still, their expressiveness is not exaggerated to mimics. Their faces remain almost like masks under the heavy make-up – serious and self-confident. It is interesting to note that all the characters play and execute their destiny model without looking into the eyes of the others. This confirms they are mechanical dolls, each of them on their predetermined trajectory. In the excellent scene of recognition when several masks fall down one after another (masks with sleepy or even deadly calm faces), all the characters are facing the public. They speak directly to us and do not look at each other. They recognise it is a play for “cartoon mannequins and clockwork mechanism.” Still, the performance is not an apology of alienation and loneliness. Gabor Tompa’s performance is full of emotion, tenderness and forgiveness.A happy coincidence of artistic inspiration and skills, original thinking and attentive reading of the literary material, admiration of the classics, and also the necessity to impart some important contemporary messages to the public gave life to this strong, compelling performance. Gábor Tompa’sLeonce and Lena is a poetical piece, a romantic story in which the satirical element is tired and lightweight, non-offensive, even disappearing at the end of performance, offering room for the mysterious notions of love and destiny, and letting the old King Peter (Loránd Váta) have 24 hours of party time, as he had previously ordered.

Leonce and Lena from Cluj (excellent, detailed work of Balázs Bodolai and Enikő Györgyjakab) are two images that have escaped from a child’s imagination or from a tiny book with colourful pictures. They are silly and funny, useless and sweet; precious mechanical dolls with empty porcelain heads in which, suddenly, the mechanism of love has just been started.

The senile King Peter and his entourage also seem funny and distractive, because they look too ancient to be harmful to anybody. This out-of-time satire with no anger and revenge, with no aggressive meanings, is the main quality of the performance.

“In my opinion, Leonce and Lena is an ideological play about the stagnation of a revolution; a situation that I see not only in the events of the past 20 years, but also in many other aspects. And I feel the same desperation that Büchner may have felt. What is attractive in the whole story is that I could not express myself about those 20 years after the 1989 through political theatre. I can talk about this period only if the show somehow contains moments of hope, something we call love”, says Gábor Tompa.

Very delicately, Tompa introduces two burlesque policemen in the play, who pass through the stage only once, looking for a dangerous criminal. Their appearance is so funny and absurd and fits into Büchner’s world so well that it is immediately integrated as something logical. The scenography of Carmencita Brojboiu, an open/closed no-man’s-land, was able to support even these intruders who were once probably in the Securitate and are now merely clowns.

Leonce and Lena from Cluj offer us therapeutic laughter, and are light, happy and optimistic. And when, at the end, Leonce announces with a mechanical voice: “Tomorrow we start all over again. Goodbye”, we wish to come back.

Vaerio (Gábor Viola) and prince Leonce (Balázs Bodolai) © István Biró
Vaerio (Gábor Viola) and prince Leonce (Balázs Bodolai) © István Biró
The citizens rehearse for the royal wedding © István Biró
The citizens rehearse for the royal wedding © István Biró

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[1] Aglika Stefanova-Oltean studied at the National Academy for Theatre and Film in Sofia, Bulgaria and at EHESS – Paris. She is a PhD in Theatre Studies at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. She publishedMelodrama viewed by Theory (2000) and Genre Fields in Bulgarian Drama of the 90s (2004). In addition to being a critic, she has worked as dramaturg at the National Theatre Ivan Vazov in Sofia, and State Drama Theatre in Varna. She was an invited lecturer at New Bulgarian University (1999-2002) and UFSC- Brazil (2006). She works and lives in Cluj, Romania

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Leonce and Lena from Cluj: Finally, and Gently, It Makes Sense