Matti Linnavuori[1] and Lissa Tyler Renaud[2]

Livanuori 1176770868

International theatre festival SITF in Sibiu, Romania, 19th edition in May- June 2012.

Sibiu, the capital of Transylvania province in Romania and the European capital of culture in 2007, continues to be a stronghold of arts, particularly with its annual theatre festival SITF. This year’s festival hosted the editors of Critical Stages. Matti Linnavuori and Lissa Tyler Renaud compare their northern interpretations, European and American respectively, of Southeast-European theatre.

Matti: Dear Lissa, I wonder if I am too easily overwhelmed and then try to counterbalance myself by being disappointed. It would be unfair to say that the Romanian director Silviu Purcărete (born 1950) sends an avalanche of visual imagery on the spectators, because it is far from suffocating, but plentiful it certainly is, so much so that it leaves me asking when there will be room for the content proper. And dear reader, you may want to see Critical Stages 2 for an enlightened article on Faust, by Ludmila Patlanjoglu.

During my only previous visit to Romania (2003), in any production there were more than twenty actors on the stage, even when the stage action could offer meaningful presence to only a handful of them. Alternative theatre did exist alongside the mainstream in 2003, and that meant monologues. Even now there are small-scale productions, where the set is sparse and the acting is restrained, and to a foreigner it seems a conscious contrast to the lavish style of the Purcărete vein, and indeed, why imitate the master when inevitably one could not possibly beat the original.

Lissa: Dear Matti, in reading up on the Purcărete productions we saw—Faust and Gulliver’s Travels—it is easy enough to find reviews listing awards won by the productions, or quoting other reviews saying the shows are marvelous, and harder to find thoughtful comments. But your point about being overwhelmed by the visuals is well taken, and I think you are not the only one who is. In one sense, one might dispense with the shows by saying very little: they are in enormous spaces, with accomplished actors and large groups appearing in sequences of truly startling images accompanied by abstract sound scores. Well, bravo!—the amount of effort involved in bringing these productions about is simply staggering to contemplate.

To respond to your several points: your first one is about images and content. Indeed, as we said at breakfast one morning, we are in the world of “image theatre” with these productions—a kind of work that surfaced over 100 years ago, attempting to make use of the theatre’s own languages—of space, movement, etc.—independent of literature. As cases in point, both of these shows were based on literary works, but translated them into streams of fragmentary images, somewhat far afield of their original storytelling about the battles Faust and Gulliver wage for their own humanity. These images were intended either to bypass meaning to reach us at a (presumably deeper) non-verbal level, or to bump up against each other in ways that would create unexpected meanings. For those who want to make this kind of theatre, it’s hard to imagine it being done “better” than this. But I am asking myself why it seemed old-fashioned. I remember when I admired this kind of theatre, and it was quite a long time ago.

For a sense of the sheer size of the productions, readers can see a couple of minutes of the Faust:

Faust. Director: Silviu Purcarete. National Theatre Radu Stanca Sibiu, Romania from Victor Kapra on Vimeo.
Faust. International Theatre Festival Sibiu 2012.

Here, the audience members were being urged on by the large gestures of the pig-figures and the insistent electronic music (by the Imperium band) to leave their seats and venture into Hell in another part of the theatre. Of course, part of the “fun” of seeing Faust is seeing how a production conceives of Hell. In the video, we can see that not that much was happening in Hell, or that the person shooting the video had as much trouble with site lines as I did. (I spoke to someone who had seen the show in Edinburgh and heard that in Sibiu the fire and other effects were scaled back for safety reasons.) In any case, I would have to say that both what I saw and what I heard promised somewhat more than they delivered.

A door in flames is among the minor effects of Purcarete’s Faust. © TNRS
A door in flames is among the minor effects of Purcarete’s Faust. © TNRS

Matti: I must interrupt, or actually chime in. It is strange how little imagination theatre makers use in picturing Hell. It tends to look like a New Year’s fireworks in a dilapidated bathhouse, no matter what the cultural background of the director is. The shocks of Hell are rather conventional.

Lissa: I was just re-reading John Elsom’s Cold War Theatre (1992); he describes how visual theatre served in Central European theatres to frustrate the censors: all the meaningful acts took place on the stage itself, during the actual performance, through an “associative logic” the audiences could ferret out; there was simply not enough written text for the authorities to object to beforehand. (We find this phenomenon in other parts of the world, as well.)

Matti: Exactly! And in Hell there is very little subtext. Hell is all surface, and rock concerts do it better.

Lissa: Yes, rock concerts: visual! Perhaps, then, between the end of the Cold War and the rise of the rock concert, image theatre has lost its purpose or focus? Our wars and other social emergencies are different today and, insofar as the theatre can establish the tenor of our era, I find the strategy of fragmentation really inadequate. If we’ve ever needed people who can think in long forms, and develop and give coherence to complex ideas, it is now.

Returning to your second point, about the large numbers of extras in these shows—in Faust, 80 to 100? No doubt this was a choice intended to give the productions heft. But I was suspicious that the large casts were supposed to supply dynamics, tension, excitement that the primary stage action couldn’t offer. And I noted Alan Riding’s 1997 New York Times interview with Purcărete:

Although [Purcărete] first presented ”Les Danaides” in Romania, he designed the production to travel abroad… But, he said, the production was affordable only if he used a Craoiva cast and took advantage of Romania’s relatively low wage levels. The chorus, for example, consists mainly of students, who, he added, are delighted to be going to New York.

Here the reader can see the opening of the Gulliver, wherein it wouldn’t have mattered how many horses there were, as long as the female ones looked like models in silhouette and weren’t offended by being required to twitch their bottoms in a blatantly sexual manner:

The bed of old Gulliver witnesses the younger version of the main character brandish his sword. © TNRS FITS 2012
The bed of old Gulliver witnesses the younger version of the main character brandish his sword. © TNRS FITS 2012
Actresses as marionettes with actors as puppeteers is a hilarious scene in Purcarete’s Gulliver. © TNRS FITS 2012
Actresses as marionettes with actors as puppeteers is a hilarious scene in Purcarete’s Gulliver. © TNRS FITS 2012

Matti: There was at least one more production, which set to amaze us with its visual inventiveness, namely Vlad Massaci’s (born 1968) version of Gellu Naum’s The Island. Gellu Naum (1915-2001) is a major Romanian surrealist, and his flow of images is so fast that theatre is bound to look slow in comparison. In The Island, the main character is shipwrecked on a desert island, where he meets with not only Friday, but all the members of his very extended family, which seems to include every possible stock character of adventure literature. Of course, these are his nightmares, and they are hilarious. I was delighted to witness how differently Massaci and Purcărete see the actors of The Radu Stanca National Theatre in Sibiu, watching The Island and Gulliver’s Travels on consecutive nights. It is not the same actors who get to perform principal roles. Both directors are clearly aware of the potential of the company members and also provide them with opportunities to develop individual skills. This becomes apparent even to me, a foreign visitor, because one feature of the festival is showcasing the Radu Stanca Theatre.

Lissa: About your third point: I didn’t see many shows with sparse sets and restrained acting, but of those I did, I most admired Gernot Plass’s Austrian production of Kafka’s Der Prozess (The Trial). Without the benefit of surtitles, this fine troupe (TAG Theater an der Gumpendorfer Strasse) told Josef K’s nightmarish story—verbally and non-verbally—with mysterious configurations of chairs, moveable doorways, a little cross-gender casting, a handful of props and an utterly disciplined sense of rhythm that made it impossible to turn away.

TAG Theater’s The Trial places actors into fleeting roles regardless of their sex: Georg Schubert (left) as Josef K’s landlady, and the policemen who have come to arrest Josef K (Gottfried Neuner, Maya Henselek and Jens Klassen. © Anna Stöcher
TAG Theater’s The Trial places actors into fleeting roles regardless of their sex: Georg Schubert (left) as Josef K’s landlady, and the policemen who have come to arrest Josef K (Gottfried Neuner, Maya Henselek and Jens Klassen. © Anna Stöcher
In TAG Theater’s The Trial Julian Loidl (white shirt) plays the role of Josef K. © Anna Stöcher
In TAG Theater’s The Trial Julian Loidl (white shirt) plays the role of Josef K. © Anna Stöcher

Matti: The Romanian theatre academies’ productions, The Green Cat, written by Elise Wilk and directed by Rarerṣ Budileanu and Games in the Backyard, written by Edina Mazya and directed by Bobi Pricop, were ascetic to the extreme, and would have benefited from the kind of stylization employed by the Austrian company. In The Green Cat, actors crawled on scaffolding, which ran along the two long walls of the stifling auditorium. It cannot be a coincidence that during my first two days in Sibiu I saw two productions about sexually motivated violence among young people.

Lissa: Well, as Experienced Festival Goers, we are used to seeing productions that emphasize visuals, in part as a strategy for communicating with audiences that don’t share the same language. But your remark reminds me that SEX is sometimes also used as a kind of cross-cultural shorthand. Certainly the Hungarian improvisation entitled Egg(s)hell (dir. Zoltan Balazs; company Maladype) used SEX as a stage devise in place of story, characters, themes or ideas. This piece was a feminist’s nightmare: a series of skits centering on two women in skimpy dresses endlessly playing with their hair, blowing kisses, taking off their underwear and performing inane actions reminiscent of TV game shows, such as balancing an egg on a chair leg. Indeed, although I was appalled, the audience clearly felt communicated with and enjoyed “getting” what was going on. I heard this group created a richer—even meaningful—performance in Poland—and you held a higher opinion of that Egg(s)hell in Critical Stages 5—so perhaps I was just unlucky with the Sibiu incarnation of it. On this subject, though, I should mention that the Romanian production of Last Day of My Youth (dir. Yuri Kordonsky) treated not sex, but sexuality, with great delicacy and humor.

Matti, I’d like to hear your take on the Karamazovs.

Matti: Thank you; it is a Finnish pleasure to dwell on Dostoyevsky. Provisorium Theatre from Poland presented a dramatization of his novel The Brothers Karamazov (1881). Its director Janusz Opryński has worked with the Lublin-based group since 1976. It is Opryński who also adapted the novel for the stage.

Mariusz Pogonowski as Dmitri Karamazov is wild in the Polish Provisorium's production, but the very intelligent set design keeps Dmitri's wildness from reaching the compartments further back. © Rukasz i Marta Zgierska / Agencja BlowUp
Mariusz Pogonowski as Dmitri Karamazov is wild in the Polish Provisorium’s production, but the very intelligent set design keeps Dmitri’s wildness from reaching the compartments further back. © Rukasz i Marta Zgierska / Agencja BlowUp

Here in the North we consider Dostoyevsky the most profound writer ever. Secular though we have become, Dostoyevsky’s spirituality we find not only palatable but intriguing. One of the brothers, Ivan, declares there is no God. Elsewhere in the oeuvre of Dostoyevsky, this leads to everything being permitted, but in the Karamazovs, Ivan takes on the role of God in His absence, and Ivan’s bastard brother Smerdyakov carries out the deeds of God as he and Ivan understand them, i.e. Smerdyakov kills their father. A godless world is chaos.

The genius of the Provisorium production is in the set, by Jerzy Rudzki and Robert Kužmirovsky. The set is a carousel or a turning table with semitransparent walls between compartments. There is always a shadow looming behind any front-stage action, there is always someone eavesdropping on the confidences of others. In other words, even if God does not exist, there is no escape from the attention of evil forces. At one point a character, quite in concordance with Dostoyevsky, makes a fleeting reference to Poland, when—lo and behold!—overhead showers appear immediately. While it is a historical fact that the most lethal Nazi concentration camps were situated on Polish soil, harnessing them to indicate the utmost evil here does an intellectual disservice to the production.

Lissa: Although lucky U.S. students read The Brothers Karamazov, you clearly brought to the theatre an engagement with the text that was different from mine. Like you, I found the set to be the most remarkable element of this production—but I confess I am always disappointed when the genius of a production is in the set: it gives me the sense that a production was not a true collaboration, that the set was rather imposed on it. The set in this show seemed to me to overwhelm the actors, who were quite young, I thought. In any case, at the theatre festivals, we have to give many aspects of the productions the benefit of the doubt, since all companies except those of the host country are working in theatres that are not their own.
Thank you, Matti. Thank you, Lissa.


Livanuori
[1] Matti Linnavuori (born 1955) edits the Performance Reviews Section for Critical Stages. He is a free lance theatre critic for Finnish newspaper Satakunnan Kansa. He has also written and directed radio plays for YLE Finnish Broadcasting Company.
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[2] Lissa Tyler Renaud, (M.A Directing; Ph.D. Theatre History/Criticism) is director of InterArts Training in California. She has taught acting and voice throughout the U.S., at major theatre institutions throughout Asia, and in Mexico. Recipient of Ford Foundation and National Science Foundations grants, she is an award-winning actress and a recognized director and alignment practitioner. She publishes and lectures widely on the European avant-garde. Her co-edited volume, The Politics of American Actor Training, was published by Routledge (2009; paperback 2011). Renaud was guest speaker and master teacher in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2010 and 2011. She is currently writing a chapter for an international volume honoring Stanislavsky’s 150th birthday (2013).

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Sibiu Stuns with Purcărete