Aglika Oltean[1]

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Interferences international theatre festival, 27 November to 9 December 2012, in Cluj, Romania.

The Hungarian State Theatre of Cluj, Romania (Hungarian: Kolozsvár; German: Klausenburg) recently celebrated its 220th anniversary. By virtue of its accumulated experience, wisdom, and creativity, the Hungarian theatre won the position of an open, really European theater (member of the Union of European Theatres since 2008) and not just of a cultural institution which meets the needs of the local Hungarian minority. Over the last several years, this theatre has been considered, paradoxically, the best Romanian theatre, both by theatre critics from Bucharest and from Cluj, and it is probably the only topic on which they truly agree. For the third time, Hungarian theatre hosted the International Festival Interferences in December 2012.

“I felt like I was in another country.”

Almost all invited performances were closely related to the main theme for this year— “Voices in dialogue: Theatre and Music”. Gábor Tompa (artistic director of the festival) and the playwright András Visky (artistic supervisor) take full responsibility for the selection. Without unnecessary modesty, Gábor Tompa explains in the preface of the catalogue: “Since our company has succeeded in bringing the fame of Cluj culture far beyond the borders of the country, to almost every continent in the world, maybe there is no more appropriate way to celebrate this anniversary than by hosting some of the most interesting trends of the contemporary theatre.”

During 13 cold December days, we, the audience, had the feeling of being positioned at the centre of the theatre universe; we in Cluj were offered important, provocative, intense performances, meaningful for the future of the theatre arts. “During the selection process we had in mind those outstanding performances from all over the world that have been created by artists who are not solely theatre people, but important musicians as well. We also looked for performances that make an attempt at reinterpreting the relationship of these two art forms which have always belonged together,” Tompa explains.

Jaram Lee in the Korean version of “Mother Courage” © LG Arts Centre.
Jaram Lee in the Korean version of “Mother Courage” © LG Arts Centre.

Indeed, the festival days were saturated with interesting productions and meetings; with artists who shared really important viewpoints with us. Spectators felt almost spontaneous gratitude towards the organizers of the festival, because one day they could see André Wilms (Max Black), an experienced actor whose physical presence on stage expressed theatricality itself; the next day—the meditative musical and visual performance, Les Corbeaux of Josef Nadj, and finally Ukchuk-Ga (based on Mother Courage, by Brecht) of the pansori[2] singer Jaram Lee from South Korea.

Jean (Zsolt Bogdán) and Julie (Anikó Pethö) in the Cluj production of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” © István Biró
Jean (Zsolt Bogdán) and Julie (Anikó Pethö) in the Cluj production of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” © István Biró

Jaram Lee sang brilliantly the more than fifteen roles in an adaptation taking place in Korea, captivating our attention to the level of hypnosis. She also created real contact with the audience. Several times the lights were turned on and the actress addressed us with questions. This epic narration seemed so close to what Brecht himself dreamed of for his theatre… It suggested ideas, emotions, and it constantly extracted humor even from the darkest moments.

Furthermore the viewer could see how performances of the Hungarian Theatre of Cluj enter into dialogue with other performances, for example with Strindberg’s Miss Julie, directed by Felix Alexa with Julie, Jean and Christine—a re-writing of Strindberg by the Bulgarian theatre director, Margarita Mladenova (Theatre laboratory Sfumato from Sofia), presented on two consecutive evenings.

The performances of the Israeli Habima National Theatre (The Promised Land, directed by Shay Pitovski), of the Prague National Theatre (The Marriage of Figaro, music by Aleš Březina, loosely based on W. A. Mozart) and of Volksbühne from Berlin (Woyzeck, by Alban Berg and Georg Büchner, directed by Dávid Márton) gave us a feeling of being suddenly and categorically positioned at the centre of the theatre universe without moving physically away from Cluj. Dragoş Buhagiar, the designer of Silviu Purcarete, expressed these feelings at theGulliver`s Travels press conference: “Thank you for this great festival, I felt like I was in another country.”

Anikó Pethö as Miss Julie in the production at the Hungarian theatre in Cluj © István Biró
Anikó Pethö as Miss Julie in the production at the Hungarian theatre in Cluj © István Biró

Theatre and Music

The invited performances, as if they were in a conspiracy, cataloged before our eyes, day after day, the different forms and proportions of interaction between theatre and music: how to go from the ordinary mechanical (Max Black by Heiner Goebbels) or natural (Les Corbeaux by Josef Nadj) sound to musical rhythm; how to tell the story of five generations of Chinese puppeteers through music and some pantomime sketches (Hand Stories by Jung Fai).

“Les Corbeaux,” directed by Josef Nadji © Rémi Angeli.
“Les Corbeaux,” directed by Josef Nadji © Rémi Angeli.

It is also worth noting that most of the performances had a documentary and/or autobiographical basis; they often addressed us directly, the actors easily entering into dialogue with the audience, away from any idea of ​​theatrical illusion and concept of character and role. Performances that were telling a coherent story behind the fourth wall were very few indeed.

“Max Black” © Mario del Curto.
“Max Black” © Mario del Curto.

The composer and conductor Heiner Goebbels likes to work with less well-known texts which were not written for the theatre and which have a strong musical structure. His show, Max Black, is built on texts by Paul Valery, Lichtenberg, Wittgenstein and Max Black.[3] We are in the strange laboratory of a strange old man. He recites, incoherently, poetry and scientific formulas; he produces spectacular fireworks; he records and reproduces sounds, and sets fires at different corners of the stage. Among laboratory equipment, hanging aquariums with strange stuffed weasels, André Wilms seems like a theatre dinosaur that has forgotten daylight and been abandoned on the stage by gods, condemned to endless mind-wandering. He is the ruler of that stage/laboratory of his mind. Along with André Wilms, Max Black is trying to synthesize his [their] life experience in a series of chaotic reflections, encrypted formulas, metaphors, vague instructions and deductions–a utopian attempt to transfer energy, substance and experience to unknown recipient.

Probation for the Audience

No less eccentric and provocative was Gulliver’s Travels directed by the famous Romanian director, Silviu Purcarete, (see Critical Stages 7). He had followed Swift’s bitter social satire and political pessimism. The first trips of Gulliver, the most popular parts of the novel, were immediately excluded from the performance script. However, the actors insisted on having the opportunity to work on some scenes with Lilliputians and giants. Their proposals, implemented on the principle of shadow theatre, were eventually included in the show and represent one of the few moments where the audience could laugh.

Almost at the very beginning of the show a shocking scene stops our breath: mothers bring their children (dolls) and gather them together on a big table. One baby is selected, parts of it are grilled in front of the audience to produce the smell of roast meat, and then a portion is given to a child, sitting sideways, who calmly starts to eat. This scene of cannibalism, accompanied by the dark and ominous music, was almost unbearable for the audience; several spectators left the hall. This scene is in fact a visual version of Swift’s satirical pamphlet A Modest Proposal (1729), where he suggests that the Irish eat their own children in order to resolve the hunger problem.

The performance lasted just one hour, but we had the feeling that all there is in Swift’s novel has passed in front of us, or rather that all important themes and emotions have been captured on the stage in an invisible web. “We went through Swift as coffee goes through filter, yet still Swift has remained; we are very close to Swift also visually,” says Dragoş Buhagiar. Swift is constantly present on stage—as a sick, already crazy old man or as a child with a wooden toy horse. We hear a childish, or an old man’s voice, narrating his experiences among the yahoo people (an allegory of human degradation). The show presents a series of magnificent pictures on the background of Shaun Davey’s spatial music, which opens our imaginations towards a meditative journey, toward ourselves. The huge pair of glasses, through which magnified yahoos stared at us, were in fact focused on our internal miniature world.

The festival program included two more Purcarete performances:Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi, produced by the Hungarian theatre in 2007, and Ionesco`s Exit the King, a French production by the company Les Arts et Mouvants, with original music by Vasile Sirli, one of the best known theatre composers in Romania. In this show, Purcarete and Ionesco entered into a dialogue of infinite sympathy. The chaos caused by the expectation of death, the various bargaining strategies, the white powder, put over the body of the still living King—all those effects would please even Ionesco if he could see his King today. The most amusing part was when the King, in order to postpone his death, had his plush toys brought on stage and tried to fool everyone that he was a child. This was a gorgeous reading of Ionesco’s play, performed with respect and admiration for the author’s ability to describe the essence of the human condition without pathos.

During the festival, international guests could see the latest productions of the hosting company: Hedda Gabler directed by Andrei Serban, Miss Julie directed by Felix Alexa, The Celebration (after the Danish film by Thomas Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov) directed by Robert Woodruff, Ruins True Refuge (collective creation, inspired by Beckett) directed by Gábor Tompa and Leonida Gem Session (a free adaptation after a comedy by I.L. Caragiale), directed by Gábor Tompa.

Hedda Gabler is one of my favourite Ibsen plays. This version was built up as a telenovela, with flat, one-dimensional characters, led each by one obsession (cf. Critical Stages 6). The eccentric directing created the feeling that characters were constantly being judged and ironic-ized. It often puzzled me, and at no point in the show was I bored or “left alone,” and that is the good thing about this performance.

Robert Woodruff is an American theatre director and professor at Yale. He has chosen to stage the script of the Danish film The Celebration, since the issue of domestic violence was considered important for the Romanian context. The venue accommodates about 40 spectators who enter as guests to a family celebration. We sit at long tables together with the actors, eat cherry soup (traditional for Transylvania), drink wine and gradually learn about the problems in the family. When the accusations are openly pronounced, all spectators stare at the abusive father awaiting his response. The actor, Zsolt Bogdán, said at the press conference that his mission has been to make his character opaque: “The audience had to wonder to what extent it is likely someone with my face did the crime he was charged with.” The performance is short, an hour and 40 minutes, concentrated and without any unnecessary details. The main problem is promptly thrown on the table to be resolved. Sometimes there are viewers who weep; others calmly continue to eat chicken with sesame seeds…

I eagerly await the next edition of the festival which, from 2013 on will be an annual event, rather than every two years, as it has been till now. At the opening ceremony it was announced that Interferences will be an important part of the preparation for the candidature of Cluj for European Capital of Culture in 2020.

Edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud


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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 has a PhD in Theatre Studies from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. She published Melodrama 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 the 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.
[2] Pansori, which originated in Korea in the 17th century, is a genre of musical storytelling performed by one vocalist and a drummer. This popular tradition, characterized by strong vibrato singing, dramatic narration and a repertory of narratives and gesture, embraces both elite and folk culture.
[3] Max Black (1909-1988), born in Baku, Azerbaidjan; talented British-American musician and philosopher, who made contributions to the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of art.

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Cluj Plays a Dialogue with Music