Maria Zărnescu[1]

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The German State Theatre Timişoara, Romania: The Seagull (Die Möwe) by A. P. Chekhov, directed by Yuri Kordonsky, sets and costumes Dragoş Buhagiar, dramaturgy Valerie Seufert, sound design Octavian Horváth, lighting design Botond Nosz (première date: March 9, 2013).

Certain moments in the universal history of theatre seem to be triggered by particularly decisive encounters. In modern times, towards the middle of the 19th century, the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, considered by many as the “father of directing,” and also as the overall author of his theatrical productions, is joined by actor Ludwig Chronegk as assistant. While the Duke selects the text, gives acting directions, plans the actors’ movements in drawings, designs the set, the costumes, the accessories and the props, the “assistant” is in charge of the company’s strict discipline and of the actual staging of the “director’s” artistic aims. For the first time in the history of theatre, the acting human being and the set are melded into a single entity. The unity of the scenic image is a status reached by the complex modern theatre that logically and chronologically followed the Elizabethan stage, in which the poet’s word prevailed and the 18th century theatrical idea, in which the actor’s personal charisma, played a major role.

At the end of the 19th century, it was none other than Stanislavski himself witnessing the productions of the Meiningen Ensemble on tour in Moscow. He would declare that he was “impressed by the new staging formula: historic accuracy, the movements of the extras, excellent development, wonderful discipline, everything orderly and showing a remarkable artistic solemnity. I did not just watch: I studied,”[2] wrote Stanislavski. In 1898, together with playwright and director Nemirovich-Danchenko, he established The Moscow Art Theatre. However, its foundation stone had been laid one year earlier during an encounter of the two at a famous lunch that had started at 2 p.m. and ended the next morning at 8. The first play staged by the new institution was a triumph: Chekhov’s Seagull, a milestone event in the history of theatre. The image of the flying bird was embroidered—and has been there ever since‒on the grand red curtain, whose two halves could be drawn upwards halfway, creating the resemblance to two bird’s wings (different from most of the curtains used at the time, which were simply lifted up just like a fourth wall).

"The Seagull" ("Die Möwe") at the German State Theatre Timişoara, Romania, photo by Zsolt Fehérvári
“The Seagull” (“Die Möwe”) at the German State Theatre Timişoara, Romania, photo by Zsolt Fehérvári

“A real theatre!… the curtain, the foreground, the background, and all. No artificial scenery is needed.” This is young Treplyov’s summary, (almost infatuated) personal view of the scenic space in The Seagull. More than a century after the premiere of Chekhov’s play, the creators of this new theatrical work of art refused to practice Treplyov’s theory. This time another encounter took place, at The German State Theatre Timişoara[3], and brought together Yuri Kordonsky[4], director, a native of Odessa (Ukraine), and the Romanian set designer Dragoş Buhagiar[5], all of them experienced, all of them artists who have won multiple international awards.

Together they create a different kind of space, a metaphor of two worlds that come across each other. The non-action in The Seagull “comedy” carries that particular something that underlies the words in a character-space entity, which is continuously changing, on the one hand accumulating human energy, on the other hand generating it and then returning it to the people‒actors and spectators. The story on the stage is interwoven with that of the scenery. Far from being an autonomous reality, an independent background or a witness to the plot, the set is assigned the function of a multiple character: not chorus‒i.e. not a commentator, but an actant beside the actor. Furthermore, the scenic space (that of the performers) and the public one (that of the audience) are blended into a joint zone, the magical encounter zone.

The hall (formerly ballroom) of The German State Theatre Timişoara has the opportunity to host this “coming together” of people and objects. A world made out of bits and pieces: chairs, armchairs, sofas, little tea tables, all of them ancient and mismatched, heaps of books and stacks of dusty newspapers. Light sources of all kinds‒table lamps, lamp posts and candles‒spreading a light that is pale, diffused, sometimes cold and biting, sometimes warm and comforting. There are stands, clothes, trunks, bottles, lots of bottles, hats, many hats and suitcases, which will all land, eventually, on somebody’s heads, in hands and on arms, permanently related to the characters. The hierarchy actor‒scenery is ever-changing and the set design keeps, in certain details, evoking the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen’s “historical realism.” Furthermore, there are bed clothes, a wheelchair, a picture frame that will enclose live faces hiding dead souls. There is the triple-mirror vanity table of a theatre dressing room, but also a small brougham, private play spaces for mother and son. A chandelier that will become the moon, a radio set that will become a human mask, a typewriter that will become a piano, a piano that will drip dissonant sounds, similar to Nina Zarechnaya’s seagull shriek, sharp, distorted, constantly recurring as a leitmotif. A repetitive, obsessive, thrilling musical theme is part of the sound scenery created by Octavian Horváth and becomes a fulfillment of the visual one.

Olga Török (Nina Zarechnaya) and Radu Vulpe (Trigorin) in "The Seagull" at the German State Theatre Timişoara, Romania
Olga Török (Nina Zarechnaya) and Radu Vulpe (Trigorin) in “The Seagull” at the German State Theatre Timişoara, Romania

This world made out of pieces is populated both by actors and spectators (including some seated at the back of the stage), performers and audience. The characters are present on stage most of the time, mute and motionless witnesses to the unfolding action that displays a slowly dying world, a world of helpless romances. The pattern of the love affairs is linear and perfectly symmetrical. In the center, the Nina‒Trigorin couple is sharing a relationship of temporarily double equivalence. The young and exalted Nina seems to be seeking the happiness of becoming an actress; in fact she is seeking true, glamorous fame. Trigorin is the not-so-young writer, who has already reached fame and has had enough of it, silent, melancholy and tired of life, actually a simple man. Nina is loved by young Treplyov, an artist by nature with a tormented, excited, continuously agitated and stressed soul, frustrated by the lack of love. Apparently these two love each other and their souls are blended by the desire to create a unique artistic image. In fact, it is a unidirectional relation, as is Masha’s love for Treplyov, like some modern Helena and Demetrius, in another kind of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Unidirectional is also the love of teacher Medvedenko for Masha, met by her with indifference, as there is no common ground between their souls. However he often humorously appeals to Shakespeare as a witness.

Ioana Iacob (Arkadina) in "The Seagull" at the German State Theatre Timişoara, photo by Zsolt Fehérvári
Ioana Iacob (Arkadina) in “The Seagull” at the German State Theatre Timişoara, photo by Zsolt Fehérvári

Shakespeare’s sign also governs the Trigorin‒Arkadina relationship, the modern embodiment of the usurper king and of the queen mother in Hamlet. She, a well-known actress, a stylish, egocentrical and childish beauty is seeking love and her lost youth. Hence her jealousy for Nina Zarechnaya, who, temporarily, possesses both. And also Arkadina’s denial of her status as Treplyov’s mother. A true “psychological curiosity.” She attracts the good and honest doctor, Dorn, who in turn is loved by Polina, Masha’s mother and wife of estate manager Shamrayev. Then, there is Arkadina’s “unhappy” brother, Sorin, who cannot find his place either in his own mansion or in his own life. However, he loves his sister and is vaguely attracted to young Nina. “How much love”…

Horia Săvescu (Treplyov) in "The Seagull" at the German State Theatre Timişoara, photo by Zsolt Fehérvári
Horia Săvescu (Treplyov) in “The Seagull” at the German State Theatre Timişoara, photo by Zsolt Fehérvári

Chekhov seems careful not to guide his directors too closely, but still, it is astonishing how accurate the text is. And Kordonsky… he is equally analytical, as he is bravely inventive. Secondary characters, often undervalued in the staging, are invested, in his vision, with new value. In the background of a continuous, linear, almost subliminal tension, the seemingly minor conflict of the dawdling manager Shamrayev with the overly pretentious Arkadina bursts out unexpectedly and Rareş Hontzu becomes the protagonist of the highest moment in the show’s energy diagram. The same applies to the short dialogue between Polina and Dorn, in which the jealous woman requests from the doctor the flower bouquet he received from young Nina. The weary gesture accompanied by George Peetz’s indulgent smile and the desperate violence with which Enikö Blénessy bites the yellow roses that will then spread on the white floor transform the scene into the equivalent of a movie “redialed sequence.” A powerful image: another futureless love.

Enikö Blénessy (Polina) and Georg Peetz (Dorn) in "The Seagull" at the German State Theatre Timişoara, photo by Zsolt Fehérvári
Enikö Blénessy (Polina) and Georg Peetz (Dorn) in “The Seagull” at the German State Theatre Timişoara, photo by Zsolt Fehérvári

The approach in the cases of the roles of Arkadina and Trigorin may also have something to do with the director’s bravery. Ioana Iacob shows without tricks or makeup her missing ten years, as compared to the character’s age, and Radu Vulpe emphasizes the simplicity and the weariness of the famous writer. In his turn, Horia Săvescu puts an accent on Treplyov’s nervousness and frustrations. He will also be assigned the mission of carrying out director Kordonsky’s ultimate deed of courage, namely to intervene on one of Chekhov’s seemingly sacrosanct elements: the sounds of his plays, such as the breaking string, the axe cutting the cherry trees in the orchard, the sound of the revolver’s snap in Uncle Vanya or the gunshot at the end of The Seagull. In his search for new theatrical forms, Treplev will make an experiment: when he shoots the gun, the spectators will have to swallow the slices of lemon that had been distributed to them for this purpose. Only this time, in total contradiction to Chekhov’s theory, the pistol hanging on the wall in the first act will not be fired in the last one.

The killing of the symbolic seagull takes place in the show as it does in the play: off stage. Initially the director brings it onto the stage as a shapeless bloody-red mass of flesh. It will become immaculate only in its stuffed version. Nina Zarechnaya’s evolution is exactly the opposite: from the purity of a nymph struggling to escape the protective shell and to be metamorphosed into a seagull-butterfly‒to the black suit in the end, the colour of a complete burn-out. It appears that this was the Role that was awaiting Olga Török. But it was This Director that was needed to guide her temperament and artistic personality.

In the same manner the characters crowd and the objects pile up on the stage, gradually they disappear‒somehow physically, such as the scenery, or dying a little, as people do. The struggle, just like a lame dance, is senseless. The seagull-butterflies will be burnt by the too strong light shed by the chandelier-moon, which is left pulsating in jerky swaying movements, like a clock measuring an endless time.

The universal history of theatre is marked by certain decisive encounters: between an actor and a spectator, between a director and a playwright or a set designer or a theatrical team, between a theatre manager and all of the others, in a finite number of mathematical combinations, but with infinite artistic possibilities. Such an encounter seems to have taken place at the The German State Theatre Timişoara: Yuri Kordonsky, actor-director-beautiful human being who leaves aesthetic tracks in theatre and souls, capable of taming people and writings; Dragoş Buhagiar, this Duke of Saxe-Meiningen of Romanian set design, tamer of stage spaces and a young, disciplined and creatively passionate team.


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[1] Maria Zărnescu (b. 1969) is a Romanian theatrologist and critic, teaching associate and a PhD candidate at the University of Theatrical Arts and Cinematography „I.L. Caragiale” Bucharest. Her theatre and music reviews, studies and essays have been published in Critical Stages, Time Out Bucharest,Teatrul AZI, Yorick, Concept and Theatron. She has long experience as a radio journalist and manager, television editor, and events producer.
[2] Constantin Stanislavsky apud Denis Bablet – Le décor de théâtre de 1870 à 1914, Éditions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Paris, 1965 (p. 48).
[3] Far from being an “outsider” in the present Romanian theatrical landscape, The German State Theatre Timişoara finds itself, most certainly, in one of the finest moments of its existence. This is proven by the invitations to important national and international festivals, the awards received by its artists, the appreciation expressed by audiences and critics. In 2013, it celebrates 60 years from its establishment, although the history of German-language theatre in this city of Western Romania is much older. It is even older than the building in which it performs nowadays and which presently hosts the Opera and three drama theatres, playing in three languages: Romanian, German and Hungarian—a unique status in Europe. Over the years, The German State Theatre Timişoara has assumed the mission of safeguarding and developing the identity awareness of the Germans in Romania, making a substantial contribution to the promotion of the language and culture of this minority, even through extremely difficult times. Still, following the massive emigration of the German population (beginning in the 1970s until the end of the ‘90s), the theatre has had to define a new profile, to rethink its addressability, to continually reinvent itself. In the present season, the writings of Shakespeare, Schiller or Brecht are played, but also contemporary plays—on stage or in unconventional venues. It also performs children’s theatre, and musical or dance theatre. Thus, the cultural institution that was once exclusively dedicated to one minority has reinvented itself, becoming a modern product, addressing itself to an ever larger community: the community of the audiences of everywhere.
[4] Yuri Kordonsky studied with the well-known Russian director Lev Dodin in St. Petersburg. Presently, Yuri Kordonsky lives in the United States, where he is Chair of the Theatre Department and teaches acting and directing at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.
[5] Dragoş Buhagiar is also the designer of the Thalia Prize trophy, the highest distinction awarded by the International Association of Theatre Critics every two years

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Decisive Chekhovian Encounters in Timişoara