Ion Caramitru – An Artistic Guiding Force (1942-2021)

Maria Zărnescu*

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Shakespeare, Hamlet

They say a man is not dead as long as another still remembers his voice. Ion Caramitru has not died, nor has he retired to take a rest. He has just gone to declaim his Shakespeare and Eminescu; in other worlds, to act and direct, to supervise unions of artists and ministries, to inspire people at political crossroads. He speaks with the same unmistakable voice as always, while displaying his characteristic charisma, elegance and enviable energy.

Ion Caramitru. Photo: Tomoaki Minoda

Born on March 9, 1942, in Bucharest, Romania, to a family of Macedonian Romanians, Caramitru graduated from the I. L. Caragiale Institute for Theatre and Film Arts in 1964, performing the role of Hamlet in the Shakespearean tragedy of the same name. He then debuted in the National Theatre, Bucharest, in the play Eminescu, a work dedicated to the great Romanian poet. These two literary personalities clearly marked his career for years to come. He illuminated and disseminated Eminescu’s work by presenting it as no one else had done before him, both within Romania and internationally.

Caramitru/Hamlet, the graduation role at Casandra Studio, 1963. Photo: Caramitru’s personal archives

He was also an actor with a Shakespearian calling and played iconic roles in iconic productions at the beginning of his career; for example, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, directed by Vlad Mugur; Octavius in Julius Caesar, directed by Andrei Şerban; Ferdinand in The Tempest directed by Liviu Ciulei; and the anthological Hamlet as visioned by Alexandru Tocilescu, a performance that placed him at the top of the ten best ever interpreters of that famous character worldwide.

Caramitru/Ferdinand in The Tempest, directed by Liviu Ciulei at Bulandra Theatre, 1978. Photo: Caramitru’s personal archives

In the 1980s, I watched this production of over five hours countless times at the Bulandra Theatre. In those days, it was very cold inside, so we had to watch performances while wearing our coats, caps and gloves. The setting also projected a feeling of cold as it was limited to black and white, like a chessboard on which kings and queens, pawns and fools—the actors—always prepared for the next move. Caramitru’s performance was self-conscious and cold like the blade of a knife, projecting a self-irony and a kind of manipulation of lines that were to become his trademark.

Caramitru as Hamlet at Bulandra Theatre, directed by Alexandru Tocilescu, 1985. Photo: Caramitru’s personal archives

While engaged in his plays, we found ourselves in a familiar environment: Hamlet was an opponent of Claudius, a dictator just like Ceauşescu in a rotten Romania, a republic of absolute evil. In the end, Horatio was killed; a totalitarian society does not allow witnesses to survive, lest they bear testimony against the powers of the state. Intensely supervised by the Romanian Securitate at that time, the production was performed almost 200 times before the Revolution of 1989.

Consequently, and not by mere chance, the actor’s image remains associated with those events. Caramitru was one of the leaders of the anti-Ceauşescu rallies on December 21–22, in Bucharest. On December 22, he led large numbers of protestors into the premises of the Romanian Television, and he was the first to announce the end of the dictatorship on national television. Although Caramitru was hopeful that democratic ideals would finally be achieved, he distanced himself from distorted structures which later emerged.  From 1996 to 2000, however, he served as the Romanian Minister of Culture.

Caramitru: General Manager of the National Theatre in Bucharest, 2005–21. Photo: Florin Ghioca

Caramitru’s theatrical career is a landmark in the Romanian artistic community of the past fifty years. He has been closely associated with Bulandra Theatre, where he acted from 1965 to 2005 and served as Manager from 1990 to 1993. Caramitru later became the Manager of the National Theatre of Bucharest, restoring its original architecture and transforming it to a modern building with a record number of venues. He continued to interpret a wide variety of roles, both on stage and on film, he directed several productions of theatre, poetry and opera, at home and abroad, and he recorded thousands of minutes of poetry and radio theatre. His adaptations of Peter Brook’s La tragédie de Carmen (after Bizet) and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin were hosted by the Grand Opera House in Belfast, and his stagings of Shakespearean plays The Merchant of Venice and Othello and also Eugène Ionesco’s Macbett were performed in Thèâtre du Signe of Japan.

Caramitru/Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, directed by Alexander Morfov at the National Theatre in Bucharest, 2019. Photo: Florin Ghioca

Shakespearean drama remained a constant reference point throughout his artistic career and guided his work as both an actor and a director; in fact, the British Council named Caramitru the Romanian Shakespeare Cultural Ambassador in 2016. In his later years at the National Theatre Bucharest, Caramitru portrayed still other unparalleled Shakespearean characters: Edward III, Macbeth, Prospero and Shylock. Paradoxically (or not), the last role he performed was that of Professor Henry Higgins in the musical My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, directed by himself at the National Operetta and Musical Theatre Ion Dacian in Bucharest. He staged a vivid and colourful show, and he interpreted a character with whom, consciously or not, he shared certain similarities. In fact, I have always wondered why he didn’t perform in more comedic roles. 

Caramitru as Shakespeare Cultural Ambassador in Romania, 2016. Photo: Florin Ghioca

Caramitru drew on his unique talent for comedy as he presided over the annual UNITER Awards Gala from 1991 until the time of his death. Founded in 1990, the Romanian Association of Theatre Artists served as a unique and invaluable model for the cultural life of the entire country. Under Caramitru’s leadership of more than three decades, UNITER has emerged as a well-organized and highly motivating guild that has sponsored a series of extremely important programmes and projects. The best known and most universally appreciated events are the National Theatre Festival, which often includes an international component, The Young Actors Gala and the controversial UNITER Awards Gala. The latter ceremony, held on July 19, 2021, at the Big Hall of the National Theatre Bucharest, was the last public event hosted by Camamitru. After Caramitru passed away on September 5, 2021, the hall was renamed in his honor.

Caramitru as the host at the annual UNITER Awards Gala, 2021. Photo: Florin Biolan

“We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on, and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep,” declared Prospero/Caramitru in The Tempest. On the occasion of the International Theatre Day, March 27, 2021, he explained, “The stage seeks to capture you away from reality, for at least one second, a lifelong second that will shape your thinking and send you away into the street, into the universe, into yourself, in life or even death and nothingness.”

Caramitru most certainly lived his life on stage, where he somehow put his ideas and vision to test. Every community and every group need a guiding force such as the indefatigable Ion Caramitru.


Ion Caramitru’s passing leaves behind a huge emptiness, whose proportions and significance will only be fully perceived in time. It is only then that the extent and the unusual dimensions of his personality will be outlined. It is only then that the real size of our loss will be revealed.

Caramitru as Henry Higgins: his last part in My Fair Lady, directed by himself at the National Operetta and Musical Theatre “Ion Dacian” in Bucharest, 2021. Photo: TNOMID


He loved life, he breathed Theatre, and up to the very end he was still nurturing a multitude of plans that he wanted to bring to concrete realization.

The I.L. Caragiale National Theatre Bucharest


Ion Caramitru’s departure ended more than just a chapter in the Romanian culture; it turned a page in the being of this very nation. A world is extinguished; he was that world. And by a mere chance, which should give us pause for thought, we may say today that we have been his fellow contemporaries.

Octavian Saiu, President of AICT—Romanian Section Theatre Studies


With a performative expressiveness that fascinated and left the audience astounded, Ion Caramitru interpreted Shakespeare’s work with tumultuous passion, like a tempest breaking in the middle of a theatrical stage. . . . A storyteller in the true sense of the word, Caramitru was also, among many other things, a strong cultural link between Romania and Great Britain, reason for which in 1995 he was awarded the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty Queen Elisabeth II.

British Embassy Bucharest
Applause for Ion Caramitru, 2021. Photo: TNOMID


Ion Caramitru was a devoted, steady and brave defender of the principles and values of the Romanian Crown, as well as a true friend. Ion Caramitru was awarded by King Michael I with the Romanian Royal House Cross in 2008 and with the Royal Decoration Nihil Sine Deo in 2012.

The Royal Family of Romania 

*Maria Zărnescu, PhD (b. 1969, Bucharest) is a Romanian theatre theorist and critic, as well as Associate Professor at the National University of Theatrical Arts and Cinematography “I.L. Caragiale” Bucharest. She is the author of two books: Music and Muses (2015) and The Sound of Theatre Music (2016). She has published theatrical and musical reviews, studies and essays in Romanian and international journals. She received  the Romanian Association of Theatre Professionals UNITER Award for “Best Theatre Critic” in 2015.

Copyright © 2021 Maria Zărnescu
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