Romanian Theatre: Waiting for the Present to Take Shape

Kinga Boros*

Piatra Neamț Theatre Festival, 32nd edition, 3–12 September 2021, Romania.

Romanian theatre at the end of summer 2021 was marked by two deaths. Voicu Rădescu, the founder of the Romanian independent theatre movement, passed away first, and Ion Caramitru, director of the Bucharest National Theatre shortly after him. The passing of these two determining personalities seems to give a special connotation to the curatorial concept of the 32nd Piatra Neamț Theatre Festival, organized by the local Theatre of Youth: POST-PRESENT.

The facade of Moscow Bolshoi Theatre projected on the facade of the Piatra-Neamț theatre. Photo: Marius Șumlea

As the manager of the Green Hours jazz-café in Bucharest, Rădescu (1955–2021) opened his venue to several young theatre-makers from the millennium on. He offered them the chance to try themselves out as autonomous creators, free from any constraint or restriction. Seen from today, it is clear that, thanks to Rădescu, Green Hours functioned as the nursery of a generation that eventually brought a new voice to Romanian theatre. Directors like Radu Afrim, Ada Milea, Ana Mărgineanu, Carmen Lidia Vidu started their careers here, only to become award-winning artists later. And it was here, in 2003, that Gianina Cărbunariu created Stop the Tempo, the performance that introduced her as the most innovative director of the post-communist Romanian theatre.

Spectators are guided from one location to another and through the local history of the twentieth century. Photo: Marius Șumlea

Caramitru (1942–2021), leading actor in some of the most famous performances before the Romanian revolution such as Alexandru Tocilescu`s Hamlet (1985), was also one of the faces announcing the fall of the Ceaușescu regime on television in December 1989. In the 1990s, he led the Ministry of Culture. In 2005, he became director of the National Theatre in Bucharest, a position he took up again in 2021, contracted for the following five years. Under his leadership, the National Theatre was not considered to be particularly progressive, and he didn`t seem to seek its reformation. While president of UNITER, the union of theatre workers that organizes the UNITER prizes, Romania’s theatre Oscars, he had a determining role in making the union widely known and acknowledged but also in preserving a conservative value system in Romanian theatre.

To qualify this statement, we should look at the UNITER prizes from the perspective of Gianina Cărbunariu, a director who writes her own texts. Cărbunariu’s plays—translated, staged and published in many languages throughout the world—cannot participate in the competition for the best new play of the year because the criterion for this category is that the given play has never been staged. Neither was she awarded the UNITER prize for best director:  it was only when she entered the state theatre system that the jury chose her performance, Typographic Capital Letters (2013),[1] to be the best show. One might argue that Romanian theatre represented by UNITER does not appreciate or does not even recognize many of its assets.

Actress Nora Covali evokes the memory of the “Lew-Echod” Jewish emigration from 1900. Photo: Marius Șumlea

When bidding farewell to Voicu Rădescu and Ion Caramitru, we cannot help but wonder what the next era will be about. Or, as director Daniel Chirilă, artistic consultant of the Theatre of Youth, affirms in the Piatra Neamț festival catalogue: “We live in a post-present in which the present does not exist, being merely a buffer zone between what was and what is to follow.” His words, of course, refer to the pandemic situation but received a much wider meaning with the passing of these two great figures.

Organized by the Theatre of Youth, an institution led by Gianina Cărbunariu since 2017, this venerable festival was one of the first live ones in Romania since March 2020. In accordance with the slogan chosen by the theatre for its 2020–21 season, “See you outside,” ten of the fifteen invited Romanian productions were designed to be played outdoors. This guaranteed to some extent that the event could take place even if the protective hygiene measures were in place at the time the festival started. The risk was considerable, since Romania’s vaccination rate continues to stay depressingly low.

Encounter of the younger actress (Cătălina Bălălău) with the shadow of her older self (Maria Hibovski). Photo: Marius Șumlea

The outdoor criterion, as neutral and practical as it seems at first sight, automatically excluded many theatres, those that did not succeed in creating live shows adapted to COVID restrictions. It is revealing that only five theatres in the festival’s national section were state theatres. Independent artists and companies, while struggling to have a venue to play, were much more inventive in perceiving constraining measures as new possibilities.

Naturally, the mere fact of physically stepping out of the Guckkastenbühne box (the fourth-wall stage) does not automatically take theatre aesthetics outside that box. Nor do socially relevant themes, like the capitalist exploitation of nature, of our fellow humans and of ourselves, very well represented at the festival. Of the ten shows I had the privilege to see in Piatra-Neamț, only two, I could say, took aesthetic risks. Both of them happen to have been produced by the Theatre of Youth itself. You will not be able to see them at other festivals as both are site-specific performances inseparable from Piatra-Neamț.

The sense and experience of time is the theme of Future of the Past. Director Clemens Bechtel, who also wrote the documentation-based script, introduces the audience to the city of Piatra-Neamț in the form of an audio-walk. With headphones and with the actors showing us the way, we leave from the inside of the theatre building, heading out to a quiet and elegant residential area built in the interwar period. The sight of people from the early 1900s or from 1940 is not even surprising in this architectural context. Only the passing cars remind us that we are in the twenty-first century. Our guide, actor Florin Hrițcu, carries a huge backpack on his shoulders. A hundred years ago, many Jewish men left these houses, their homes, sometimes on foot, in search of a better life. It feels like we are stepping in their footprints.

Then, in the monument-building of the Palace of Children, we continue our itinerary in the most intimate, personal histories of the twentieth century. Among others, a scene of a little girl meeting her future self makes a powerful impression. In a ballet studio, between two parallel mirrors indefinitely multiplying their figures, the two women engage in a stirring disputation. Her parents have just died, she has to move into an orphanage, and her sister will soon pass away, too. The older self—in Maria Hibovski’s moving presence—wisely, lovingly, but also inexorably, prepares her younger self for what is ahead. The young girl—the very energetic and refined Cătălina Bălălău—defiantly argues with her. The sentiment of being trapped between an unchangeable past and an inevitable future is shattering. It is of great virtue that the performance, though emotionally very loaded, does not become kitschy.

Planet Mirror occupying the Piatra-Neamț Theatre of Youth. Photo: Marius Șumlea

If Future of the Past is an immersion in the parallel dimensions of time, To Be Continued. On the Planet Mirror by Gianina Cărbunariu plays with the idea of a parallel planet, better than ours. Planet Mirror arrives to Piatra-Neamț to offer a new home to all the creatures wiped out from Earth because they were non-essential to humans: animal species, fresh air, ideological values, arts . . . Non-essentials—the term alludes to the categorizing of Romanian citizens when the COVID vaccination campaign started: theatre-makers could not enter the first rounds of vaccination because decision-makers considered them non-essential members of society. The performance starts as a dystopia, citing Nina’s monologue from Chekhov’s Seagull, only to quickly evolve into an overwhelming audiovisual essay about society, use of power and theatre. Performed in front of the Theatre of Youth, using the rich, three-storey facade as an interface, the show transmits as many thoughts through Cărbunariu’s text as it does through the images created by her and her excellent team of co-artists: Dorothee Curio, the set designer; Cristian Niculescu, the lighting designer; and Andrei Cozlac, the video designer reshape the facade with grandiose and thought-provoking video-mapping.

President of Planet Mirror, Alba, the transgenic bunny, on the balcony of the theatre. Photo: Marius Șumlea

The twelve actors play in every window, balcony and on the front steps, in some scenes even among the audience placed opposite on the roadway (closed to cars at the weekend when the show is on). Their inch-perfect, unfailing work reveals a devoted, highly professional company. Colorful, cartoon-like costumes cover their heads and faces as well, making them indeed look like creatures from another planet. Hardly ever can we see in Romania a theatre performance using contemporary visual culture so boldly and intelligently. It is equally important that the masks and the separation of voices from bodies (sound and music were prerecorded) make the actors search for a completely different performing language from the one they would normally use. With headphones on and surrounded by all the visual and sound elements of the show, the acting seems perfectly in harmony with the whole of the performance. However, quite a different show reveals itself to passers-by, who without the text and the music (soundtrack by Alex Halka) perceive an extravagant choreography (by Sinkó Ferenc) and a frenetic multimedia spectacle. Both versions are equally valid. This is twenty-first century Volkstheater, a theatre shaped to reach all generations, every niche, regardless of education and economic background, including townspeople who perhaps have never been to the theatre before.

Members of the audience sit at a proper distance from one another, following the hygiene measures imposed by the pandemic situationPhoto: Marius Șumlea

Fascinated by this universe, I remember that very first performance by Cărbunariu, made in the small underground venue of the Green Hours, with only three flashlights to create the effects. It has been a long journey since Stop the Tempo, but she has never stopped being the most exciting Romanian theatre director of her time. 


[1] The show was a co-production between dramAcum (Romania) and the International Theatre Festival Divadelná Nitra (Slovakia), in partnership with Odeon Theatre (Romania) in the framework of the project “Parallel Lives—20th Century through the Eyes of Secret Police.” 

*Kinga Boros (b. 1982) is a Hungarian theatrologist currently working as assistant lecturer at the University of Arts Târgu-Mureș (Romania). She has worked as a stage dramaturg and was the editor of the theatre journal Színház (Hungary). She completed her PhD in 2014 on the topic of social responsibility in contemporary Hungarian and Romanian theatre.

Copyright © 2021 Kinga Boros
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