Impressions from the Romanian National Theatre Festival

Savas Patsalidis*

National Theatre Festival, Bucharest, Romania, 33rd edition: 20–30 October 2023. Cultural project produced by UNITER (The Romanian Association of Theatre Artists) and the Romanian Television Society. Curators: Mihaela Michailov, Oana Cristea Grigorescu and Călin Ciobotari.  

The 33rd edition of the Bucharest National Theatre Festival featured 31 domestic and four foreign productions. In the following review, I highlight some of the performances I attended.

The seven stages of the National Theatre in Bucharest hosted most of the productions of the Festival’s 33rd edition. The National Theatre was originally founded as the Teatrul cel Mare din București (Grand Theatre of Bucharest) in 1852. It became a national institution in 1864. The edifice in its current form has been in use since 1973. Photo: Web: Creative Commons  
Truth’s a Dog Must to Kennel by Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh 

On a stage completely empty apart from the presence of a microphone, with the hall lights on, Tim Crouch reveals his intentions from the start: he wants to win us over. “It’s just us,” he tells us. We hear his words as a rallying call under the same roof, on the edge of a threatening world that is rapidly changing, and we can’t keep up with the change. 

Tim Crouch in Truth’s a Dog Must to Kennel. Photo: Stuart Armitt. Courtesy of the National Theatre Festival  

For Crouch, now is no time for jokes, because “nothing [is] funny anymore.” The state of the world around us is alarming, and the need to seek the truth is even more pressing. But the real question is whether or not such a search is even possible in the midst of a chaotic and violent world. Maybe a so-called crazy guy could provide some sort of solution, maybe. This type of crazy guy, the fool, is found in King Lear; a fool who, in the end, turns out to be the wisest of all. 

VR technology gives the author and protagonist the tools to depict the human spectacle from a new perspective. Wearing his VR headset, he addresses an imaginary audience, thus creating an additional performative level that calls into question the acting space of the theatre, based as it is on the shift between presence and absence. What does it mean and for whom? Each viewer can imagine the space as s/he wants, Crouch claims. People do not need theatre to show them anything. 

Tim Crouch talking to his imaginary audience. Photo: Stuart Armitt. Courtesy of the National Theatre Festival

In front of us, the audience, Crouch may appear to be skeptical about the ability of theatre to change the world, he may feel that theatre is a kind of “morgue”; yet his ability to exploit its multiple potentials shows that theatre is still a powerful means for presenting social causes. 

While managing the distance between the imaginary audience that he sees through technology and the actual audience, he criticizes and cauterizes the narcissism of contemporary society and the lack of solidarity among its constituents. He delivers his message with a communicative brio and critical attitude combined with humor, thus proving in practice that theatre still has a reason to exist.  

Lysistrata, mon amour by Vasile Alecsandri National Theatre, Iași

At the famous Bulandra theatre, I saw Lysistrata, mon amour (2022), an adaptation of the classic Attic comedy by the great Romanian playwright Matei Vișniec. In his adaptation, Vișniec explored the central heroine’s idea to end the war by threatening the possibility of a sex strike. In doing so, he asked whether or not Aristophanes’ utopia means anything nowadays, whether the world is fundamentally different from what it was 2,500 years ago. In his attempt to reflect, however, he softened the sharpness, the biting edge and the boldness of Aristophanes’ discourse, and thereby created a comme il faut adaptation, easy to digest and hardly disturbing. 

The cast of Lysistrata on stage with the rebellious heroine (Diana Roman) in the middle. Photo: George Popovici. Courtesy of the National Theatre Festival  

Zalán Zakariás, the director, showed from the beginning that his intention was to focus primarily on the entertaining elements of Lysistrata’s revolutionary idea; a choice that both the actors, the choreographer Alice Veliche, the female and male chorus and the kitsch stage environment (constructed by Andra Bădulescu Vișniec) supported, mostly at the expense of the socio-political impact of the story. As for the crowd, their warm applause suggested that they liked the performance.  

La Ronde, a production of Andrei Mureșanu Theatre, Sfântu-Gheorghe 

Arthur Schnitzler’s Hands Around is a modernist work that unfolds as a series of ten interlinked scenes between a man and a woman from different age and social groups who are about to make love. One of the lovers in each scene returns to partner with a different lover in the next, until the encounters come full circle. In each encounter the partners discuss issues of sex, freedom and failure, psychoanalysis and interpersonal relationships at a time when Freudianism was beginning to gain momentum.

La Ronde, based on Yann Verburgh’s adaptation and directed by Eugen Jebeleanu. Photo: Volker Vornehm. Courtesy of the National Theatre Festival

Director Eugen Jebeleanu used Yann Verburgh’s competent adaptation to construct a cabaret-like contemporary, multilayered post-modern spectacle, focusing on the human need to escape from the shackles of routine, formality, normative constraints and limits. The end result was entertaining, inviting and successfully executed, although I felt that it could have been socially more revealing and politically more critical if it had been denser in structure; that is to say, if it had not succumbed to the temptation of chatty and sensational scenes that did not add much to the substance. I refer specifically to most of the connecting interludes, which I found to be excessive and superfluous.

Seaside Stories, a production of the State Theatre in Constanța 

One of the highlights of the Festival bore the signature of the great Romanian director Radu Afrim: Seaside Stories, a montage of the memories, dreams and desires fulfilled and unfulfilled that all of us experience during our summer holidays. While I found much to admire in this performance—the acting, the use of technology, the rhythm and the energy released—I felt that the stitching together of the nine Romanian poems (by Marius Chivu, Lavinica Mitu, Dan Alexe, Simona Goșu, Tudor Ganea and Nicoleta Dabija) used in the performative composition did not work very well, as the connecting links were not very clear. Likewise, the role of the chorus was not clear either, as they entered and exited the stage without leaving behind any trace that would provide a kind of continuity. In addition, there was an unnecessary crowding together of each and every scene that somehow blurred the focus of the director’s vision. 

Scene from Seaside Stories, directed by Radu Afrim. Photo: Marian Adochiței and Alina Vasiliu. Courtesy of the National Theatre Festival

Despite these weaknesses, however, Seaside Stories was a demanding performance and clearly reflected the presence of an artistic mind that truly understands the ontology and dynamics of theatre and live communication. 

At the Academy by Mihai Eminescu Theatre, Botoșani

A light-hearted satire of morals and customs, At the Academy is set in a small village in the Romanian countryside where the lords’ promises never materialized. The absence of teachers, schools and hospitals makes life difficult for the people of the village; as a result, the residents decide to put their village on the map by doing something spectacular and unexpected, which is to establish a festival. 

In this bittersweet satirical piece, based on a text (2023) by Alexandra Felseghi and imaginatively directed by Andrei Măjeri, themes and pathologies touching on the concept of “Romanianness” come into the limelight. 

At the Academy, directed by Andrei Măjeri. Set design by Adrian Balcău. Photo: Albert Dobrin and Luana Popa. Courtesy of the National Theatre Festival

The intelligent mixture of realism and expressionism, the deliberate distortions and absurd exaggerations, the grotesque-looking chorus of old women, along with the performative skills of the actors and Adrian Balcău’s design with its revolving stage, all contributed to the composition of an apt dramatization of Romanian provincial life that even a foreigner could enjoy without difficulty.  

Gertrude by I. L. Caragiale National Theatre, Bucharest 

One of the most anticipated performances of the Festival was Radu F. Alexandru’s Gertrude, directed by Silviu Purcărete, returning to Bucharest and the National Theatre after being away for eleven years. The text presents an interesting intertextual dialogue with Shakespeare’s play, a dialogue that conveys a strong aura of mystery.

Gertrude, directed by Silviu Purcărete. Photo: Courtesy of the National Theatre Festival

Focusing on the question of “Who done it?” an ensemble of six dramatic figures and a ghost perform, either in small groups of two or three, or all together, without, however, exploring the questions posed by the original play. Answers are deliberately left suspended in mid-air, thus heightening the mystery, which the director ingeniously emphasizes by isolating the protagonists of each image in small frames (stage design by Dragoș Buhagiar), eleven in total, inviting us to focus on each episode separately. Watching the performance was like peering through a keyhole in a thriller, so that we could see what was going on behind the scenes to find out who killed the king and determine whether the murderer deserved punishment or forgiveness, but to no avail; answers remain stubbornly elusive. 

Each of the male actors, young and old, who took the seven roles, delivered an excellent and deeply moving performance, without any trace of gratuitous exaggeration or mockery. If I were to single out those that impressed me the most, I would mention Claudiu Bleonţ’s Gertrude and Marius Manole’s Hamlet. Each displayed great acting style individually as well as great chemistry interactively, and each communicated effectively with the audience. Of all the twelve shows I saw, I think that Gertrude was by far the best: it was a show with no hype, no chatter and no unnecessary effects; a show that focused directly on the actor. For me, this performance was the highlight of a high-quality and colorful Festival, rich in options, impressions, styles and audience attendance. Had the Festival included more experimental and cutting-edge works, it could have enriched further its otherwise gratifying and inclusive repertory character. 

*Savas Patsalidis is Professor Emeritus in Theatre Studies at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (Greece). He is the author of fourteen books on theatre and performance criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen. His two-volume study, Theatre, Society, Nation (2010), was awarded first prize for best theatre study of the year. In 2022 his latest book-length work, Comedy’s Encomium: The Seriousness of Laughter, was published by University Studio Press. He is the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages.

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