The Joy of Theatre in Timişoara, European Capital of Culture, 2023

Maria Zărnescu*

La Gioia (The Joy). Conceived and directed by Pippo Delbono. Cast: Dolly Albertin, Gianluca Ballarè, Margherita Clemente, Pippo Delbono, Ilaria Distante, Mario Intruglio, Nelson Lariccia, Gianni Parenti, Pepe Robledo, Grazia Spinella and the voice of Bobò. Floral composition by Thiérry Boutémy, music by Pippo Delbono, Antoine Bataille, Nicola Toscano and various artists. Lighting design by Orlando Bolognesi, costumes by Elena Giampaoli, set and props by Enrico Zucchelli. Production: Emilia Romagna Teatro – Teatro Nazionale (Italy), co-production Théâtre de Liège, Le Manège Maubeuge – Scène Nationale. The performance was presented on June 2, 2023, at the National Theatre in Timişoara, Romania, as part of the FEST-FDR Seasons / “Timişoara – European Capital of Culture 2023.”

The trailer of La Gioia

This isn’t the first time I’ve written here about Timişoara and its theatre. There have been more than a few national ”firsts” that make this city of western Romania a special, unique place in our geographic space. These include some widely known ones (first city to have gas lamps, later electric streetlamps, first emergency ambulance service, first trolley bus line, first horse-driven, later electric trams, first stem cell transplant or oldest attested brewery), and some lesser known or simply forgotten (Beethoven’s first lover was the wife of a former city official). The first Romanian elementary school was opened in Timişoara, as was the first public library, and it was also here, from the mid-eighteenth century, that a permanent theatre season was inaugurated. Later, the ”Franz Josef” Theatre was built in Neo-Renaissance style by the renowned Viennese architects Fellner and Helmer (1875). This monumental building still marks the city centre and hosts, at present, the Opera and three separate theatrical institutions, acting in Romanian[1], Hungarian[2] and German[3], a unique feature in Europe. The activity of other private theatres and lots of cultural centres led to the designation of Timişoara as the European Capital of Culture in 2023.

Pippo del Bono telling his story about the Joy. Photo: Luca Del Rei

An important part of this programme is the annual festival FEST-FDR, organized by the National Theatre in Timşoara. It consists of two modules: FEST explores the various performing arts in Europe and the world, and FDR (The Romanian Drama Festival) presents the best performances of the national dramaturgy. In 2023, the Festival was programmed in the form of The Seasons, covering the whole year. “2023 is the year when humans have the chance to save history and the planet for millions of generations to come, or the contrary, it’s the year when humans will selfishly, cynically choose to harm the others,” declared the manager Ada Lupu Hausvater.

The international performances included in Festival have demonstrated this: Bros, directed by Romeo Castelluci, invited its audience to face the sensory unknown, as a preparation for the great encounter, the spiritual one, and The Tempest, directed by Alessandro Serra, proposed a metaphorical meeting of individual and collective times. The Schaubühne Berlin presented A Girl’s Story, based on the novel by Annie Ernaux, and John Malkovich came to Timişoara with The Infernal Comedy:  Confessions of a Serial Killer by Michael Sturminger. But The Seasons FEST-FDR would not been complete without Pippo del Bono’s La Gioia, a unique season in itself, which brings to the surface the joy of life in its deepest and most subjective forms.

Pippo del Bono “imprisoned” by the madness of the world, in times out of joint. Photo: Luca Del Rei

Short history, as a preamble: La Gioia first came to Romania at the International Theatre Festival in Sibiu, 2019. (In general, Pippo del Bono’s shows are festival goers . . .) But even that was a completely rethought version after the premiere in 2018 because, in the meantime, the director’s faithful collaborator—Bobò, “il piccolo uomo”—had died. The show is dedicated to him today and preserves his recorded voice. I do not regret having missed the early years of La Gioia because, like us, performances change over time; in fact, every evening both they and we are different . . .

The history of the Italian writer, actor and director Pippo del Bono (born in 1959) is well known in our theatrical world. He begins with studies in classical theatre, but then he turns to oriental theatre, and later he’s invited by the famous choreographer Pina Bausch to join her company. In the early 1980s, he founded his own Compagnia Pippo del Bono where he staged most of his creations (not simple plays), from Il Tempo degli Assassini (1987) to La Gioia (2018). The encounter with socially marginalised people was a turning point in his career, and so the Barboni performance was born (1997). Some of its “actors”—including Bobò, a deaf-mute and illiterate man who spent more than forty years in an asylum near Naples and who died at 82—continued to work with the Pippo del Bono Company.

Pippo del Bono’s “clowns” looking for the Joy. Photo: Luca Del Rei

“This show is the story of my theatre company,” confesses the director. “The story of my encounter with them. Perhaps it would be better to say: it’s a story about Encounter. But, no less, it’s also about passing through madness. My madness, madness in our times. But in today’s madness, made of darkness, of black spaces, I still want to cry out: more light, give me more light.”

The Joy must be planted and watered to grow. Photo: Luca Del Rei

La Gioia goes through pain and struggles to discover it, to reach it and then to tell the story, describe the journey to the spectator. Through words, through dance, through the body. Pippo del Bono wishes to fight against the present world through theatre; not theatre as business, but as emotion, as knowledge. His company and his shows are born from encounters with actors, with dancers, but, above all, with people from different paths of life. He met them on the streets of a lifelong journey around the world: actors from Italy and other countries, homeless people, refugees. Each has a story and each shares it with the audience.

La Gioia is not only a tribute to a dear being, but it is also a tribute to life that faces death; it is a tribute to joy that faces sadness, anxiety, pain, injustice, racism, anger, wars, pandemics . . . On the empty stage, Pippo starts to tell his story and of those around him. With a calm, linear voice, like a mantra, he takes us poetically through philosophy and religion, makes us recognize cultural quotes from theatre, film, literature. And adds a lot of visual imagination. Slowly, sometimes almost in slow motion, the stage fills with characters, with symbols from here, there and everywhere. The text is a mixture of poetry, literary quotations, biblical verses, Buddhist parables. It is an eclectic show, almost baroque, referring to rough theatre, circus and commedia dell’arte. The parade of characters is accompanied by quotes from Henry IV by Pirandello, well known for his theory of the double: madness versus reason. But how do you stay sane in crazy times? Shakespeare also asked himself in the past; Beckett answers, centuries later, through the voices of the characters in Waiting for Godot: “We are content! We are content!”

Gianluca Ballarè, the actor with Down’s syndrome, met by Pippo del Bono on the streets of Naples, now like a Pierrot Lunaire, a white clown among the old clothes. Photo: Luca Del Rei

What do you do when you are imprisoned in your own mind? What do you do when everything around you falls apart, when bodies perish, but memories and only clothes remain? The stage is filled with old clothes, an abundance of old clothes, brought in as props, slowly, in smaller or larger stacks, minutes in a row: an overwhelming image. Pippo’s answer seems to be: trust, hope, joy. Dry leaves, cold and grey memories, can become alive and colorful again. Flower garlands are not only for cemeteries, funerals and offerings to the dead. Flowers, once planted and cared for, flood the world and the stage. Flowers are reborn alive from the earth where the dead are buried; it’s also raining garlands of flowers. Pippo del Bono believes in joy and proposes a return to calm and peace. He proposes, along with his characters, a return to color, to life. La Gioia is not a show to be told, described or explained, but to be experienced and felt. For this, you need to know life in depth . . . “Fear passes, sadness passes, joy will come and go, then it will return.” Those of us who have lost a loved one understood and learned. “You have to decide that joy is your way of life.”

La Gioia. Photo: Luca Del Rei

The presentation of La Gioia in Romania was dedicated to the memory of professor Georges Banu, who mediated Pippo del Bono’s invitation to Timişoara, in a great year for the city. A great year, too, for the National Theatre, Through the Seasons FEST-FDR (annually curated by Oana Borş, Romanian theatre critic, producer and professor), but also through its new premiere, Exodus, about the migration of Europeans, directed by the famous Lithuanian Oskaras Koršunovas. But this will be another story.


[1] Decisive Chekhovian Encounters in Timişoara 

[2] A Ruthless Rewriting of The Beggar’s Opera in Timişoara

[3] Georges Banu, the Great Storyteller of World Theatre

*Maria Zărnescu, PhD (b. 1969, Bucharest) is a Romanian theatre theorist and critic. Author of books, Music and Muses (Nemira Publishing House & UNATC Press, Bucharest, 2015) and The Sound of Theatre Music (UNATC Press, Bucharest, 2016), theatrical and musical reviews, studies and essays published in Romanian and international journals. She was Associate Professor at the National University of Theatre and Film “I.L. Caragiale,” Bucharest (2010–2023), and received the Romanian Association of Theatre Professionals UNITER Award for Best Theatre Critic in 2015.

Copyright © 2023 Maria Zărnescu
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