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Celebrating Theatre in Southern Romania | Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine-June 2016 | www.scene4.com

 Lissa Tyler Renaud

These lines are spoken by the Roman Lady Valeria in the first act of Coriolanus when she calls on Virgilia—‘wife to Coriolanus’—in an effort to persuade her to go out for a jolly afternoon in Rome, shopping and visiting the sick. You can hear the affected, overbred lisping in ‘Ulysses’ absence’, ‘Ithaca’ and ‘moths.’
- Alec Guinness, actor-author, A Positively Final Appearance

The last couple of decades have served up to us some productions of this play in which Lear has been performed as a peevish old prat who deserves all he gets from his daughters, Regan and Goneril. Why poor bloody Shakespeare should be visited by these distortions… is a painful puzzlement to me.”
- Peter O’Toole, actor-author, Loitering with Intent

 

If you’re going to an International Shakespeare Festival, as I just did, you might as well give up thinking of Shakespeare as an English-language playwright. If you’re used to feeling the pentameter of his verse pulse with your own heartbeat; if Shakespeare’s use of an unusual word expands your sense of what it means to be human; if you thrill to the ingenious shifts in rhythm as his stories unfold; if you experience each of his characters as a miraculous construct of sound combinations—well, you can leave all that at the door. You’re going where the Shakespeare whose English you revere is the phenomenon known as Shakespeare, by which name he serves around the world as poet, storyteller, political force, and cash cow.

Even in English, we’ve all seen our share of Romeo and Juliets on roller skates and A Midsummer Night’s Dreams in cowboy costumes. From early on, productions from professional to amateur have altered the emphasis or rearranged the play texts. And English speakers have no trouble feeling a special affinity for a playwright we know only in translations that seem tragically impoverished to the native speaker: Chekhov, Goethe, Moli├Ęre, Ibsen, and so many more. Shakespeare’s work may well be translated brilliantly into languages I don’t know. Certainly productions of versions of the plays we know as Shakespeare’s have a long and venerable history in countries on all continents.

But Festival Shakespeare is a different animal still. The entire festival culture, in which shows move from festival site to festival site around the world, encourages smaller productions of generally familiar works in incarnations that are new-new-new. That is, they are shows that can travel, or can be made to travel; they will have a familiar title or other “name” attached to the show to reassure conservative ticket-buyers; they will offer an encounter with experiment or innovation—or what hip critics are now calling Newness—to adventurous ticket-buyers. Shakespeare’s plays fit this bill perfectly, if they are altered beyond recognition and have become Shakespeare. Lear can be a one-man show; Macbeth can be played without all those extraneous characters. The playwright’s name is known to all.

These criteria aren’t completely different from the ones used by any theatre that needs a season of shows that are scaled back. But the key for the international festivals, with their audiences who might speak anything besides English, is to give up working with an all-encompassing translation of a Shakespeare play—translations that must often feel like trying to pick up a diamond with a baseball glove. Anyone who saw Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 film version of Lear, Ran, will recognize the basic alternative strategy: the story stripped to its essences, its dynamics, and the language re-made into visual images. What separates the proverbial men from the boys in this kind of work is not only the interest of the visual images arrived at, but, even more importantly, how well the re-creators know the original play. Aye, there’s the rub. Festival Shakespeare productions, even those in English, pretty much bypass the sticky challenges of Shakespeare's language and texts. This is very much auteur territory.

In his brand new book, Hamlet and the Madness of the World, Octavian Saiu makes the point that Shakespeare’s plays can take on lives of their own and engender productions that strike out fervently in some unrelated direction: “Although intensely political at heart, Hamlet is not an ideological play. … Although ideologically uninteresting, Hamlet, even more so than Richard II or Richard III, was the greatest catalyst for political interpretation of Shakespeare during the 20th century” (61:41).

And it must be said: where European Shakespeare sets out to be photogenic, it succeeds mightily.

2.CouncilHall-cr
“The Councilor Descends.” Dolj County Council Hall. Conferences and
book launches of Craiova’s International Shakespeare Festival took
place here. Photo - Kiril Bolotnikov


In April, I attended some days each of two back-to-back international theatre gatherings in Craiova, in southern
Romania. The first was the Craiova International Shakespeare Festival. This was founded in 1994 by the multi-talented Emil Boroghina, actor, director, and much-awarded cultural whirlwind, who continues to be a formidable presence in every aspect of the Festival. The second occasion in Craiova was the bestowing of the hugely prestigious Europe Theatre Prize (ETP) for a theatre figure of gargantuan stature, and of the accompanying Theatrical Realities prizes for theatre directors of particular excellence around Europe. Both the Shakespeare Festival and ETP are celebrated by saturating days and nights with performances, lectures, discussions, interviews, book launches, buffets, tours, exhibitions, and more.

Nobody can see or attend everything, or even close to everything. One does one’s best.

First let me give you a glimpse of some of the inventive ways I saw theatre companies embody Shakespeare’s plays, for the most part without actually performing them. Then I’ll give you a my-favorite-things list of what I most enjoyed of the other kinds of offerings.

To begin with: the productions inspired by Shakespeare’s plays. Note that before I arrived, there had already been shows from Japan, South Africa, Bulgaria, Israel, Russia, Hungary, India, and several from Romania itself.

There are links to video clips and trailers at the very end.

The Tempest. Gong Theatre (Romania)

As we arrived in the town’s main plaza, they were still setting up the high, outdoor puppet stage. A couple of tech people were climbing the scaffolding and calling out to each other, setting lighting and sound levels. It suddenly struck me that this had the feel of the opening scene of The Tempest—the climbing, the calling in the storm—and sure enough, the scene gradually took on more urgency until, yes, we recognized a Prospero figure. A wonderful transformation.

After that, the main feature of the show was the surprise of humans surrounded by marionettes suspended from above and seeming to float. The marionettes appeared to be made of plastic wrap, so they were translucent and also caught the light very prettily. The production seemed to mean that Prospero was surrounded by a world of fairies, with and to whom he did magical things. I confess I lost track of where we were in the original story.

The theatre was founded in 1949 for young people, to entertain and educate, but also to offer “thought and perception training”—a worthy goal that perhaps took priority over other considerations.

3.Lear-cr
Lear. Platform on wheels on wooden tracks. Structure open to the
surrounding plaza on each end. Photo - L.T. Renaud

 

In the Night’s Heart: The Lear Episode. “Regia Maria” Theatre of Oradea (Romania)

We sat in a large space that was covered with construction weight plastic and open to the main plaza and surrounding buildings on each end. A wooden railroad track ran all the way through it, over a trench-like opening. The tracks carried a small platform on wheels, on which the story of Lear was played out in striking tableaus. We received a printed translation of the sparse, evocative—often Beckettian—dialogue. Sometimes the actors walked precariously over the tracks, or the tracks were folded up into various visually interesting configurations, and with a distinctive clacking sound—but to what dramatic purpose wasn’t always clear. It’s impossible to be in Eastern Europe without associating railroad tracks with the concentration camp transports, and some of the costumes were war-era, but the particular connection to Lear remained unarticulated.

The actor who played Lear was middle-aged, of medium build and vocal heft, with a sweet manner. His Lear simply wanted to do something nice for his children, and his feelings were badly hurt when they turned out to be maniacal harpies. Even Cordelia was a sourpuss. Gloucester was older and taller, with an imposing presence and voice. There were certain imbalances in the casting that were clearly intentional.

Masterly images that will stay with me: 1. Regan and Goneril auditioning for a share of Lear’s kingdom, hilariously lip -synching to recordings of arias sung at a pitch of hysteria; 2. the faithful, motley crew tenderly improvising from set pieces a harmless “cliff” for blind Gloucester to jump off of; 3. Lear sensing that someone in disguise was someone he loved; 4. the tableau of Cordelia having been murdered, seated akimbo with her mouth frozen open in horror.

I treasure Lear’s final “Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir” in the original play. But this production was headed a different way. The eminent George Banu, who contributed “insertions” to the text, wrote about the show: “Theatre struggling with fears aroused by the darkness… We do theatre full of the fear of Night itself… Always and forever at the crossroads.” In this spirit, Lear’s final line of the show hung poignantly in the air: “I know when one is dead, and when one lives.”

4.LearPlaza-cr
The old and the new. Exterior of the plastic structure for Lear. Prominent on the main plaza, Piata Mihai Viteazul. Sunset. Photo - L.T. Renaud

 

Hamlet, Who’s There? Flute Theatre (Great Britain)

This was Hamlet as a domestic drama, 90 minutes long, with the action collapsed from marriage night to murderous morning. The language was expertly spoken. The first scene sizzled: Gertrude and Claudio, already settled into an alcohol-fueled life together, passed a flask back and forth across the face of their sulky son, home from college, beached in the living room, a third wheel.

After this, the style of the piece fractured. Hamlet, alone on the sofa, was “possessed” by his father’s voice, an “inner demon.” The actor manned up wonderfully to the task, but nothing had prepared us for the tone, reminiscent of something that could happen in Harry Potter’s world. Ophelia was a big-boned, athletic young lady; one encounter with Hamlet suggested a co-ed date rape. There were two sections where emotions that couldn’t be expressed in words—shock and impotence—were translated into hauntingly effective drum solos (the second one aborted). In the bedroom scene with his mother, the ghost was now outside of Hamlet.

It became clear that this Hamlet was far from any version of a romantic hero or a man paralyzed with over-thinking. He became more and more self-involved, disconnected, churlish, compulsive, and finally, violent. What with one thing and another, the morning saw Hamlet surrounded by bodies horribly contorted in death. Hamlet himself sat up and showed us his hands, covered with bright red blood like a child with a finger-painting project: “I was ma-a-a-ad,” he declared, waggling his hands at us. This was an unstable man who had killed the innocent without remorse, knowing that he had a phony excuse to protect him from responsibility. This certainly brought the play into our times, but in somewhat narrow terms.

Hamlet. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Company
(Great Britain)

On my way to other obligations, I stuck my head in to see this show through to the first intermission. I hear there were several more hours to go. The company, touring successfully since 1999, did justice to the beginning of the play, which I love and which is often cut in cutting-edge productions: the watchman wanders off to bed, the others gather to see the ghost, he appears twice, the cock crows, Hamlet’s name comes up. The actors lavished care upon the language, which was wonderful and also slow.

The heavy set, “period” costumes, and acting style were recognizable from an older style of production, now popular mostly in amateur clubs. I understand the production took to heart the challenging business with the fight scenes and weaponry. This all had a certain nostalgic charm about it. So there was much to admire. Perhaps for innovation, the actor playing Hamlet wore an odd, wide, friendly grin for much of his stage time, with no apparent connection to his lines. Maybe this choice was clear later in the show.

This earnest production did seem like an odd duck alongside the hyper-contemporary other ones, but there were many people in the audience who were seeing the play as written for the first time, and they appeared transfixed. So there were enthusiasts on the stage, being received enthusiastically by newcomers to Shakespeare’s actual play text. All good.

5.PlazaSunset-crDramatic architecture on the main plaza; dramatic sunset. Photo - L.T. Renaud
Julius Caesar. Societas Raffaello Sanzio (Italy)

Castellucci, the much-lauded director, was trained in the fine arts and started creating pieces not based on written texts in 1981. This Julius Caesar was a piece of performance art, which made clever use of Craiova University’s main entry hall and sweeping staircase. There were bits of hammy looking Roman columns and statuary distributed around the space. Online descriptions of the piece go as far back as 1997, and it seems to have changed a great deal over the years, but what we saw was the unchanging core of it. First an actor threaded an endoscope camera through his nose into his throat, and the images were projected onto a back wall. Then another actor stood on a pedestal as if to deliver Marc Antony’s speech, but his larynx had been removed, so we heard only a sound between a painful squerching and a cat throwing up.

Admirers call this kind of performance a “provocation.” People who love this particular show find it to be a chance to experience the authentic act of speech from the interior of the actor’s body.

 

6.-RichardIII-cr
Lars Eidinger as Richard III without a horse. Photo - Arno Declair

 

Richard III. Schaub├╝hne Berlin (Germany)

Directed by the celebrated Thomas Ostermeier, this modern dress Richard III has been received with wild approval since its premiere in February of 2015. In Craiova, it seemed terribly, strangely slow. In fact, it was scheduled to run 2 hours 35 minutes, but ran 3 hours 45 minutes, without intermission. I couldn’t stop feeling the actors were contending with difficulties we couldn’t see.

In any case, the company performed the entire play (without English subtitles), in a new translation said to be especially sensitive to the shifts between prose and poetry. The production had many features in line with prevailing efforts to refresh Shakespeare’s plays: where Shakespeare’s theatre was rounded, compact, and human scale, this set was dark, rectangular, and cavernous, dwarfing the actors. There were improvised lines, loud live music, video projections, profanity, nudity, and, with the exception of Richard himself, a nearly uninflected vocal and emotional score. This is a common approach to excising the histrionics and bombast from the actors’ delivery. The Anne he wooed over the coffin was timid, barely there. Lines by others were murmured. On a dark set, with black costumes, scene followed indistinguishable scene with undifferentiated characters standing in awkward configurations. Was it intentional?

At the center of all this was the shining, charismatic Richard. He had an enlarged hump and knocked knees; he wore braces on his back and neck, and even on his head, as if he might be prone to falling. Severely physically disabled, pushed out of society, ignored by the cool crowd and the go-getters, he had developed his interior life, a wicked ability to schmooze, and a delicious sense of humor. He met the disinterest of others with his own disinterest in them, speaking to them at some remove, disengaged, except when playing a game with himself to see how far he could go.

It was in the soliloquys and asides to the audience that the actor, Lars Eidinger, came wholly to life, and gave full rein to his voice, magnetic in timbre and crystalline in diction. Into the microphone that hung and swung from above, his Richard freely poured out his thoughts and plans. He forged his closest bond with the audience he couldn’t see, like someone becoming best friends over the Internet with people he’s never met.

Two affecting images of Richard from the end of the show: 1. his face under layers of clownish white, lying childlike with his head on a pillow, wishing he had a horse; 2. thrusting his sword, racing at invisible ghosts in his plain underpants.

This production made me think a version of Richard III could be performed as a one-man show. Which is a good thing, or not.

*

7.Tree-cr
Magnificent tree, shortcut through the gardens to Craiova’s National Theatre.
Photo - L.T. Renaud

 

In addition to the Shakespeare productions, there were others by directors who were in Craiova to be interviewed in the National Theatre for the press and the public, and who would receive awards in a ceremony at the climax of the Europe Theatre Prize proceedings. I was able to see a few of their shows:

Last Dream (on Earth). National Theatre of Scotland (Scotland)

Five actors were seated on stools in a row across the stage. With their voices alone, except for hand-drum accompaniment, they told two interrelated stories. The first was a re-enactment from actual transcripts of communication between Yuri Gagarin in the first space capsule, and ground control. The second was about a young woman leaving the coast of North Africa on a raft bound for Europe, the text created from interviews with refugees. Both stories were about people who risked their lives on a dangerous journey, fueled by hope. Spoiler: Gagarin survived; the young woman didn’t.

There wasn’t much to look at. It was like attending a radio recording session. But every one of the actors had a gorgeous, expressive, nuanced voice with perfect enunciation that was a joy. This was also the only theatre I saw on this trip that featured black actors, and the only one to directly address the perilous and tragic voyages of the refugees flooding Europe.

Reikiavik. Dir. Juan Mayorga (Spain)

I can’t say whether it constitutes a trend, but this show was also a re-enactment, this time of the 1972 World Chess Championship matches between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky—matches that were also seen as a contest between the United States and the Soviet Union. Spoiler: Fischer won.

The long weeks of the games, and what happened between, were acted out with great seriousness and detail at a picnic table in a park, by two men and a young prot├ęg├ęe who seemed to meet only for the purpose of entering into this shared fantasy. Sometimes their encounters had the feel of a psychodrama.

Sometimes the script got bogged down in the details of the matches. As if to compensate, the actors tore through their scenes, losing some variety along the way. But it was an unusual subject, tenderly staged and energetically acted, with an imaginative, understated physical component to the performances.

The Yugoslavs. Dir. Juan Mayorga (Spain)

I had seen those same three actors perform earlier in the day, in a very simple piece that was absolutely my cup of tea. After the director’s public interview, his actors set up a table and two chairs right there, and gave a reading of three scenes from a longer play, scripts in hand. There is some romance to this kind of occasion—actors, scripts, simple furniture—that full productions can rarely match. The video at the link below is of that reading.

The playwright-director had written a play in which all the characters were born in countries that no longer exist. None of the characters is literally from the former Yugoslavia, but figuratively, all of them are: displaced, trying to get traction in a new life, suffering from an unnamed trauma that is having heart-breaking impact wherever it surfaces. The playwright said: love and loss.

The wife of the owner of a bar has stopped speaking, stares into space, leaves on mysterious walks. The bar owner overhears a customer talking with great compassion to someone troubled, who then feels better. The barman proposes that the customer have the same kind of conversation with his wife.

*

A complete account of this Craiova trip would include the outdoor caf├ę culture, the gardens and architecture, a lot of name -dropping, a summary of the many scholarly papers, mention of the International Association of Theatre Critics and its web journal (we had our yearly board meeting), and so much more.

Here are a few highlights:

8.LobbyShow-cr
Superb exhibition of posters and books, National Theatre lobby. Photo - L.T. Renaud

 

The lobby of the National Theatre hosted numerous theatre-related exhibitions, from design to photography. There was a truly spectacular show celebrating Shakespeare at 400: 18 posters on the English world of Shakespeare—his theatres and great champions such as Eliza O’Neill, Ellen Terry, William Poel— along with information on how his work has been embraced in Japan, Africa, India, Craiova, and so on. There were stylish glass cases filled with books of every description on Shakespeare: first editions in English and multiple other languages including some surprising ones, translations, miniature sets, new books, books with gorgeous and unusual bindings and covers. A haven for any Shakespeare- and book-lover.

The lobby also had a very pretty performance by (pretty) young people, in elaborate costumes, of scenes from Romeo and Juliet . The dancers at the ball filled the lobby’s lower level, where they danced in strict formations that gave a chilly impression of the world R&J might want to escape from: terrific. Then R&J played their scenes charmingly on the lobby’s upper level, or with one of them above and one below. Enchanting in every way.

The Craiova Philharmonic gave a wonderful symphonic concert, in a modern hall, to a rapt audience. The conductor, Christopher Petrie, was from London, where he is specializing in introducing Romanian music to Great Britain. The program included works by Vaughan Williams, Elgar, and the premier of a work by William Walton called “Henry V: Two Pieces for String Orchestra,” with the happy composer present.

9.PalaceTheatre-cr
One of the elegant performance spaces in The Jean Mihail Palace and
Art Museum. Photo - L.T. Renaud

 

The Art Museum of Craiova is in the magnificently restored palace of one of Craiova’s richest landowners. Built between 1898 and 1907, the Jean Mihail Palace has survived countless incarnations. It has housed, among many others, a king, the headquarters of the German army, the presidents of Poland and Yugoslavia, and a Romanian-USSR friendship organization. It was nearly demolished after a 1977 earthquake. The galleries show both classical and modern paintings, with a special room for works by the Romanian sculptor, Constantin Brancusi. The palace combines classical, baroque and eclectic styles; every inch of it was richly decorated, and I especially noticed that there were numerous performance spaces throughout. It was easy to imagine the palace filled with people who could sing, recite, or play an instrument, and the people who wanted—and had time—to hear them.

*

Over the years, when teaching Shakespeare to English-speaking actors and scholars, I’ve often invited them to think of his language as chocolate. That is, manufacturers of chocolate talk about the “mouth-feel” of the candy; speakers of Shakespeare can consider the “mouth-feel” of the lines. Shakespeare’s words have given extraordinary sensations to the mouths of actors for hundreds of years. All kinds of specialists apply their disciplines to Shakespeare’s texts with brilliance and ingenuity—only to miss the meaning that actors regularly discover by feeling. Shakespeare’s language changes the voice.

But for the foreign-language productions inspired by Shakespeare’s plays—what I’ve called Shakespeare above—I’ve decided that Shakespeare is a kind of telephone. If countries want to talk to each other without using their governments, they pick up the Shakespeare Telephone. Political enemies, cultural organizations, festivals, artists or scholars who don’t share a language, cross-disciplinary collaborators—they can all pick up the Shakespeare Telephone and instantly have enough common ground to communicate. Romeo and Juliet means: star-crossed lovers. Macbeth means: murder that leads to more murder. Othello: jealousy. The Tempest: choosing to give up power.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the costumes will be fantastic.

Between the chocolate and the Telephone, the world did a fine job of celebrating Shakespeare’s 400th birthday in April
this year.

10.ParkBike-cr
The next generation? Shakespeare a familiar fixture on the public area
outside Craiova’s National Theatre. Versions of this statue appeared
throughout the festivals. Photo - L.T. Renaud

 

*        *        *

 

Links to Video Clips and Trailers

1. SHAKESPEARE

The Tempest. Gong Theatre (Romania)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SIMNgiAFNY

Hamlet, Who’s There? Flute Theatre (Great Britain)

https://vimeo.com/137623655

Hamlet. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Company (Great Britain)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUQXvorCuEs

Julius Caesar. Societas Raffaello Sanzio (Italy)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fLak4d9BCrk

Richard III. Schaub├╝hne Berlin (Germany)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mLOvbA2JZw

 

2. OTHER PRODUCTIONS

Last Dream (on Earth). National Theatre of Scotland (Scotland)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RpOyOhOv5d8

Reikiavik. Dir. Juan Mayorga (Spain)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Viz788Dl3Q

The Yugoslavs. Dir. Juan Mayorga (Spain)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fkgjLqSLTco

 

3. P.S.

RAN, film version of Lear by Akira Kurosawa (1985)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbbfDntoRRk

My article for Scene4 on the 2011 Europe Theatre Prize, Russia

http://www.scene4.com/archivesqv6/sep -2011/0911/lissarenaud0911.html

A Tempest I wasn’t able to see at the festival, directed by the legendary Silviu Purcarete, who was awarded a Special Prize in Craiova.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOQs_sExkGI

My co-review of Purcarete’s Faust, Romania 2012

http://www.critical-stages.org/7/sibiu-stuns-with-purcarete/

A Julia and Romeo I couldn’t see at the festival, by dancer-choreographer Mats Ek, this year’s winner of the Europe Theatre Prize.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynIWouIIEAc

A Nathan the Wise I couldn’t see at the festival. By Lessing. Dir. Andreas Kriegenburg, who was awarded one of the five Theatrical Realities prizes.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKOTeAJ-VW0

 

Cover Photo - Craiova, Romania
View from my hotel window, April 2016
Photo - L.T. Renaud

 

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Lissa Tyler Renaud - Scene4 Magazine www.scene4.com

Lissa Tyler Renaud, Ph.D. is director of InterArts Training (1985- ). She was co-editor of The Politics of American Actor Training (Routledge), and Editor of Critical Stages webjournal 2007-14. She has been visiting professor, master teacher, speaker and recitalist in the U.S., Asia, Europe, Russia, Mexico. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4
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