Offline Family – Theatre Foarte Mic
Born in the Wrong Place – The Platform
Performative Archive – Odeon Theatre
Green Hours III – Theatre LUNI at the Green Hours
Mihaela Michailov’s Offline Family is essentially a somewhat ramshackle work of social realism. Its topic is a generation of Romanian children who are growing up without their parents, who are living abroad to work in stronger EU economies (although, unaccountably, the parent here has gone to Spain. Good luck with that). To this end, across several scenes (for which we were given detailed synopses) we see a large family of children – played by actual children – being brought up by their elder brother, who is also the carer of their wheelchair-bound grandfather).
Dramatically, there wasn’t much of an actual story arc. There’s no central aim or problem. The mother and father are just absent. The children continue to exist. With a different text, in a different production, this could have felt like a kind of kiddies’ Godot. Here, it simply staples together a string of incidents and lets the kids run around a lot.
I’m not really sure what sort of level at which this performance was being pitched. It feels more like reviewing a school play or SATS-level drama project than a piece of professional theatre, although amateur theatre is effectively vetoed in Romania (a hangover from when it was an enforced norm under the Ceaușescu regime, where populations were mobilised in to vast “spontaneous” street theatre productions praising the regime and making accessible art for all).
Suffice it to say, the young cast certainly excelled in enthusiasm – also performing songs and raps loudly into hand-held microphones and breakdancing. The slightly knotty problem of the piece’s morality – effectively a lecture against a family starting to fall apart (or at least, suffer a series of accidents and deal with them imperfectly) – which felt a little blunt and uninteroggated, like some agit-prop for the integrity of The Family.
In our notes, it was noted that Michailov and (director) Apostol are artists with a long-term dedication to documentary and fact-based theatre and are involved now with 'non-professional actors', children between age of 9 and 12, in a performance inspired by interviews with children whose parents left them, looking for work in the Western Europe. We have the Royal Court to thank for this, I believe.
Born in the Wrong Place
Carrying on the theme of Royal Court interference and cultural imperialism, Born in the Wrong Place is a piece of yer actual Verbatim Drama. And it’s dealing with Romania’s refugee problem! I know, right? We in Britain tend to only hear about Romania in the context of the projected millions of newly legal migrant workers who currently form the main plank of the UK Independence Party’s fears about immigration. Even the Guardian took days to report on the Rosia Montana protests – which are currently looking like they’re going to force a government out of office, but still ran stories about Romanians-as-immigrants in the interim – in Britain, it’s like Romania doesn’t really exist, except as a concept and a bunch of people who might move here. No internal life for the country credited whatsoever.
So, as such, in the most basic way, I did find this *socially useful*, *informative* piece both socially useful and informative. Who knew Romania had asylum seekers of their own?! (In fact, as the first EU reachable by land from Afghanistan (and Iraq and Iran if you go the long way round) it becomes the country where migrants to the EU first register, and as a result to which they are often sent back when applications in richer, Western countries fail).
Seen by us in rehearsal (a full three weeks ahead of its première), it’s impossible really to say much more about the piece as a performance. There are five actors talking in Romanian, pretending to be various asylum seekers, successful, unsuccessful and pending. What I found much more interesting from my British perspective is just how “anti-establishment” verbatim drama is as a form, here. The state-theatre situation in Romania might best be described as follows: imagine Peter Hall is still running the National Theatre. Nothing wrong with that per se; he’s still quite the auteur. But these theatres do seem to be in the iron grip of some very old hands, so to speak. And they suck up all the state money to do basically do the same repetoire of Shakespeare, Chekhov, etc. that has been running since the 1900s. Pitched against that, it’s easy to see why something new and vital that speaks directly to the present moment must seem exciting.
Of course, coming from a culture where in certain very mainstream circles verbatim drama is held up to be the most urgent political form, to the extent that our verbatim dramas can now sell out runs in the Olivier or Lyttleton auditoriums of our national theatre, coming and finding a burgeoning verbatim theatre culture feels a bit like being a time-traveller from the future arriving on a planet just about to discover, say, the atomic bomb. You kind of want to nip it in the bud before the poor fuckers find themselves mired in a situation beyond their control. But there’s a reason the Timelords forbid intervention, right?
On ethical grounds, I was mildly concerned to discover that not only were they content to re-word people’s stories (á la David Hare), but also to change them – the piece was inspired by someone they met in Afghanistan while researching for something or other and he now appears in the piece as someone who did move to Romania. The person they met didn’t. This strikes me as a level of social engineering beyond the pale for the verbatim form – which seems to have been slightly confused with the research-based, social-realist drama. Put simply, if you can’t find someone to interview who fits your thesis, then maybe look at your thesis, rather than re-writing their life and passing it off as factual.
Interestingly, the new piece by Gianina Cărbunariu – perhaps Romania’s most successful theatrical export, with a play seen at the Royal Court and another piece shown as part of the Romanian showcase during LIFT last year – is also “verbatim”-ish. Or rather, it is partly the transcripts and letters surrounding the case of Mugurel Călinescu, a young man who was arrested for painting anti-governmemt slogans on walls in his village during the Ceaușescu years. Was taken in for questioning by Securitate. And then – unconnectedly – died from leukaemia.
Seen by us in an early tech or dress rehearsal, the piece was strikingly more modish than Offline Family, featuring two video camera at either side of the stage with dual live-feeds to a split screen projected onto, well, onto what was effectively a huge grey inflatable wall – like the side of a bouncy castle. Pretty neat. So documents of close-up profiles of faces would loom as other cast members could fling themselves hard at this wall and be properly flung back across the space.
Annoyingly, this dynamism could have been invested in more heavily, rather than seemingly only occasionally deployed as an afterthought. And, well, if Cărbunariu has been mainlining Katie Mitchell, then she’s have to concede that Mitchell (or rather her video director Leo Warner) does it infinitely better. Still, it was nice to see something taking steps to join in with the great melting pot of the rest of International European Theatre.
Green Hours III
In an odd way, it was Peca Ștefan and Andreea Vălean’s Green Hours III that I found the most satisfyingly “authentic”, “Romanian” theatre experience.
The set-up of the Green Hours series (there are going to be five in all, culminating in a ten-plus hour marathon staging) is a kind of soap opera/narrative tribute to the venue itself. Sites don’t get more specific than this one. The Green Hours is an underground bar off Calea Victoriei – one of the main streets running through Bucharest. It apparently has an amazing history of hosting performance and dissident meetings. So much so that the government recently tried to close it down – although this may also have had more to do with projected property development and the bar’s chaotic finances (although, as far as I could make out, most finances in Romania were chaotic). But no matter.
Artists in Romania are a hell of a lot better at ignoring or outright defying their government than we Brits are. The memory of seeing the country’s ex-dictator shot dead on live television on Christmas Day, 1989, couldn’t fail to make an impression on anyone entering Romanian politics since. The power of the people is an actual, tangible thing here. The people are pretty tolerant of successive governments since, which someone described as now either cowardly or idiotic or both (as opposed to actively “evil” before ‘89), but it doesn’t do to push them too far.
So, Green Hours was, I think, effectively just squatted back into existence and Theatre Luni are now running these bonkers plays.
Part III is about two+ hours long, and a convoluted tale of the bar owner travelling backwards and forwards in time while never leaving the bar – trying to sort of a bunch of confusions and scrapes he gets into in past, present and future: at one point, for example, he runs into a drunk, thuggish Nicu Ceaușescu (son of the famous dictator Nicolae) who owns the club in the eighties and is dating a drunk, washed-up Nadia Comenaci, the famous Romanian Olympic gymnast. This scene in particular is recognisably very funny.
Overall, it is massively self-indulgent, rambling and anarchic, and I kind of loved it. Starting at 10pm, I imagine it would be even better for having had a few drinks (and speaking Romanian), but even as it stood, it was great to see something with so little regard for “doing things properly” – and attended by possibly the largest, most diverse, young audience we saw all week.