Thursday 26 September 2013

Romania round-up (theatre)

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.

Performative Archive 

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.


Gianina Carbunariu said...

Next time you do a visit in another country and meet some artists, try to react to what you see and to the context in which the work is done and stop reducing each and every thing to what you have at home. Verbatim, video, social and political plays or non-professional actors – all these are not invented in UK (or at least not only). It is true that me, Mihaela Michailov and Stefan Peca we participated in the Royal Court residency, but we also participated in other residencies as well, we studied in Romania and abroad, so our background is more complex than this. I don’t know who “does it better” or “who did it first”, but I know for sure that, in order to understand things, first you have to get out of your box. Mentally, not only physically. Just one example of superficial way of getting information: it is not the government that tried to close down Green Hours.I understand that seeing art it's a matter of subjectivity, but please, at least be objective in presenting the real facts. All the best, Gianina Carbunariu

Anonymous said...

Having seen several of the plays directed and played by David Schwartz's team (in the verbatim theater series), I am made uncomfortable by the appropriation of words and experiences in their approach and by the race to check off social issues before somebody else gets to them and writes a play (and gets precious scarce funding for it). The plays are listed as "written" by so-and-so, member of the team (no mention of the people who gifted their words and experiences), real people are reduced to"characters" and "social issues" to be touched on and collected. I know, politics of representation are hard, everybody has to eat and pay rent, and there are always traps in trying to bring attention to social and political issues through art, but one way to do it is to put the interests of these people first, to start from their own project of representation, and refuse to benefit--authorially--from this. I am waiting to see what is about to be collected next, the terminally ill? sex workers? drug users? Roma? subsistence farmers? war veterans?

Monica said...

Dear Anonymous, get out of the library and stop talking from books. Wake up, meet reality, talk a little bit more to people who are marginalized. Do some research and leave the misunderstood 'political correctness' aside. The people interviewed for these plays, mostly don't want to give their real names and don't want to be authors of plays. They want their stories to be heard, but without exposing them as individuals or being pointed out. They have other things to do and to deal with, than making art projects, (which is a job very poorly paid and involves a lot of work! no, none of us live out of this or pay our rents from this kind of projects), it's not their job, but this people choose to be part of this kind of project and to support it from the very first moment. They are informed from the beginning about the intentions and the aim of the project. Finally, I want to mention that those people who inspired characters in "David Schwartz&Team's" plays and who came to see the shows, are very happy and satisfied with the way of "representation" and the way their stories are shared. So, I think, my dear Anonymous, you shouldn't bother with what is the "correct" way of representation of those people, because within these projects, they have a voice and they can talk themselves to the "authors", when they are unhappy about something, as well as if they want to start their own project of representation, which their are always encouraged to do. At last, I invite you to see "Born in the wrong place", to come out of anonymity, represent yourself at the debate after the show, share your impressions and your concerns in public! Be brave honey ;)

mznpt said...

What about this part: "he now appears in the piece as someone who did move to Romania. The person they met didn’t."?

Monica said...

About this part: "he now appears in the piece as someone who did move to Romania. The person they met didn’t." He doesn't appear in the piece as someone who moved to Romania. The author of this post, Andrew Haydon, didn't read the play, doesn't understand Romanian (since he thought that the government tried to close down a bar from Bucharest, which for anyone who lives in Bucharest, sounds like an enormous stupidity!), and also he didn't understand the stories of the characters in the play 'Born in the wrong place', nor the story behind the play. The young Afghan appears as someone who lives in Afghanistan and wants to flee from his country, to reach Romania, in order to get to Europe, which is something that many afghans do, as he informed us. Also, the first people to read the play, were the persons, who inspired the characters, including the young Afghan, who gave us feedback and suggestions, so no one added useless fiction, just for the sake of art. This idea, that the story of the Afghan was moved to Romania is a false, misleading information. It might be just my opinion, but I think that the whole article highlights once again the typical colonial, superficial and self-sufficient look of the Westerner, full of arrogance, stereotypes, prejudices inaccuracies and faults. Do we also have to thank Royal Court for this?

vlad a arghir said...

Massa, please let me explain: we've different brands of art down here. Unlike malls in Bucharest, theatres, art(ist)s generally, have individuality. Somewhat outlying, granted, but worth a thoughtful look from anyone interested in contemporary… erm… whatever.
"I'm not really sure" either "what sort of level (your) text was being pitched at". Critical wit is no substitute for insight. Your text fails to serve any imaginable purpose beyond snubbing, but is at least unmistakably candid and all told mostly harmless. I hesitate whether to respond to the backseat-directing, the (occasionally ignorant) verdicts or your, imo superficial, distaste. The former may be a maladaptive response to alien cultural ground. The latter two echo a bout of ill-considered sarcasm and impatience. Just take your time.
Reducing Offline Family to "Social realism" is too much consideration for kitchen sink and too little for the educational side, the group dynamics and how good these kids are. "Dramatically", a conventional "story arc" is neither intended, nor required. Going to Spain is sadly pretty much "accountable" here; the "problem of the piece's morality" looks "knotty" to you; unsurprisingly, but hardly the play's problem. Dismissing the notable result of a year's drama work with these kids as "enthusiasm" is misguiding and hopelessly tactless. The hint at SATS is rude. For Romanians: the "National Curriculum Assessment", aka "Standard Attainment Tests", was concerned with evaluating pupils'"Literacy, Numeracy and Science", not, btw, drama skills, nor, unfortunately, social skills.
"Amateur theatre" is hardly "vetoed" (!) in Romania. "'Spontaneous' street theatre productions" would indeed make a valuable "hangover" (!), had they existed (must be a mixup), while "making accessible art for all" (!) is, thankfully, neither typically Communist nor otherwise disreputable. As for "agit-prop", who needs storing concepts if there's Wikipedia. Another mixup, Green Hours and "Teatrul Luni" were not "squatted back into existence", they found business support. And on marches sarcasm, ad nauseam.
"Having had a few drinks (and speaking Romanian)" (?) seems to have helped beyond some point, but up to it making do w. synopses instead of the plays is a poor choice, in hindsight, as is seeing plays in "early tech or dress rehearsal" or "(a full three weeks ahead of its première), (when) it's impossible really to say much more about the piece as a performance". Indeed. And why does the "five actors talking in Romanian" get a mention? In Bucharest? Another annoying pat on the back?
These and other authors have a lot to thank the "Royal Court" (Theatre) for, and the RC people would certainly have something else to tell than sarcastic crap.
Seriously (just this once), some young artists still find Verbatim meaningful. Romania has a specific background and can't match whatever it is you think it should from your invaluable "British perspective". So "just how 'anti-establishment' verbatim drama is as a form, here" may well be worth a sober debate, as is the way these artists operate about it. Is this expecting too much of "the sort of level" your critique is "pitched at"? And no, if I were you, I wouldn't boast this piece too much, thanks (pat-pat).
Nice try, though. Drop by again, but please: be prepared to discuss more than, say, Dracula or "funding cuts, philistine governments, difficult funding bodies and artistic differences" ("philistine" is pretty much spot on here, btw). Do bring a box of chocolates or a good bottle, to pave the way for, well, you know: a brighter approach? Artistic differences will remain rampant enough.
Declaration of interests: I personally know all these artists.