Review: National Theatre Festival of Romania (2013), Bucharest

Class Acts in Bucharest

The reputation of Romanian theatre goes before it. Mark Brown finds it reconfirmed at the National Theatre Festival in Bucharest

Contrary to the image suggested by Home Secretary Theresa May, of a city full of would-be “benefits tourists” waiting to eagerly “flood” Britain the moment work permit restrictions are lifted on January 1, Bucharest is a vibrant, modern city in which fashionable new buildings, in metal and glass, and the Stalinist brutalist structures of the Soviet era jostle with the ornate, neo-classical architecture of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, which earned the city the moniker of “Little Paris”.

That cultural vibrancy manifests itself particularly strongly in the theatre. For lovers of live drama the world over, the mere mention of the names of Romanian theatre masters Silviu Purcarete and Andrei Șerban creates a frisson of excitement. Likewise speaking of such companies as Purcarete’s Radu Stanca National Theatre, based in the central-Romanian city of Sibiu, and Bucharest’s famous Bulandra Theatre.

The School for Wives. Photo by Maria Stefanescu
The School for Wives. Photo by Maria Stefanescu

So it is, on my first evening at the National Theatre Festival of Romania, I attend the Bulandra’s Liviu Ciulei Theatre (one of four venues the company runs across the city) for a production of Molière’s The School For Wives. A brilliant verse comedy about the ageing, well-heeled Arnolphe and his ill-fated attempts to turn his young ward, Agnès, into his bride, it is a play Scottish audiences know well, on account of Liz Lochhead’s excellent Scots adaptation; which is deliciously renamed Educating Agnes, and was staged most recently by the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh in 2011.

In the hands of director Cristi Juncu (who directs the play for the Liviu Rebreanu Company of Târgu-Mures) the piece becomes – in a fashion more typical in continental Europe than in the UK – an excellent, modern-dress comedy. Juncu (who has also adapted the text into modern Romanian rhyme) has Arnolphe (the brilliantly exasperated Nicu Mihoc) as a 21st century businessman, shuffling around a stage strewn with fallen leaves and backed by what seems to be rusting metal (both references, one assumes, to Arnolphe being in the autumn of his years).

Meanwhile, Arnolphe’s servants, Georgette and Alain (played with gorgeous comic energy and expression by Anca Loghin and Csaba Ciugulitu), are drawn into his increasingly desperate efforts to prise Agnès away from her young suitor, Horace, and their modern medical efforts to calm their hyperventilating boss are hilarious. Add to that designer Cosmin Ardeleanu’s stage monsters (Notre Dame Cathedral-style gargoyles of Arnolphe’s mind) and great spiral staircase (up which the unattainable Agnès often disappears, like Rapunzel), and one has a startlingly original production which is fit to grace not only this great festival, but any major theatre programme around the world.

If Juncu’s Molière impresses, so too does the slow-burning, atmospheric presentation of Chekov’s The Seagull, performed in a small, intimate auditorium created on the stage of the Bucharest National Opera Theatre by the German State Theatre of Timisoara.

There is quite a jump from the opulence of the Opera Theatre to the rough-and-ready underground venue Unteatru, where an unevenly acted, but convincingly raw production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire captures the tragic essence of the play.

Past experience of Romanian theatre – not least in Purcarete’s visits to Edinburgh – led me to anticipate an exciting, highly professional and diverse programme in the National Theatre Festival. It did not disappoint.

This article was originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 3, 2013

© Mark Brown


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