Cluj-Napoca at the 11th International Meetings at the National Theatre (Teatrul National)

Dana Rufolo in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
11th International Meetings at the National Theatre (Teatrul National).
28 September through 2 October 2022


You would think that the 2022 Cluj-Napoca theatre festival, taking place in front of audience members who were physically present after a two-year hiatus involving recourse to the Internet provoked by the pandemic, would be a celebratory event. But theatre like so much in our high-strung early-twenty-first-century life has dropped down the rabbit hole of the new crisis: an unjust and barbaric war waged on Ukraine.

Not only are Romanians geographical neighbours of Ukraine but also, as local people in Cluj have told me, they identify strongly with the Ukrainian determination to remain independent and free, having themselves fought within living memory to regain independence from tyranny. Therefore, with the single-minded focus that has characterized Romanian festivals, at least since Michael Billington reported (in The Guardian) on the Bucharest Theatre Festival in 2003, much of this week’s programme is devoted to producing, reading, or talking about theatre in the context of contemporary historical liminalities that affect identity. The theme of this 2022 festival is, indeed, “Identities.”

On 28 September the first day of the Cluj Festival (officially titled The International Meetings in Cluj, 11th Edition), two of the three events of the day are dedicated to traditional drama (about which more later), a sub-theme of the week, but the third introduces the central theme which is the war and militarized identity. The opening day is brought closer to home with a moving reading of contemporary documentary scripts entitled “Wartime Theatre”.

To continue the list of festival events dedicated to the war: on 29 September, the afternoon event includes a performance of Andriy Bondarenko’s Survivor’s Syndrome followed by a panel discussion on “Theatre in Limit Situations.” Maiden Inferno by Neda Nejdana is the play for a readers’ theatre performance on 30 September, and George Banu lectures on “Wartime Theatre and Politics” on 2 October.


Militarized Identity: Plays by Ukrainian Authors

“Wartime Theatre” (Teatru în vreme de război) is a readers’ theatre performance of scripts blended into one continuous performance by Ukrainian playwrights Natalia Blok, Tetiana Kitsenko, and Natalia Vorojbit. It is directed by Ionuț Caras and translated into Romanian by Raluca Rădulescu.

The introductory play is the most savagely direct and documentary in style. A saxophonist who, it turns out, is a Ukrainian refugee housed in Cluj, sets the scene by producing the alarming sound of an ambulance – or it might have been a bomb threat warning – on his instrument as we file into the Euphorion Studio Theatre which is nestled within the west wall of the Cluj National Theatre.

The stage displays a scattering of naked or bandaged body parts hanging from the wings. The session begins with a play in which the reader is seated inside a wood-framed cage of barbed wire, a photo of three toddlers stuck into a corner. They are the reader’s three sons, now grown up, who have been caught in or near the city of Kiev and with whom she gradually loses contact as the bombing worsens.

The mother’s monologue describes how her husband had been offered the chance to flee the country by car with his three sons ahead of the bombing but at the last minute something goes wrong – she doesn’t know what – and the four remain in Kiev.

The traumatic anxiety in the wife/mother’s voice is palpable and contagious. Afterwards, the author of the piece, Natalia Blok, informed us that the piece is autobiographical, and that it was an act of therapy to write it; she now knows that her sons are safe and she is herself living in Switzerland.


Take the Rubbish Out Sasha. Photo credit: Nicu Cherciu.


The series of staged readings ends with a play that I summarized on this website: Vorozhbit’s Take Out the Rubbish, Sasha. The drama (which needs editing) concentrates on the living, mingling happy memories of a dead husband/stepfather Sasha with the ongoing extremely affectionate relationship between mother and daughter.

It starts with the preparation of the funeral meal for soldier Sasha and continues until the two women greet their resurrected Sasha, who has again been called up to battle. The psychological aspect of the drama, involving the inability to accept the physical disappearance of a loved one, combines with the symbolic image of the eternal Ukrainian soldier fighting to defend his homeland. This lends the piece a peculiarly surrealistic perspective.

There is an eerie echo in Take Out the Rubbish, Sasha. The echo involves the frequency of the word “frică”, meaning “fear” in Romanian. The ever-presence of fear permeated Matei Vişniec’s play On the Sensation of Resilience When Treading on Dead Bodies directed by Răzvan Muresan that was featured in the 2018 Cluj Centennial review and in Porn by Andras Visky which Muresan directed in the 2019 festival. It has also been reviewed in this publication. Frică was a leitmotif in The Mirror. For some reason, this word “frică” stands out when spoken on stage in Cluj, and characters talk about that emotion frequently, even in comedies.

The second performance invoking the horrors of the Ukrainian war that I saw was directed by one of the two Cluj National Theatre’s artistic directors, Ştefana Pop-Curşeu. Staged in the Cluj Art Museum, with a sixteenth-century Roman Catholic altar from Jimbor, Brașov County, in the far background visible through open doors, the drama entitled Survivor’s Syndrome begins with two young men playing a game with oversized wooden blocks. The names of ruined Ukrainian cities are imprinted on some of the long rectangular blocks which they build up into a structure that ultimately collapses.


Survivor’s Syndrome. Photo credit: Axel Hörhager.


Then the recitation begins, outlining what it was like to endure days of bombing. It is a poetic stream-of-consciousness text that starts terre-à-terre with lines such as, “We used to go to the cinema, drink beer, and eat nuts ….  Our life now is a graveyard of all the plans we had before.” However, the interior monologue progresses, becoming increasingly self-interrogating: “The body does not need to know everything. Let it think it is alive.” And “Fear makes us slaves. But we have lost our fear. They want to turn us into zombies, but it seems that our nation understands that we have to preserve our identity and treat it like a treasure, because being human is not being a zombie.”

Survivor’s Syndrome is by the young Andriy Bondarenko who, in the discussion that followed, states that it is the result of him sitting down to describe in words exactly what he had been feeling during the bombing of his city when he was solitary and in hiding. The former block builders turn into narrator and character, with the narrator telling the story while the character moves about in a limited space, or sometimes lies down, wearing a silver neutral mask that effectively keeps the beautifully poetic text neutral, as if hanging in space – a story of terror, hope, and endurance for us all.


Classical Drama and the Game of Sexual Flirtation

I often forget how frequently classical European theatre revolves around the theme of sexual attraction (often forbidden) between man and woman, but the other two productions of the day certainly were a reminder.  The first of two Ion Luca Caragiale dramas at this festival is his A Stormy Night (O noapte furtunoasă) which dates from 1879. We saw the filmed version of the play directed by Dragoș Pop which is being distributed around the country, including to schools where students are required to read the works of their chief Romanian playwright.


A Stormy Night. Photo credit: Nicu Cherciu.


It incorporates a Pantalone descendent, Jupân Dumitrache (Ovidiu Crişan), whose strong-minded and clever wife (Radu Lărgeanu Veta), is having an affair with Chiriac (Ioan Isaiu), the one man Dumitrache loves and unconditionally trusts. The comedy revolves around the suitor of the wife’s sister, a hilarious lisping revolutionary journalist (Rică Venturiano). Dumitrache mistakenly believes that the journalist is the lover of his wife. Objectified, the women accept their roles as chattel, but within this structure they use their ingenuity to obtain what they want.

Pop directs A Stormy Night with an extremely sensitive linguistic ear, requiring the actors to reproduce the lilt of the southern Romanian dialect which, like Californian American speech patterns, goes up at the end of the sentence. He does so in order to emphasize the mocking secondary line readings which reveal that they are aware that they are playing games.

Simultaneously, the men reference their loyalty to Romania and their willingness to fight to defend the country if required. The director has stated that he chose to play the husband Dumitrache as truly unaware that his best friend, a fellow military officer, is cuckolding him because, as a man of the military, Dumitrache’s first love is not his wife but his country. In support, the stage set is crowded with flags and weaponry, symbols of nationalism and manliness, and Pop emphasizes the dramatic line that men are strong and women are weak even while his wife is cleverly disproving this assumption. This said, she has of course consented to the chauvinist structure of her social life.

Just as in Anton Chekhov’s dramas, sexual attraction – the tyranny of biology – is a curse as much as a blessing. The director of Three Sisters (Trei Surori), Răzvan Muresan (mentioned above as the director of a play from the 2018 festival, reviewed on this website), emphasizes to a great extent how wrong marriages – especially that of Andrei Prozorov (Matei Rotaru) with Natasha (Anca Hanu) – ruin lives, even in this case a family, putting work into the Prozorov sisters’ laps not just as theory but as necessity.


The cast of Three Sisters. Photo credit: Nicu Cherciu.


The pace of the play matches the abysmal mood of the principal characters; with cuts, the entire production lasted 135 minutes without an interval. At one point, I wrote in my notes that it was intolerable to bear as an audience member. I wanted to flee.

Was that the objective, I asked the director afterwards? He did not know how to answer, so the explanation I entertain in my own mind – that he supressed comedic or briefly light-hearted interpretations of lines and scenes so as to maintain a general lethargy and oppression that reflects the atmosphere of murder and fear we are experiencing now with the nearby war – never received confirmation. The actors also submitted themselves mutely to the demands of the director, and I am therefore unable to tell you why the longueurs do not feel aesthetically comprehensible.

An additional problem concerns the irresolvable anachronisms in Three Sisters when, as in this production, it is modernized. Muresan puts smartphones on a stage comprising the living-room areas and back garden of the Prozorov family’s home, their soft beeping a source of extraneous noise only secondary to the musical strains that, as in a film, signal tension and impending misfortune.

Also, in one short scene we see a small laptop computer, and then there are also 3 D vision goggles: initially one, given as a present to perky Irena (Alexandra Tarce) on her name day (replacing the samovar gift in the Chekhov script), and then at the close of the production there is an invasion of actors, anonymous characters, swarming over the stage wearing these blue apparatuses like eyeglasses. Their use was clever and enhancing of the solipsistic philosophy often expressed in a clear and dramatically resonating voice by the doctor Chebutykin (Radu Lărgeanu) that nothing is physically substantial, solid and real.

Muresan – intentionally or not, I do not know – confounds public and private space on stage with the use of these digital devices; when I asked Irina Wintze, who played a kindly if remote Olga, about this, she said that in Romania one sees people on mobile phones all over: on the buses, in restaurants. “Yes, but this is a home,” I replied. “In the house, among all the modern digital equipment one would also expect to see televisions, a plethora of computers, perhaps iPads etcetera”.  And we both agreed it is difficult to integrate the notion of a duel when surrounded by a profusion of modern paraphernalia. (The set, with its six playing areas, includes a back garden and is decorated with broad modular and angular lit furniture composed chiefly of glass cases sporting artificial desert plants. Design is by Ilona Alyamani Lőrincz.)


A second Ion Luca Caragiale play, very popular with the audience, was interpreted in an opposite way to A Stormy Night in that it was modernized. Just as racy and again with an extramarital love affair, this time involving a politician who needs to avoid exposure through blackmail. “A Lost Letter in Concert” (O scrisoare pierdută în Concert) in an interpretation by songwriter Ad Milea had its overwhelmingly young Romanian audience in stitches, with incorporated film sequences obviously referencing local political issues and politicians being characterized as buffoons.


A Lost Letter in Concert. Photo credit: Nicu Cherciu.


Identity and Gender

There is no doubt that I was among the most enthusiastic admirers when the show “Hang Up, Calls Waiting” (Nu mai ține linia ocupată) by Alexandra Felseghi ended. The resonance for me is perhaps because I have worked on a street theatre project about trafficking of women, the same theme that this play tackles in a sensitive and not overly stereotypical way. My experience has taught me how difficult a subject it is to dramatize effectively.

Others in the audience were entrenched in a critical aesthetic perspective and were therefore less enthusiastic. However, I personally believe that the use of a red-garbed chorus of women who denounce the perpetrators of sexual violence with resonating Brechtian fervour and the image of a rose suspended from the heavens that shifts in colour constitute effective scenography (designer Andreea Tecla), and the actors are compelling. Plaudits go to the director Adina Lazăr for giving dramatic form to the problems of sexual abuse and sexual trafficking. With so many other problems assailing our societies, this issue has taken the back burner.

Two tales intertwine in “Hang Up, Calls Waiting”. The first is the drama of a pregnant teenage girl Andreea, sensitively portrayed by Diana Buluga, who has become the plaything of her absent mother’s boyfriend and his gang of criminal friends. The young girl is placed by the hospital in a safe place for women but naively, and fatally we fear, she returns to the older man on the whiff of a promise to found a family – only to be instantly set upon again by his gang who consider her as fodder for scorn and abuse of all kinds.

The second tale is that of a girl who disappears when she hitchhikes home, as she often did with her parents’ approval, after shopping. The most touching moment in the play is when the parents of the missing girl visit the safe place having heard that Andreea may be their daughter, and when they realize she is not and turn to depart, Andreea runs up to them, pleading to be taken in place of their missing daughter. If only emotional transfer were that easy! The play reveals the terrible need a young person has to attach to someone and to feel loved by them. The complicity of the police – in this case the policeman himself has a criminal mindset – shows the complexity of the problem of abuse. Even worse, it shows how intractable the problem is when the policeman glibly dismisses the social worker’s complaints by fobbing her off with the nonsense advice that whatever you don’t die from makes you stronger.


Another drama evoking women’s rights, The Competition  – The Casting in Kursk (Audiţia) written by the Russian Alexander Galin and directed by Ionuț Caras, is a humorous and sarcastic look at the lack of protection for the weak in Russia. It depicts the problematic issue of women trusting and believing the lies they are told. Several Russian women are competing in a talent show orchestrated by a Japanese businessman in which the winners will be sent to his nightclub in Singapore – a mythical land in their eyes where they imagine they will be loved and admired. As audience members, we know full well that their role is bound to be more functional.

The problem that the play attempts to resolve is that these women have husbands, albeit rather indifferent ones, and the denouement is a series of clever repositionings in the couples that finally leads to restored harmony. Nonetheless, two fatherless girls, the youngest of the lot, will compete, believing their skills are about to be finally recognized. Their alcoholic mother (Irina Wintze) knows better but says nothing.

In its call for empathy for ordinary people who have no special talents, The Competition is an excellent choice for the “Identities” festival. It reminds us of the universality of the problem of social injustice and of the problem of excessive naiveté.

The finale is the only play in the week of festival performances that seems out of place: an interpretation of R.W. Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant directed by a young Romanian who has already made an impression in French theatre circles, Eugen Jebeleanu.


The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Photo credit: Nicu Cherciu.


The stage consists of a long platform resembling a catwalk, a refrigerator stage-right where drinks and snacks are prepared (quite awkwardly), and a screen stage-left projecting images. The images include a nude female torso seen from the vantage point of a gynaecologist and then scenes of (mostly American) gay rights marches.

It seemed to be a piece intended to round out the subject of oppression that marks this festival. However, as audience members told me afterwards, Fassbinder’s polemics are yesteryear and the staging did not provoke their interest.  With von Kant’s erotic love for Karin (Sânziana Tarța) and her callous rejection of her daughter and mother during the birthday scene (Ramona Dumitrean’s von Kant was insensitively dismissive), coupled with what was in this production Karin’s clear reluctance to begin or sustain a sexual relationship, placed in such an alienating stage environment, I felt the script was written by a man who has difficulties understanding women let alone writing about them.

The best representation of the text would have been to have actors dressed in female clothes playing the part, for in effect that is the perspective that frames Fassbinder’s dialogue. The play is at an embryonic stage of development in its exploration of social rights for the LGBTQ community.


Ancillary Talks, Panels, and Events

The 2022 Cluj-Napoca Theatre Festival was remarkably balanced and can easily serve as a model for future theatre festivals around the word that are not only performative but which choose to explore the interface between theatre and society. Intellectual interventions and conversations between artists and audience members were integrated into the programme on nearly a daily basis.

The well-known Romanian TV producer and theatre critic Marina Constantinescu lectured on her love of theatre (“Theatre, Mon Amour”).  After Survivor’s Syndrome, the audience was invited into an adjoining room to a panel discussion with the Ukrainian authors Andriy Bondarenko, Neda Nejdana, Tetiana Kitsenko and Natalia Blok along with directors Tudor Lucanu and Ionuț Caras. Both events took place on 29 September.

On October 1st, internationally acclaimed Romanian author Matéi Vișniec gave a poignant autobiographical talk on how coincidences that can only be termed ‘good luck’ magically helped him to develop as an innovative and courageous author. The talk is entitled “Dramatic Writing and the Motivations of Contemporary Playwrights”.


Matei Visniec delivers a lecture. Photo credit: Axel Hörhager.


Also, several books on Romanian theatre history were launched: firstly, Cristina Modreanu’s Teatrul ca rezistenţă. Oameni de teatru în arhivele Securităţii (“Theatre as Resistance. Theatre People in the Archives of the Stasi – the Secret Police”) from Polirom Publishing House which has been praised on national radio by Adrian Cioroianu for proving that “in communist Romania there really was resistance through culture”. It is a book which in my opinion can’t get translated fast enough into English. Read the review of Modreanu’s A History of Romanian Theatre from Communism to Capitalism here.

Critic and professor Liviu Maliţa presented his book Să nu priveşti înapoi : comunism, dramaturgie, societate (“Don’t Look Back. Communism, Dramaturgy, Society”) from Cluj University Press.

Additionally, UK-based Romanian academic Jozefina Komporaly presented the only book published directly in English: Plays from Romania. Dramaturgies of Subversion from Bloomsbury’s Methuen Drama series. (A review will appear shortly on this website.)

A meeting with the playwright Horia Gârbea was scheduled on 2 October at the National Theatre’s Euphorion Studio after we had viewed his play Crimă cu pistol și bile (“Murder with BB Gun”), a fast-playing absurdist work in which justice is totally derailed. In it, an individual who is determined to remain rational (Dan Chiorean) is accused of a murder he did not commit, is defended in a ridiculous manner, convicted and then pardoned.


Murder with BB Gun. Photo credit: Nicu Cherciu.


Later that day, the noted French-Romanian author and professor (Sorbonne, Paris 3) George Banu, gave a lecture on “Wartime Theatre and Politics”. Beginning with the premise that “theatre transforms an immediate experience into an aesthetic experience”, Banu referenced examples from literature, film, and theatre that deal with the “re-representation” of war through evoking its visceral effects – starting with World War One and Henri Barbuss’ personal account and the ironic The Good Soldier Švejk by Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek. He asks how theatre translates war, and concludes that one way is through the portrayal of excess, for example excess blood, as in the 2006 blood-saturated productions Macbeth directed by Jürgen Gosch and The Oresteia directed by Michael Thalheimer.

The academic and question-and-answer side events incorporated into the festival involved the audience extensively and offered opportunities to probe behind the scenes. They contributed to the seriousness of purpose in the eleventh International Meetings in Cluj, devoted this year to Identities.