Romanian theatre director Mihai Măniuțiu
Interview by Dana Rufolo
1 December 2018
The celebrated Romanian director Mihai Măniuțiu, artistic director of the Cluj National Theatre, reveals how the terrors of communism continue to haunt Romanians. He stresses that it is his responsibility to produce plays that remind the Romanian people to be ever-vigilant against loss of democratic freedom — for certainly the battle has not been won. He also emphasizes— as does his wife, university professor Anca Măniuțiu, present during the interview — that for Romanians to concentrate on their own history when in fact many nations suffered similar tortures and betrayals, is important because today there is a need for a genuine — not a communist or fear-inspired and fake — pride in being Romanian. His choice to perform native literary works with professionalism and originality contributes to developing a resurgent national identity.
I’d like to start with the comment you made back in 2005 when you said that you still saw everywhere about you in Romania the effects of Nicolae Ceaușescu, the police state, and communism. You said, “… while walking the streets with my eyes wide-open, I continue to witness the toxic communist and secret police residues we are forced to live with from day to day”. How do you feel about that statement of yours today, thirteen years later? Do you still have that same impression?
Mihai: Yes, yes, I have nearly the same impression today. Communism left an extremely recalcitrant trauma. It
It’s my opinion that we are still ill, even though most of us are not conscious of being so. It is going to take generations before we truly forget. The problem is that we can’t forget. Just waiting around for time to pass does not result in forgetting. What I’m trying to do in my performances is to exorcise this deep wound and to oblige the spectators to become aware of this trauma that they deny. “It was not so bad … There were good aspects of communism that weren’t marked by perversity …” and so forth. But what I feel is that we spent fifty years in prison, and we became used to it somehow. So, when liberty came our way, we didn’t make good use of it. Maybe it is normal to move from communism to a raw, wild kind of capitalism, I don’t know — perhaps economically in any case. But as a mental state, moving from communism to fighting to be the richest of them all, more powerful than the others, that is really traumatizing. It’s going to take generations before we are ourselves again. The dangerous aspect is that because of not wanting to look at the past, we run the risk of making the same errors all over again.
It’s hard work to get the people to look at and listen to things connected with the nightmare of communism. If I say that we used to be afraid to talk freely in a room full of friends if there was a telephone in the room, because the telephone could and was used to listen, the young of today don’t understand. All of us were living in a state of psychosis — the Securitate was everywhere (the Departamentul Securității Statului) was the secret police agency of the Socialist Republic of Romania). We found out afterwards, and it was stupefying, that among our circle of friends there were several informers. And that’s the truth, even if it was psychotic.
Young Romanians also don’t understand what it means to be condemned to live inside locked borders, and at an age where travel permits you to develop and mature. Today they can take City Break after City Break; with €100 you can fly to London, Greece … When I talk about communism, I feel like a dinosaur. But beware: the dinosaurs are among us. In politics, in business. So, I think what I observed in 2005 is still true.
I personally am not completely liberated from that nightmare. I carry it around with me wherever I am. It is not my intention to pass on nightmares to those who did not live through the communist era, but it is important that they know about those times. It is not possible today to live as if the concentration camps never existed. You can’t ignore the fact that half a million Romanians were killed in the camps any more than you can deny that the Soviet gulags killed millions upon millions or that the Nazis murdered several million. We have to remember not to repeat the same mistakes again. That’s why next year I’m producing another play that references the communist era, Matei Vișniec’s How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients (L’histoire de communisme raconté pour l’usage des malades mentaux). It is set in the Romanian industrial town of Galați on the edge of the Danube. It’s a black comedy. I felt the need to return to this period that marked my childhood so strongly. We became free only at the age of 36.
Anca: I remember the play Frankenstein (a Cirque Baroque production, conceived by Christian Taguet and directed by Augustin Letelier) playing in Weimar, Germany for the European Capital of Culture 1999. It was about the creation of the “new man”; that’s what communism purported to be doing. Comrade Frankenstein, our “beloved” leader. The play was performed in a hall, and Letelier had hung posters on the walls that listed the names of hundreds and hundreds of victims of communism.
Mihai: In Romania, the Securitatae was buying people with money or with jobs, or it was threatening them. The number of informers was huge. You know, I cannot say the Romanians were anti-communist and just a thousand cooperated. No, it’s about millions.
So, Anca, among your students there are those whose parents were informers?
Mihai: And in the theatre too. I was interrogated once, and they said to me, “You aren’t here because we don’t know everything about you.” And it was true. They knew everything about me, absolutely everything, what I was doing here or there, what I said. Of course I said, “I don’t remember” and things like that but what they knew was true. There weren’t fake or misleading informers. No, the informers were dead-accurate.
Like in last night’s play, Matei Vișniec’s On the Sensation of Resilience When Treading on Dead Bodies?
Mihai: Yes. In fact, I do not know the exact number but there were three to four million informers.
It must have been terrifying. It meant that friends of yours in the theatre were informing on you.
Mihai: I suspected this one or that one but couldn’t be sure. I refuse to see my dossier. But friends of mine did so, and they discovered what I do not want to discover.
Once, we were producing a play, we were quite far, it was a dress rehearsal, and our permission to produce the play was withdrawn even though the judge did not see the play; an informer had told the Securitatae it had pro-religion elements in it.
Mihai, you are internationally recognised for your varied production styles and especially for your unique approach to space in your theatrical productions. For example, Robert Cohen describes how you grouped spectators around a large circle-like tent which had windows in it, and each spectator was assigned her or his own window through which to view the action taking place in the middle of the enclosed ring stage; this was the production Job’s Experiment (Experimental lovlov) in 2003). And in the plays you directed for this festival, Jon Fosse’s Rambuku with its modern dance troupe and Molière’s The Bourgeois Gentleman (Burghezul Gentilom) which you called a “comedy-
-ballet in prose”, you define the stage space in a Dalacroze eurythmics sort of way, with dance-like movements and gestures. Why and how did you develop your sophisticated relationship to space and gestures?
Mihai: But you’ve given the definition of theatre. It is the human body in relationship to space and time. All directors are doing this.
Yes, but you are particularly known for this. Take for example The Bourgeois Gentleman. Even the wife who is the most “normal” of the characters had her own specific gestural vocabulary. She waves her hands back and forth in a stylized fashion and dances in and out of scenes.
Mihai: At this point in my development as a director, I’m particularly interested in dance-theatre. It wasn’t a form of theatre permitted under communism. As soon I was free to do what I wanted, I introduced physical theatre, dance, more and more. That was about twenty years ago. My first production of this genre was with Vava Stefanescu (Romanian) and Sylvain Groud (a French choreographer who is currently the director of the National Centre for Contemporary Dance in Bucharest). That was in 2001 for a text by the French author George Banu, L’Oubil. I’m interested in what dance can bring to theatre. For this reason I use a lot of choreography.
You developed a vocabulary of gestures for each character in The Bourgeois Gentleman?
Yes, that was my intention.
Do you think about the style ahead of time or do you wait until you have the actor in front of your eyes?
Normally I’ve given a lot of thinking to the project long before the auditions. I take a long time to prepare a performance. I talk it over with my team, the scenographer, the choreographer. Sometimes I am so absolutely sure of how the space should be set up, the final stage scenery is ready before we have even the very first rehearsal, the first text reading. At the same time, I always say that it is the stage that dictates and limits what can be done.
Do you have an in-house choreographer?
In a way. The lead dancer in Rambuku, Andrea Gavriliu, is the choreographer; I work with her a lot. Also with Vava Stefanescu.
Because there are things that can’t be put into words?
Absolutely. Corporeal language is just as important as words for me.
It seems to me that during the communist era, words were far too important (as proven by the detailed reports on what people said), and since the revolution of 1989 you have almost purposefully moved away from the dependence on language.
I understand that you have incorporated Romanian folklore music from a remote region of your country in a recent production, and that you are preparing a new spectacle that will use this group of musician performers again. Are they what the book about your work calls “wailers”? (Mihai Măniuțiu. Spaţiul Cameleonic/The Ever-Changing Space/Les Métamorphoses de l’espace by Cristina Modreanu (Cluj-Napoca: Editura Bybliotek 2010, p124).
I got it into my head to place Electra in Maramureș (north Romania), because it is a remote region. Culturally it has not been infected by the modern world. In this region, there used to be the vendetta, twenty or thirty years ago. Shed blood demanded new blood — it never finished. Their music is savage. I wanted to put Electra in both a mythic time and in Maramureș.
This time, it will be a play about the Night of Saint Jean. In ancient times, this night was associated with rites and rituals. It has to do with the magical rituals of the night of Saint Jean. Then, young girls can dream of their future husbands, there are sexual initiation rites, one can love freely. It takes place on 24 June. The original night of Saint Jean is confounded with the summer solstice.
So you will use the same group that plays the original music of Maramureș – Grupal Iza? And this is your next spectacle?
It will open in April 2019. The very next production is in the United States, because I’m going back in January 2019 to direct a performance for the Survival Project at the University of California at Irvine.
What is the relationship for you between mood, memory, and a call to action? Mood meaning – using your production of Jon Fosse’s Rambuku as an example – where you make us understand immediately what that play is “about”. In this case it is about a movement towards death.
You are right to say I don’t use guerrilla theatre techniques in my call to action. Rather, I offer the spectators a chance to enlarge their consciousness. Their awareness. Through greater consciousness, we are better prepared to face the world – engage with actuality, the world as it is. That we are not immortal, that is a big problem.
In The Bourgeois Gentleman, the final image of Monsieur Jordain playing with a globe referred back to Charlie Chaplin. We are driven to think about him as a little dictator. And in Rambuku, the image you wish to leave behind is a pile of bodies in a concentration camp?
It’s that but not only. It’s also a metaphor, for at the end of our life in one way or another we are assassinated. I’m furious about dying. It is like a crime. I’m alive, and I will be killed.
Yes, I understand that the final image of the pile of bodies was also spiritual. It was the sheen on their legs at the end that gave that spiritual impression — they weren’t naked, I suppose, so we saw something like the material of nylon tights gleaming?
They were completely naked.
But some of them had something shimmering on them.
Yes, that is because their white costumes were made from a special paper that dissolves in the presence of water. There was that rain in the play earlier on, you remember, and by the time of that final scene, the costumes have totally dissolved and what you are seeing is the water remaining on the legs.
So how did you manage to have the costumes dissolve at exactly the correct moment?
We had many rehearsals, and Luiza Enescu the costume designer and I, we calculated. We calculated how much water was needed and the size of the costumes. At first, the costumes were too long, and they hadn’t dissolved yet at the right moment.
For me, the shine on their skin created the metaphor of the eternal return of death, especially because the dancers and the two characters prayed, in a manner of speaking, before joining the heap of bodies. And the concentration camp image was clear because of the uppermost body which instead of lying fluidly in the heap like the others had fallen into a deathlike position. Her back was turned towards the others, so she seemed to be rather standing up practically on top of the other bodies. That image resembled one of the most highly-circulated war crime images I seem to remember, maybe I am wrong, but anyhow it therefore gave me the idea that this final image also had a political implication.
Yes, I worked hard on things like the position of the bodies.
To what extent are you determining the choreography, then? Is Andrea Gavriliu free to do what she wants?
No, we discuss — really quite a lot. Hours and hours. She is very talented, but I change things. “No, don’t do that.” or “Cut there”. I’m not making the choreography, but I’m interfering all the time.
Anca: He is giving her the meaning. The meaning that should be conveyed by the movements.
Mihai: I don’t just speak for Romanians. I try to speak for everyone.