The End of the World – Troy, 1012 BC

Euripides/Elisabeth Swados: THE TROJAN WOMEN

15.12.2012, Saturday, National Opera of Iași
Stage direction: Andrei Șerban, musical direction: Lucian Maxim, costume designer: Doina Levintza
Simona Titieanu (Hecuba), Laura Scripcaru, Maria Macsim Nicoară, Ana Maria Donose Marcovici (Helen), Lăcrămioara-Maria Hrubaru-Roată (Cassandra), Cristina Grigoraș, Andreea Chinez, Marinela Nicola, Cristina Tălmaciu, Jean-Kristof Bouton, Octavian Dumitru, Tudor Florența, Eduard Sveatchevici, Lucian Dolhăscu, Andrei Fermeșanu, Andrei Apreotesei etc.

In Iași again, in this city that has become overnight the cultural capital of Romania, at least for theatre and opera. Again in the splendid National Theatre, and this time I know I am going to explore its wings too. On the road again, now it’s winter, and, because I still had time, I stopped for a little at the Sturza Castle, in Miclăușeni, and I was surprised and sad to observe that this monument of a lost Romanian world had been miraculously saved from disappearance at the very last moment. A world we have lost, because we did not let it set naturally, while making room for the contemporary one, a world violently destroyed by totalitarianism, a world impossible to recuperate. Taken in property by the Romanian communist state in 1953, the magnificent neo-gothic castle built between 1880 – 1904 (therefore contemporary with the National Theatre in Iași) became for 40 years (1960 – 2001) an orphanage for mentally disabled children, and, therefore, was slowly sentenced to a continuous destruction.

Castelul Sturza

The fact that the castle was saved is a miracle in itself. And I do not remind it without a specific purpose – I knew from the very beginning that, 65 kilometers later, I was to witness an eschatological performance, that of the end of Troy.

In 1990, I was very young back then, I saw Andrei Șerban’s Ancient Trilogy, at the National Theatre in Bucharest. At the end of the performance, I realized that The Trojan Women was the play I would never forget. I was so sorry when Șerban withdrew the performing rights for his Trilogy, disappointed by the evolution of the new Romanian world… I remember that the totalitarian architecture of the theatre in Bucharest, with its hideous bowels, was creating an oppressive atmosphere, stressed that winter by the tragedy of a society that had just come out of communism only to be terribly hurt by the miners that invaded Bucharest. If Troy was wiped off the map in legendary times, its myths made it survive in the memory of humanity. The Sturza Castle survived, but it is almost forgotten today, while Troy disappeared but, even today, people are touched by the stage representation of the antique tragedy. What Andrei Șerban did in 1974, when his vision of the antique theatre became reality (at La MaMa Theatre, in New York), was the mathematically rigorous demonstration of how contemporary Euripides’ play was. And we are talking here about an absolute first performance that had taken place nearly 500 years before Christ (415 B.C.)! Of course, there is Berlioz’s opera (1863), recently restaged with great success at the Covent Garden, and there is Cacoyannis’s movie (1971), and both of them are extraordinary, but, in my opinion, Andrei Șerban’s staging vision has the strongest impact on the audience.

As everybody knows, in this production the spectators take part in the creation. They are taken backstage, then on the stage, and, eventually, they get to sit on the audience seats, for the final part of the performance. They represent the helpless people of the conquered citadel, who witness the fall of a world – all the tentatives Hecuba makes in order to coagulate around her even the most frail order are doomed to implacable failure. If in 1990 one could feel on stage the same as in a square of Bucharest, fighting for democracy, and one could easily assimilate the Achaeans with repressive forces – of the Securitate in 1989 (mainly because of the darkness and the winter outside) or of the miners one year later, how will this be in 2012?

Once backstage, waiting for everybody to find a place on the narrow hall you are passing through, while hearing the rare rhythm of drums, you feel the oppressive atmosphere settling in and, at the same time, a feeling of uncertainty starts haunting you. You have already realized this is not just some performance, that something unexpected will happen, very quickly. The procession of Achaean soldiers with bamboo spears, pushing a group of women who will become slaves, takes you directly on the stage. The curtain is closed and the spectator is in complete darkness, as an ideal pray for the effects to follow. Three wooden platforms  where the main characters will mount (Hecuba, Andromaque, Cassandra and Helen) surround the world which is like trapped. A trap of magic, of course – with the shape of “U” letter. The women of fallen Troy will start their declamations suddenly, from any of the three scaffolds, because at a certain moment you realize this is what they are, scaffolds, and you start turning continuously, towards each of them. Groups of Achaean soldiers make way among spectators, their itineraries are geometrical – the sides or the diagonals of the rectangular space from where you cannot escape. This very simple scenery induces claustrophobia, the semi-obscurity creates uncertainty and the presence of the soldiers becomes more and more frightening. During all this time spent on stage, the tension you feel from the first lamentations of Hecuba increases with Cassandra’s abduction and reaches its paroxysm with Helen’s rape. Only after Astyanax is killed are the spectators freed,  the curtain raises and, in a procession of defeat that you feel as a personal one, you get a seat in the hall, no matter where, what counts is that you escaped from hell. It is a transfer of the tragic feeling from the artistic form to the individual and intimate level of the spectator – witness, somehow like while listening to Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony (see also: Apocalipsa după Christian Badea), a transfer that does not require a lot of previous preparation, a transfer that takes place even against the audience’s will. This is how I got down from the stage, decomposed with pain, trying to put together the hundreds of pieces my heart had turned into. Once the curtain is raised, the image of the National Theatre hall seen from the actor’s perspective manages to take you back a little, in an emotional state more or less stable.

Troienele Iași

If 23 years ago these emotions were inevitably connected to the social reality, and they became almost visceral on the stage, like an extension of the life in the street, this time things were different and not a single moment less impressive. The most beautiful difference from the performance in Bucharest was the fact that, in Iași, The Trojan Women was an opera production, with opera singers, and instruments played on stage. And the colored and aristocratic costumes created by Doina Levintza were different from the nearly grey ones in Bucharest. Elisabeth Swados’s music prevailed in front of declamation. We have here a composition based on rhythms and incantations with ancestral echoes, sung in ancient Greek, and the effect of this strange musicality is overwhelming many times. I remember that, in Bucharest, Ioana Bulcă made an extraordinary impression as Hecuba, and today Simona Titieanu was like transfigured by this part, she sang while declaiming and declaimed while singing and this expressivity made you feel you understood all that was said or sung, even though you did not know any single word of it. This is how, this time, the emotion moved more to the esthetics area, to catharsis, a little far from the immediate correspondence with the world we live. For me, Hecuba is the most important character, she stays to be the witness of the entire tragedy, she is so profound that she transcends it. Of course, Ana Maria Donose Marcovici was an ideal Helen (and the reason why minors are not allowed to see this show), not only very beautiful, but also vocally clear and musical. The scene of Menelaos’ seduction, at the very beginning of her sequence, was eloquent. Lăcrămioara Hrubaru – excellent as Cassandra, in fact ideal in this part, as her innocent air was a perfect match for the final laughter,  of the prophecies cursed not to be believed. Marinela Nicola, as Andromaque, was heart breaking – the scene where she washes Astyanax before his execution is unbearable. I can very well say all the artists were perfect and that I chose to praise the sopranos first, after all we are talking about an opera-theatre that presents the tragedy of some women, atemporal, with multiple echoes, also in recent history (see the article published “on the other blog”: Liga femeilor extraordinare).

I suddenly remember the words of a French critic, André Tubeuf, about authenticity in playing Bach music, where early instruments and small orchestras are not enough, one simple reason being that, in Bach times, there was no conductor. As far as The Trojan Women are concerned, we cannot know precisely how was a theatre performance 2500 years ago, in Ancient Greece. We could try to reconstitute it, with amphitheaters, torches and masks. But the main unknown element is exactly the spectator. We know even less things about the spectator in ancient times. How refined  he was is completely unknown to us, the people in 2012, stuck to mobile phones, television sets and cars. And, in these circumstances, the appeal to the template authenticity of the amphitheater is not valid any longer. We must change the spectator. We cannot change him in the Greek of ancient times, who saw the plays in the open, while looking towards the harbor, to see if his ships were coming, we cannot understand this person. And then we need somebody like Andrei Șerban, who transforms us into something else. In people with unknown receivers that opened for the catharsis of antique tragedy. Or, as Andrei Tarkovsky put it, we need somebody who shows us that we have the organ of faith, the soul, the spirit. And this is why Șerban is such an extraordinary director, because he succeeds in changing us, even only for two hours. And for those who want it, in changing us for an entire lifetime.

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