Eastern Europe, the place from which plumbers flood in thousands to take your job, is also home to increasing quantities of political theatre. Young theatre makers, the generations that spent most of their lives in the everlasting transition, have grown up to realise the events that marked their childhood were never really properly addressed; being theatre makers and not politicians they turned to everything, from DIY to major institutions,to make work that would reflect the political present and the under-mentioned political past.
Gianina Carbunariu, Romanian theatre director and playwright, emerges from this tradition; she founded DramAcum, a new-writing company, while still a student, and quickly became a rising star. Her performance 20/20 is a verbatim piece about Tirgu-Mures, a half-Hungarian, half-Romanian city in Transylvania, which witnessed short-lived but violent ethnic unrests just four months after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu. Twenty years later, the amount of unanswered question and controversies remains roughly the same. No one’s really sure what motivated the riots, or for that matter – why a multitude of Western media proceeded to mix-up Romanian and Hungarian victims.
Working with Yorick Studio from Tirgu-Mures, and a mix of Romanian and Hungarian actors, Carbunariu tried to get enough material from interviewing the locals to create a play that might answer some of these questions, or at least generate a relevant discussion. The attempt failed as it turned out no one is really happy to talk – at least no one who wasn’t a fairly innocent passer-by. The result is a series of interviews that only touch upon the most generic of transition themes: some are inclined to believe politicians were less corrupted during Ceausescu’s reign, some have found their way to capitalistic opportunism, and the young (as ever) are hoping to learn each other’s languages and revive multiculturalism. The almost complete lack of willingness to communicate with ‘actors from Bucharest’ that Carbunariu came across might have made for an interesting platform upon which to build 20/20, but instead this potent and debilitating fact is dealt with in one scene only, and brushed to the side – to be replaced with more semi-relevant material and devised scenes. This original input is equally lukewarm as the verbatim scenes: it culminates in a marathon staging of an accidentally multi-ethnic birthday celebration that takes place during the riots, which manages to stretch the stereotypes of neighborly cohabitation and mis-translations into a very lengthy 45 minutes.
The issue here is that 20/20 found its subject and then satisfied itself with the discovery. The basic premise of the piece lies in attempting to open up an urgent and necessary debate – yet the piece only concludes how difficult this might be. Carbunariu doesn’t seem to have even tried to find a theatrical language for her political concerns; instead she stopped at gathering a multi-ethnic cast and a making a multi-lingual performance in an empty space. In doing that she hit the wall many verbatim pieces stumble on, and the performance quickly turns into a long sequence of tirades. There are bright moments – a tale of two ignorant Western aid-workers who stayed in Tirgu-Mures for an extra day to experience a bit more of the good old local fun and proceeded to have a not-too-humanitarian panic attack in the middle of all the rumble being one of the most poignant ones – but for the most part 20/20 leaves an unpleasant impression of expecting kudos just for mentioning a taboo subject. To make matters more disappointing the piece features a ten strong cast of versatile and imaginative actors who spend their time in chronic absence of more distinct, critical and thorough research – the kind that wouldn’t just conclude there are walls around a subject but try to penetrate them.