Radu Afrim: Retro bird hits the block and falls on the hot asphalt / National Theatre Târgu-Mureş Tompa Miklós Company

In the past everything was better, everything was better in the past. This is at least is certainly revealed in the gigantic venture of Radu Afrim in Marosvásárhely (Târgu Mureș). REVIEW BY TAMÁS JÁSZAY.

And although some may interpret the lead as belittling, this is no mean feat at all. I could say that the third, and to this date largest, joint venture of Radu Afrim and the National Theatre Târgu-Mureş Tompa Miklós Company, the unmemorizably named Retro bird hits the block and falls on the hot asphalt achieves the goal it sets in an elegant, albeit roundabout way. The guiding principle is the nostalgia for Romania in the seventies, and the emotional and at the same time shrill summoning onto the stage of the retro world (that to me seems less “in” today – but I could be wrong).

And now for a confession: I am not a fan of long, really long performances (meaning only the time-wasters of course), but in the middle of the three and a quarter of an hour long Retro Bird, I found the intermission dissecting the play unnecessary. If I wanted to be very strict, I would say that in the final three hours we do not budge a single step from the problem (?) outlined in the first fifteen minutes, and yet the intermission seems to disrupt the slow, almost psychedelic stream of images, sounds and colours. It is interesting to observe how this performance works: like a convoluted therapeutic session tampering with the deepest layers of the soul, at the end of which we remember things we had no idea of before. A snug, comfortable biosphere is being built, one that can be viewed for a long time. If I was looking for something to nit-pick, it would be the building materials and the craftsmen’s work.

The block in the title obviously needs no explanation in Romania, and doesn’t need a lot in Hungary either: we are witness to the small rather than large tragedies, little joys and many sorrows of a three storey block of flats. The scenery of Irina Moscu filling the whole of the stage opening and created from manufactured building cubes is realistic and dreamlike at the same time. It all checks out, the doors and windows that do not open or close properly, the grey hue that characterises the weekdays and the lives lived here, and the wafer thin walls that allow us to hear our neighbour breathing next door. And all of this transmutes with ease into surrealism, when through the lights (Attila Aszalos) and the video mapping (Andrei Cozlac) a veritable orgy of images and colours swamp the house: the whole block becomes a disco. The age of disco is emphasised not only by the flashing colourful lights but also the music of the play (Boney M, Abba and the like). And Irina Moscu, who also created the costumes, and has the women in astonishing floral outfit wonders and huge wigs, and the men mostly in unbecoming and/or uncomfortable, yet charming jeans plus shirt combinations.

Detour: the look and feel of the production immediately reminded me of the wonderful performance of Alvis Hermanis called the Sounds of Silence. In that play too the characters living under oppression and constantly daydreaming about the West that in their mind is flawless built up from one episode to the next a world that had perhaps never existed, yet had a perfect power of illusion. In that performance, however, something grand was born without the use of words, only through music, gestures and facial expressions. On Afrim’s stage the proportions are different. The director wrote the text himself, the bill names no dramaturge, consequently there are too many words on the page. The scenes have a witty structure, but they often become overspoken. And just when things start to get interesting, when a time portal opens between the seventies and the late twenty-teens, and the characters try to imagine what life will be like, what their fate would be in twenty, thirty years, and I curiously lean forward, expecting to see what I’ve been waiting for, it turns out that we have to make do with listless, superficial clichés. And then everything goes on in the same manner, meaning everything is at a standstill, nothing changes.

I realize this may seem like my failure to accept that the Romanian theatre very often uses sensual, easily remembered images and audio-visual effects instead of telling a good, sound (?) story. I am not looking for a linear narrative, the life paths placed next to one another by chance (and by the comrades in the housing department of the party headquarters) may (and indeed do) intersect, but no story can be born from these threads.

And whenever we get a lot of little stories instead of one big one, some are inevitably more intense, others are more forgettable. There is, of course, a collective knowledge shared by the characters, for they have been familiar with the rules of the life in the block since an early age. They know whom to fear, because he is a rat, but they also know a way to blackmail him. They know the melancholic, the violent, the looney, but also the method to tame them. They know each other’s secret thoughts, because we in the audience are not the only voyeurs, the characters are also constantly spying on one another. People living in the windows nourish themselves with observations, like plants absorbing sunlight. That is how they gain knowledge, which is power itself, a (supposed) control they have over their own lives and the lives of others. A strange psychological microclimate dominates the space: it is easier to discuss the important things in life with the quaint acquaintances than with family members.

Up till now we have mainly talked about the façade, but the people that fill it with life and make it vivid and colourful despite all my reservations are the thirty characters working in perfect harmony. Listing and praising every single one of them would be as hypocritical as it would be unjust to name only the four or five really memorable figures. What matters is that on this endlessly stretching summer day we have the time and the space to give everyone a face, and several characters get a story with which I can march along almost to the finish, and that the fate of some are indeed tragedies meant for the stage. For these bohemian, lovable block dwellers lived, live and will live with us.
(Translated by Péter Papolczy.)