Like your best friend at a party,
fairy tales are always with us – even when we need them to get lost. Petre
Ispirescu’s fairy tales, collected from various sources and published in the
1800s (à la Brothers Grimm), are a
source of Romanian national mythology – everyone seems to have seen them countless times as puppet shows,
television, or school curriculum. Though saturated in culture, specific or detailed perspectives on them are lacking. In this way, they are like other unexamined cultural phenomena, sitting under the surface like a crocodile, unquestioned yet potentially lethal.
Performed for three sweaty June nights in public space in Timișoara, Youth Everlasting And Life Without End revives one of Ispirescu’s most loved stories for Europe’s Centriphery project – a roaming collaboration that develops cultural projects across ‘peripheral’ locations of EU states over a multi-year period. Romania’s entry to this theatre-Eurovision takes the form of a spectacular live-action puppet extravaganza, with gargantuan characters parading around Piața Libertății (Freedom Square), to the sound of a wailing multi-harmony rock soundtrack.
Photo: Flavius Neamciuc
It’s all fuelled by an army of hundreds of volunteers, who have come in over the course of months in Timișoara and surrounds, amid the uncertainty of the pandemic. Both from a managerial and community perspective, this may well be the real star of the show. As well as hundreds of roles in set and costume construction, some 50 volunteers appear in the production itself – carrying placards, holding puppet-rods, or assisting lighting and tech. All of this accumulates into a community theatre event of epic proportions – Ispirescu’s fairy tale is not so much revived as it is dragged from the grave, kicking and screaming by the collective energies of the Banat region.
Photo: Flavius Neamciuc
Fireworks aside, Youth Everlasting’s treatment from director Ovidiu Mihăiță emphasises the supernatural components of the tale, presenting a stage heavy with ritual and totemism. The story has difficult moments, with weird additions by Ispirescu including the Prince’s choosing specifically “the youngest” of the three sisters, for whatever reason, but is left largely untouched by the process. This approach limits it to a (spectacular) re-telling of a well-known narrative, rather than a radical contemporary re-reading. Some questions on the subject of death are left unexamined – can we really, for example, address death today (as “Europeans”? As Romanians/Hungarians/Serbians/Germans? As "humans"?) in the face – or is it something that can only be approached through the fairy tale, as a naïve, essential platform for belief? Is the story of a prince escaping the problems of the material world – for immortality among three beautiful princesses – still the best vehicle through which to think about these questions?
It’s easy to suggest that incorporating a more horizontal approach to direction - one that includes communities challenging and pushing back against cultural assumptions of fairy tales - would have deepened the exchange and enriched the work (beyond contact with the regional centres and towns of Timișoara that preceded the project). As it is, Youth Everlasting is a massive, wide-scale achievement that nevertheless leaves some stones unturned. The stones are worth considering, leading up to the production's future performances, and Timișoara’s hosting of the European Capital of Culture in 2023.
Youth Everlasting And Life Without End (Tinerețe fără bătrânețe și viață fără de moarte)
Director - Ovidiu Mihăiță
Scenography - Ciprian Tauciuc
Sound – Conny Zenk
Music – Sol Faur
Choreography - Xiri Tara Noir
Costumes - Lia Pfeiffer
Lights - Călin Cernescu
Puppet master - Cuța Gornic,
Choir master - Beatrix Imre Leila.
Graphic design - Livia Coloji
Production - Bogdan Cotîrță.
Cast of 60 professional actors and musicians from Timișoara and the country, along with art lovers and volunteers from the local community.
My visit to Timisoara was supported by the Centriphery Project, Association Prin Banat, and European Capital of Culture 2023.