Silviu Purcărete speaks with a character-rich voice which is accompanied by a constant hissing of background noise during our long-distance call. Speaking to him is like navigating a dense cultural landscape; we’re taken off track by a displaced yet common heritage, two very different generations, one attempting to unpick the other with the tentativeness of cultural and personal curiosity. I feel like a novice navigating a maze, while he is an experienced traveller whose working memories and innate passion for the aesthetic and the symbolic hang somewhere in a rusty rucksack which accompanies him everywhere, or so I imagine.
Purcărete has made a reputation for his adaptations of canonical literary and dramatic texts, from Shakespeare, Euripides, Aeschylus to Sartre, Seneca, Rabelais and Giradoux, as well as his work with opera. After working as Artistic Director of Bulandra Theatre in Bucharest in the years following the revolution, he moves to France in 1996 for a directorship of the Centre Dramatique de Limoges. Purcărete’s career spans across two very intriguing political and cultural contexts- a Romania with a political identity in transition, still recovering from the problematic infrastructure left by its communist years, as well as a Europe caught in the midst of a process of globalisation, where cultural boundaries, at least for a limited period of time, seemed more fluid and elastic.
“My relationship with theatre changed in a natural way”, Purcărete tells me, prompted and slightly puzzled by my question. His words are playful and evocative, and he speaks with a tone that navigates a lot of different emotions which I’m finding hard to interpret. “When I was young I was perhaps more enthusiastic when considering the utility of theatre in the face of man, now, I’m perhaps less so, I think it’s a secondary distraction.” I ask him if it feels any different from say, thirty years ago. “We were imagining that theatre had this radical position during communism, and we were proud, like urchins. There was no resistance through theatre, these are infantile jokes. Theatre provided us with an island mentality, the illusion of small joys, because you locked yourself up in a room with some friends and an audience, we laughed and pretended we were grand and brave.”
Purcărete speaks like a storyteller, his words packed with images, evocative and nomadic. When I ask him what led him to theatre, he tells me about his life as a teenager, reflecting with the cadent wisdom of time. “I started being interested in directing as a teenager, and whether that was a good thing or not, I don’t know. Usually, in Western Europe, directors emerge from the ranks of actors, but further East, say Germany or Poland, it’s a craft. This is what I did and I’m doing, and sometimes I do it with a lot of pleasure.” Despite the clarity of his thoughts and a noticeable generosity of ideas, Purcărete carries history with him. His heavy voice seems to belong quite naturally in what seems to be an entirely non-linear career story, despite the points which everyone tries to match up, from his love of the epic and the visual to his interest in historical work. Speaking to him makes visible a more complex, personal relationship to theatre, to ways of working, and to the reasons and motivations that fuel his wide-ranging career.
When I ask him where in the world he feels most at home, he replies, with hesitation, that “willingly or not, Romania, the territory in which I was born, although I’ve had great experiences in other places, unexpected places like Portugal and Norway. It’s not really about the country, it’s about the people and the place. It might be a platitude, but cultural difference well, it’s so and so. On the one hand, there are enormous differences between places, but the moment you stare at this enormity, you realise it’s all the same thing. There is a common breath, a dawned infantilism, were we not to have this sense of cultural scale and dimension, but it’s the language and the culture which creates these differences, and I don’t think they’re essential. If a director born in one country can so comfortably work in another, well maybe the language which you speak changes, but not the vocabulary.”
Does he feel he knows Romania well, and the infrastructures that frame his work? “Bucharest is relatively inept, although non state subsidized theatres have started to spring up, but the provinces seem to produce the most interesting work. But you know, theatre is a like a small mouse wearing an armor fighting elephants. Even in the seventies, when we all thought theatre was changing the world, it was changing art, it was changing man, but not the world. I’ve seen politically charged productions, but they’re always overwhelmed. Theatre addresses a naturally limited audience; in a football match you have 25 000 people- television kidnaps that as well, it’s those mediums that fight on that scale. Even this of course is infantile; theatre cannot be what is was, and doesn’t have to either, it can live out of a naturally elitist and insular character which finances its fantasies very well.”
Purcărete is part of a generation of directors already conceptually removed from the formal and technical experiments of authorship and artistry of the late twentieth century, inherently moulded by the particularity of this fast-changing Europe whose relationship to cultural and political difference bounced between the decline of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and Russian perestroika, and the emergence of multiculturalism and globalisation as political devices. His work has been paired in the wider narrative of a generation of contemporary directors engaging with a different form of authorship and understanding of what constitutes text and theatrical language. A pan-European timeline could position Purcărete in the melting pot of European contemporary theatre paradigms, with German director Thomas Ostermeier on one side, Italian Romeo Castellucci on the other. At the same time and given his heritage, tentative speculations have positioned him at an oddly contradictory juncture between imagined landscapes and social critique. Yet his work, despite having somewhat flirted with early career political oppression, is not shaped around social or political constructs, but around discovery, calculated improvisation and precise questioning that displaces the dramaturgical endeavours which directors usually engage in when working with canonized texts.
“I really have nothing against contemporary dramaturgy, I’m just distinctively attracted to older texts, those that have been washed over by time.” I speculate that it’s this temporal and historical distance which perhaps leaves him more ground to play? “Exactly, this distance opens up the possibility of a more acute, clear judgment. I’m less interested in the context in which a play or work has been written, only to the extent of its artistic necessity, but more in the history which has shaped these texts; they are no longer pure, clean, there was once a Hamlet and now it’s something else with three hundred years of culture, history, stories and events embedded within it. I pretend I’ve just discovered the text and see where that takes me.”
We arrive at his latest Edinburgh commission, a collaboration with Irish composer Shaun Davey and actors from the Radu Stanca National Theatre of Sibiu, where he has worked before. Davey is a man whose work is grounded in Irish history and enhanced by an interest in the act and process of travelling. We’re talking about Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, that book steeped in a distorting cultural bend from Disney classic to disputed socio-political satire. Using uilleann pipes bathed by the sound of an orchestra, punctured by the atmospheric sound of the organ, Davey’s soundscape enters a cultural negotiation with Purcărete ’s production; one that seeks to displace expectations of any linear adaptation of the novel, but instead use Swift’s prose, together with his autobiography, as a starting point for the production.
Gulliver’s Travels, that book about creatures both real and imagined, about exiles and foreigners and strange customs and questionable habits and political gaffes, sits like an amused voyeur in our conversation, intrusive with its own cultural baggage steeped in mystery and narrative. It’s a production that perhaps inherently recalls Purcărete’s tendency to play with the epic, visual and episodic nature of works, entertaining a different dramaturgy and consideration for the construction of text and image onstage.
His first large-scale work, an adaptation of Aeschylus’s Les Danaides, was a riotous, bleak, visually stunning production underscored by an exploration of the clash of nationalities and identities across Eastern Europe, fuelled by the tragedy’s own ethnic and sexual conflicts, in which actors groaned, quoted Nietzsche and danced through a field of corpses. With adaptations of Beckett, Wedekind, Rabelais and Goethe in the mix, it’s easy to note recurring motifs in Purcărete’s work, particularly in the ways in which his own politics underscore the ostensibly rich excursions into the imagination, crossing over notions of conflict, nationality, exile and migration but also using the devices of excess, humour and scale to provide depth and texture. In the UK, Purcărete has collaborated with the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as the Lyric Hammersmith and Nottingham Playhouse, but his excursions have been surprisingly brief. Last year he premièred an adaptation of Faust at EIF, and he also premiered his most recent cinematic debut at the East End Film Festival. Somewhere in Palilula maintains the specificity of his visual and dramaturgical stage language, intervening in an almost postmodern cinematic space with a tale both real and imagined set in a nondescript provincial town towards the end of the communist regime in Romania.
There is a lawlessness and a playfulness to Purcărete’s work that seems to displace discussions of theatrical values onstage, and the humour in Gulliver’s Travels is no exception. A production which resembles a series of tableaux vivants, with recurring characters and motifs, Gulliver’s Travels reminded me of a brash staging of a Rabelais novel, with its gargantuan, normative scenes of violence and incest, but also a sense of irony which slipped by in the aesthetic of the piece.
“Swift’s novel is not a dramatic story; this production is no a dramatisation of the novel, it’s inspired by Swift’s work, anchored in some scenes of the novel, particularly the fourth book, but there’s no lilliputians on stage, and I’m not trying to tell the story of the novel. The novel is a relative exile, few know it, few have read it until the end. Usually it’s the first part which is most famous, has been staged and rewritten for children, and entered the mentality of the wider audience that way. But Swift’s novel is brutal, of inexplicable misanthropy and misogyny, it doesn’t get more politically incorrect than this.”
Purcărete’s production is inspired by the most sour and pessimistic section of the novel, although he underlines with precision and clarity that the show has a lot of humorous moments; “it’s a depressing show, but you laugh a lot along the way.” He began by reading the novel closely, because he considered himself a newcomer to this world, feeling the need to lose his own prejudices. “The images arising from this lecture of the novel imposed themselves, and I began working with the actors on various themes.” I mention Rabelais, and he underlines that the connection is there in terms of approaching an undramatic, literary text. “I get inspired by motifs, gestures, perfumes, suggestions arising from reading the novel; these are not stage adaptations.”
In Gulliver’s Travels, Purcărete has placed the author within the realm of the stage, which, I tell him, reminds me of the connections between narrator, author and character which theatre juggles so differently from literature. “I was referencing the different appearances of Swift, so the child could be the author, or the disabled man, but they’re not embodying him.” It’s a production with little text, just fragments which draw from Swift’s wider oeuvre, from the Epitaph to a poem which he wrote about a prostitute, Corinna. “It’s an eclectic spectacle. We wanted to find a simple and economical frame in which to create small encounters, some inspired by puppetry, others choreography, and a lot of jokes. We started from a rather obscure idea, which I think only three irish people might get, and it doesn’t matter, to create the play as if it were taking place in St Patrick’s Cathedral, where Swift is buried, all in ruin, undergoing repair. So the floor is a copy of the actual floor in the cathedral, and it’s surrounded by scaffolding and plastic sheets. It’s an oddly neutral space, a construction site, and the production has a cabaret architecture.”
If the particularity of Swift’s prose wasn’t of interest to the director, it was the humour which Purcărete flirted with. “I think it’s essential, and I try to use it as best as I can. In Swift, the humour is more complicated, because it resembles more a screeching of teeth, a satire. Humour is embarrassing, whereas satire is poisonous. We have things which one should laugh about, but I think it’s about the presence of comedy rather than pure humour.”
I ask Purcărete about his relationship to audience expectations, and whether he tries to anticipate responses. “God no! You have a rapport with an unreal spectacle, with a demon who employs you. The audience in my head is nothing like a real audience; I’ve never tried to anticipate, I work for an abstract audience, very coarse and cruel, so I’m always surprised by reality.” We end up talking about critics and criticism, about the role of doubt in work, and he tells me that “a critic’s problem is tragic, in a way, from the point of view of a potential form of communication. By force of their job, they’re not allowed to doubt, they need to write this is good or bad or idiotic or genius, so it’s very hard to establish a communication in writing without the possibility of doubt. They want polemics, whereas an artist is entirely made of doubt, there is no common language there. The duty of criticism is to offer clear answers, definitive judgments, so I fear my demonic abstract spectator a lot more.”
Purcărete operates somewhere between precision and intuition. “There is no such thing as a pure spectacle, the audience is someone, he or she comes with information, prejudice, finding explanations that are convenient to a personal narrative. You can’t control that, and I think I’m quite cerebral in my work.” For a director whose externally perceived narrative relies on the construction of metaphors, how does he feel about theatre and in that context?
“It’s funny, I think the theatrical image has a sort of autonomy; these are theatrical images and nothing else, they cannot be translated, even if they are images of synthesis, because what is the theatrical image? It’s visual, aural, textual, which all make up this synthesis. The problem with metaphors is the literary spectacle which tries to find the metaphoric nuance, as in explain a theatrical image in literary terms. When I create an image I don’t have a certain metaphor in mind. I don’t say ok at breakfast we will start rehearsals and work on metaphor number three; these are born, they emerge, it’s an autonomous language which of course, it can be translated, and this is where metaphors come in. Think of the language of music, how else can you translate it? The composer makes music, not metaphors.”
Even here, trapped in the density of a text, his words, translated and bent, resound differently, less intimate and invigorating, and yet it’s hard for metaphors not to emerge; for through-lines and linear narratives not to reconstruct perceptions of a man’s work. Nevertheless, Purcărete’s work is perhaps not the sole element which defines him; abstract or dense, his works are words are still bathed in stories, and it’s the traces which are left behind that make the most evocative of clues, without ever feeling the need to match them all together.