Another ordinary day in a snow covered Moravian town. Carrying a bag in his hand he crosses the street, avoiding the cars not equipped with proper winter tires. I offer my hand to one of the few persons able to talk about the scruff of the pig and about Dostoievski with the same pleasure and correctness: the actor and playwright Ion Sapdaru.
His accent doesn’t say much, perhaps just a little eastern bonhomie.
You were born in Transnistria. How do you see yourself, as a Romanian, Russian or Bassarabian? Or, just like Ivan Turbincă, a mix?
My grandaddy had a saying. Each time I asked under what rule was life better, Romanian or Russian, he would say that the best of times was when the Romanians had left and the Russians still did not come. My village is the last Romanian village, the Empire of Evil spread from across the street. We lived in an extremely beautiful but cursed area, at the empire’s outer border.
What can you say about childhood at the outskirts of the empire?
I envied my mother each time she read us stories. We could not realize how she manages to put dreams with dragons in our minds just by looking into those sheets of paper. I envied her till I started to read. Once I was finished with my ABCs, I went to the library and she gave me a timeless story book that brings me to tears to this day. Once I started to read from that book to my younger brothers I felt as if I took on some of my mother’s role in raising them.
From then on, I quickly changed from class clown to leader of the drama department. In ninth grade, my Russian English teacher gave to read The Cherry Orchard by Chekhov. I did not like it. I disliked the squires who were always trying too much, I only liked the character of Lopahim, the one that cut down the orchard.
We also have an orchard in our village just by the Nistru bank, with curious apple-trees and fountains where each time the Nistru overflowed it left fish in them. This was my first representation of Heaven. The teaches asked me what would happen if the orchard in our village would be cut down by somebody, just as Lopahin. The question shocked me and then I realized that not the apple-trees or the cherry trees were the vital piece in our orchard. Later on, Petrica ( I gave the same name to my son), who will later become head of the C.A.P. cut down the orchard and planted tobacco and egg-plants. He used to tell me, Boy, tobacco and egg-plants are in great demand around here. About this strong was Lophahim’s spirit in those places.
I learned in this environment, with meetings that made me think. Cehov said that the task of each man was to work his inner slave hard on a daily basis until he transpires at least a drop. They are many that remain passive, they do not eviscerate the slave from within, but try to develop him.
Do you believe you have worked to death the slave within yourself?
It is a constant activity.
Do you consider that being from Basarabia helped you or on the contrary? Do you place something of your binary identity in your work?
Yes and nay. While in Romania, out of the bleu I was reminded that I was Bessarabian. I had a talk with Magdalena Boiangiu ( May God rest her soul, because she was quite a woman) who wrote in chronicle to The layer from Goldeni, between brackets, after my name, that I was from Basarabia. Why did she do that? For example, next to my chronicle she wrote something about Dabija, without specifying that he was originally from Bicaz.
But, on the other hand, it also helped me. A man from Basarabia is similar to a calf which had two cows to suck at their udders. On one hand he has the Russian, dostoievskian, upbringing with the plunged into pitch darkness and affray and on the other hand the Romanian bucolic landscape, with the acceptance of fate ( which totally disagrees with me). We are talking about a binary identity.
And, having this binary identity, helped you to arrive in the capital of the Empire, a sort of Mecca for theatre?
Yes, I believed that I was the best. After highschool I attended The Drama Faculty in Chisinau and after I completed my mandatory service in the army I followed the courses of the VGIK Institute. I was admitted In Moscow in 1985, when there were already signs of the collapse of the great Russian Titan. I found myself smack in the middle of that turmoil. The Russians from Moscow are obviously different with those that live at the borders of the Empire. At the border all things are a little unstable. I was there during the famous Russian plays and great invitation only shows. In that period the Russian culture was moving foreword with all its might. I was just a kid, who although knew what was happening there, I was shocked. During that period of complete madness, I was not able to sleep more than five hours straight. The Russian Ministry for Culture was heavily financing culture, thus I was able to take part in meetings where people such as Kieslowski, Milos Forman or Abuladze attended. Only when everything was over did we realize that we actually had to do something.
Why this passion for Ion Creangă?
Just take a look, three young women grab an old woman, bang her head against the walls and on top of that stick a needle in her tongue. The mother-in-law’s three daughter-in-law. You can see something of King Lear in it. Another example, Harap Alb’s initiation, nothing else than the Romanian version of Hamlet. In the Story of all stories God, passing by, blesses the field. Creanga’s cruelty reminds me of what Antonin Artaud wanted for himself.
You returned to tradition. How much tradition is worth in our contemporary society?
Traditions are worthless. We live surrounded by unionization and simplification. From Beijing to Paris all bars are the same, you push the same buttons, you smock the same Pall Mall and you drink the coffee that the universal apparatus prepares for you. It is the American dream, to interact with only what is familiar and known.
You are against globalization and unification. Do you embed something of that in your shows?
Unification drives me crazy. All shows, together with Ivan Turbinca are specially prepared. I remind everyone that can still remember that we have a people and extremely interesting traditions. Ivan is not even of Russian origin, although there are some that see Putin in his image and Barrack Obama in the image of Death. Its just a stupid reinterpretation. I do not want to name names, but I get upset by some people from Bucharest that displays a devilish sadness. If you stumble on them in the bus and then apologies, they continue to give you a thunder-and-lightning look. It’s hard to make them appreciate good sound humor. Perhaps there is a lot of corporate people with a taste for the gay problems that are successfully put on scene by other playwrights.
Are you uncomfortable with this way of seeing theatre? It is said that paper can bare a lot. What should not a sheet a paper bare or even the theatre scene for that matter?
There are playwrights who are just marketing products. There are others who put on stage there own problems, another thing with which I completely disagree. Although Ceaikovski was gay, we do not remember him for that. The suppress and the self-censorship can make you discover something more than just recurrent sexuality, of which I grow tired. I believe that the moment you start to be a militant, trying to put foreword something that is closer to the heart of each of us you have a problem. I believe it’s a mix between exhibition and marketing, but I guess everybody is free to see theatre as he wants. I do not want to renounce Aristotel’s principals or good taste in what I do.
There are some that consider that savoir vivre and Aristotel are only limits.
The theatre is not the church. The church has the duty to stop and sanction the moral decay. Theatre is a job, it’s not either perfect or absolute. I believed in the absolute of the theatre when I was a young man, but with time you forget it. The hardest thing was to admit to myself that I was not a genius. After that, all fell into place. Each artist has to start off like this. I met a kid, a sculptor, while drunk, that Brancusi was unimportant. Then and there I felt the urge to scream from my entire being, but suddenly I realized. But, what if Brancusi started out by saying that Michelangelo was unimportant? Each artist has to survive from the impression of being a genius. Eugen Ionescu is a great playwright also because he answered the question what is happening to them, in The rhinoceros, that they started to take themselves seriously. One of my purpose in life is not to take myself serious. Its the best solution, because no matter how much honey you eat, it will not get any sweeter.
The genius avoid using the perfect formula or does it uses the perfect formula?
I am not against a formula. Theatre is like football. We know the teams, we know the goalpost, we know that the teams have to score. We look at the match to see who and how. The same applies to theatre. The theatre has been stole by the lights, the glamour, the gilt and the spectacular. Here can exist the absolute saturation of creating theatre. People come and pay for an emotion that burns in front of them. In addition theatre should also educate. Not in a theoretical way, but rather under the form of a cultural gathering.
If we see theatre as a form of education, and considering that education is free to a certain level, should we make the theatre free too?
Definitely. At least to a certain age. It would not cost too much, considering that the price of a theatre ticket is the same with a pack of cigarettes. For example, in Botosani, or it is something usually for theatre to be taught to young students, it can be noticed that the young audience not only socialize but also has expectations and is wise. I have seen marvelous shows put on stage by highschool students that put to shame actors. And they really did a good job by comparison.
Do you enjoy working with young actors or with less famous actors…
Yes, because I got tired of always pleasing the great actors. I always have to sing praises to them, to tell them how accomplished they are in order to make them perform simple things. Young actors are more passionate about theatre, and it is only natural, because they are less time worn.
Because we just past through a yellow alert regarding heavy snow, who or rather what would you let be frozen over by heavy snow in the world of theatre?
I would berry under a truck load of snow all the pretentious reviewers who asked questions regarding Ivan’s polka, as if the songs and dances have their origin checked, as wine or as if Luluta and Gulita from Alecsandri’s Chirita did not perform the same polka dance. I would also like for the bad theatre to be covered in heavy snow.
What kind of theatre are you talking about?
The theatre in which I cannot decode the black cat in the black room, which doesn’t even exist, but which the producer tries to persuade me that it is real by bombarding me with tens of symbols within a minute. Theatre can take place anywhere and no place particular, and it is the role of the metaphor to stand out by itself in a play. Any meddling between the story and the audience do nothing else than to disturb this process. I would bring to the light bad theatre from under the snow.
Translated by Dragos Lucian, MTTLC, 1st year