We live in a Western society governed by patterns, formulas and recipes, a very well defined line between the right way and the wrong way of doing things, a society of crime and punishment. This seems like a paradox in the age of information, where one would be expected not to take everything at face value. But, alas, access to information created a very specific type of crack in the space time continuum where history is no longer a solid unwavering mass, but a homogeneous entity forever shifting in the hands of the beholder. Let’s face it, all information is mediated and you will never know the truth.
But what is truth, anyway? It is way more subjective than it wants to admit and, more often than not, it is in fact fabricated. After all, people will believe what they want to believe, whatever fits their personal criteria of right and wrong. Since we’ve already established that right and wrong don’t really exist and that subjectivity is king, I guess it’s safe to say that this special kind of (dangerous) subjectivity that disguises itself as pure pragmatism is fueled by something so obvious that we fail to even see it. Ioana Păun would say that hate is the root of it all.
Hate is a very loose and general term, a feeling so familiar yet so unassumed. We hate to hate, we’d hate to be characterized as hateful, yet this is exactly what we are, and that’s OK. Or at least this is the feeling I had when I went to see “The White Horse”, a political theater production by aforementioned Ioana Păun, a playwright/director/activist who seeks to bring out the truth of it all, the fact that there is no such thing as truth.
I am, by default, a little underwhelmed by the idea of social-political theater, or social art in general, because I’ve seen it in many instances as a gimmick, a cheap trick. It’s easy to take a social issue and disguise it as art, it’s easy to capitalize on it and dress it up as fighting for a noble cause. Don’t get me wrong, most people who engage in this kind of art are, more than half the time, not even aware that they’re pulling this trick. And this is why a lot of social art projects, although popular in their time, are ultimately ephemeral and cease to be relevant after a while, due to their factual nature. In my opinion, there is a fundamental difference between real social art and this annoying trend of “journalism art”: in the latter, the social issue is the end game, the subject; in the former, the social issue is the means to get to the end game, it is the object. And this is where Ioana Păun got it right, where others would make a documentary theater play about a political issue, she worked on a documentary theater play about something bigger. Here, the social/political issue is a vessel, but not a gimmick: the documentary aspect goes beyond the factual and addresses broader issues like: hate, the prefabrication of history or, my personal favorite, perspectivism.
Let’s get back to hate. Nobody likes to admit that they’re hateful, yet Păun insists on precisely that: as you approach the terrace of MNAC, the open-air venue of her piece “The White Horse”, you are handed a questionnaire to complete before taking your seat. The questionnaire outlines the notion of hate in all its forms, from hate against someone or something, to hate that you felt in the past or that you might feel in the future, to hate against things that are real or imaginary. I guess the point was to highlight the fact that hate, even though we hate to admit it, is not just a constant in our lives, it is something so subjective and ever changing (like history, if you think about it) that you can’t pin point it, yet you can’t deny its omnipresence.
With all these thoughts running through my head, I found my seat on the MNAC terrace, now a stage, with its stunning view of the half finished Cathedral at dusk. What better place to witness a political theater piece? Let’s get some background on the object of the play, or the vessel, if you will. More than 50 years after the crimes were committed, communist torturer Ion Ficior, now in his 80s, has been tried and found guilty of genocide during his time as commander of the infamous Periprava labor camp in the Danube Delta. At first, the story doesn’t struck a cord. For someone like me, born in the wake of the ’89 revolution, stories about torturers and labor camps are something alien and rather difficult to relate to. And I must admit that I was a bit dissapointed by the prospect of yet another social-political art piece about communism.
Communism… I can hear this word echoing in my ears. No, really, an echo effect is produced every time the sole actress of this play, Ilinca Manolache, says the word during the monologue that initiates the first scene. What follows is a show with so many twists and turns, so many metaphors and symbols, with recurring themes and a cheeky sense of humor and so many shifts in perspective that will keep you constantly guessing. I must admit that, being familiar with Ioana Păun’s work, I was afraid that “The White Horse” would be labeled as being one sided, as some said about her social-activist play “Domestic products”. After all, it is easy to side with the “good guys” in Ficior’s case, but that’s exactly what the play doesn’t want you to do, it doesn’t want you to take any sides, because there aren’t really any.
And Manolache, the chameleon, does her best to illustrate that throughout the show by changing from one character to another, by constantly switching “sides”, by making speeches, by dancing, by screaming, by almost drowning herself. It’s a lot for one performer to handle, yet she does it all surprisingly well, in a very convincing and also a very humorous manner. Manolache tells the story of the deeds committed by Ficior in a non-linear way, jumping from past to present to farther in the past, with the help of certain stage props that acquire various and vastly different connotations as the play progresses. These sudden shifts in characters, time periods, monologues and props at first gave me a sense of confusion, the feeling that I might be missing something, that I may be uninformed, but this sensation quickly vanished. The most impressive prop of all had to be the big fish tank filled with fish ready for… whatever was coming their way. This fish tank went from being the mechanism of free speech in one scene to becoming a symbol of violence in the next. I really loved and appreciated the proper use of certain metaphors, even if some of them were cliché. Other clichés included but were not limited to: criticizing public media, criticizing the justice system, Hollywoodesque monologues (American Psycho, much?), using snippets of news reels, etc. However, all of these find their rightful place within the play. Did I mention this was also a sort of musical? Musician and composer Diana Miron wrote a killer soundtrack and performed it live: a mix of cheesy ballads and funny contemporary hip-hop beats and rhymes with a dark undertone. The music definitely made the whole experience even more surreal.
Or should I say magic realism? This was the general vibe of the entire play, which is why it’s difficult to actually describe it, but it’s easy to talk about the idea behind it. Because you get it! This is not about Ion Ficior and his heinous acts, for there were (are), sadly, so many like him. This is about perspectivism! There is no right or wrong, the play obviously states that by putting Ficior in both the shoes of a cruel master and a helpless slave. Don’t get me wrong, Păun and her team (and the audience too, I should hope) clearly position themselves against the communist torturer, this should be evident in the thick veil of irony enveloping “The White Horse”. Why Ion Ficior’s case over others? Besides the fact that he was tried for his crimes just this year, I’m thinking that the aura of magic surrounding his victims’ accounts, those which involve a white horse, may have been a key factor. However, I feel like Ficior’s story is unspecific enough that it could easily be replaced with any other character, be it from the past, present or future. After all, history is doomed to repeat itself and acts against humanity, media distortion and abuse of power have been reported everywhere in the world since the dawn of time. In the end, it’s safe to say that this show is NOT about communism.
With all its voices and unforeseen shifts in points of view, this is nothing other than an homage to subjectivity. “The White Horse” reels you in with the promise of a morality tale, the promise of a bad guy who you can guiltlessly root against, it seems predictable and dramatic, but instead it is a breath of fresh air in today’s activist theater. It leaves you feeling amused yet thoughtful, and hopefully a little less quick to judge. This play gives you a lot to mull over, you need to see it!
The show was part of the project TORTURER – A pact for collective responsibility, financed by AFCN.
Ioana Păun, director
Ilinca Manolache, performer
Diana Miron, composer
Smaranda Nicolau, playwright & philosopher
Laura Ștefănuț, journalist
Clara Traistaru, the manager
It premiered on the 15th and 29th of September, at MNAC open air.