The phenomenon roused by the Sibiu National Theatre’s performance is very well described by this jesting statement: I would sell my soul to see Purcărete’s Faust again. I saw it alongside some photos in a recent Facebook which announced that July will mark ten years from the international success that was Silviu Purcărete’s Faust at the Edinburgh Festival. At that time, Ofelia Popii was awarded the Herald Angel Award for the role of Mephistopheles and the English press gave a standing ovation to this iconic show of the Radu Stanca National Theatre in Sibiu (TNRS), created by a brilliant group, with a troubling Ilie Gheorghe as the main character. Since September 2007, when it premiered, the play has been performed without interruption, despite having gone through cast changes and difficult times, like the retirement of actor Ilie Gheorghe and the remodelling of his character, now interpreted by actor Miklós Bács, followed by the much regretted passing of Ilie Gheorghe in 2018. Faust is not only relevant for Romanian theatre and its audience. Over the last 12 years, it has become a cultural attraction in the touristic city of Sibiu. Moreover, the performance has broken the physical walls of theatre, in the sense that a former industrial hall was reconverted into a theatre hall specifically for this show; later, Fabrica de cultură was designed for the same purpose, a two-venue structure which became part of the circuit of TNRS and of the Sibiu International Theatre Festival (FITS).
For the Theatre in Sibiu, Silviu Purcărete is the providential director alongside whom the group honed its skills and achieved international performance. Together, they created some long-standing shows, exceptions in the ephemeral life of theatre, which have been labelled as heritage performances for years now. Faust remains the headliner of this series of heritage performances, most of them signed by Silviu Purcărete. Not just in the FITS programme, but also in the TNRS summer season, Faust is the most sought-after performance, and the waiting list for a ticket is a few months long. The very term heritage performance is a licence introduced in the Romanian theatre world through FITS, having been integrated as a stand-alone section in the Festival in 2016. In Sibiu, Silviu Purcărete has signed a few performances, most of them in baroque style and defining for his synesthetic theatre thinking, and their notoriety made them true cultural products. People go to Sibiu specially to watch a show by Silviu Purcărete, as they go to see a tourist attraction rated 5 stars in tourist guides. True super-productions, not just from the dramaturgical standpoint, the complexity of the artistic forces engaged (in Faust, the number of extras reminds of lyrical theatre orchestra and choir), of scenographies, costumes and light design, but also due to the fluid demarcation between the audience and the stage, made possible by Helmuth Stürmer or Dragoș Buhagiar’s stage designs. In the second part of Faust, the spectators are invited to leave their seats and enter the guts of the scenographic installation. In Metamorphoses, the landscape around the open-air stage is part of the show’s spirit.
In the FITS 2019 section entitled Heritage performances, we find three performances by Silviu Purcărete: Metamorphoses, The Scarlet Princess, and, above all, Faust. In the same FITS 2019, the exhibition created by scenographer Dragoș Buhagiar, curated by George Banu, Theatre Ruins, brought straight from the Prague Stage Design Quadrennial, was an invitation to ponder on the ephemeral character of theatre. As spectators at Dragoș Buhagiar’s installation, director Silviu Purcărete and composer Vasile Șirli, long-term teammates, and not just in TNRS productions, contemplated on the ruins of theatre, elements of defunct shows, as traces of the intangible heritage of live shows. This was the moment to ask about their relationship with a creation they released 12 years ago, i.e. Faust.
How do you regard the transformation of this show along the years? It started as a complex project about your relations with theatre and, through its longevity, turned into a cultural destination.
Silviu Purcărete: I can’t tell you how this happened. I think the performance includes a popular dimension, it’s not just for the very specialized audience, and this is probably the reason for its success. Then, “bouche a l’oreille” (word of mouth) played an important part too, so I can’t fully understand or analyse the phenomenon.
This is a heritage text based on which the director created a concise script, faithful to Goethe’s poem, but the distance from the text to the performance is breached by the contribution of the entire team. How do you explain the success of this performance beyond the borders of the theatre world?
Vasile Șirli: From my point of view, its success is first and foremost due to the diagonal drawn by Silviu Purcărete in the text, as he does in all his shows. For me, it’s always surprising to read them, for he generates a type of theatre writing that keeps literary quality, but at the same time proposes a certain dramatic logic, allowing for characters to evolve and adding tension to the mystery. In the case of Faust, this reading is translated into a concentration of theatre and artistic attitude. To me, Faust is a great poem that requires very good writing skills giving logic to the topic, and I think the way in which this script was constructed is the key to the show’s success and popularity. Spectators feel refreshed as they are pushed to hold their breath, but for a humanly accessible period of time. Two hours and a half it took to tell the story in plain language, so that everybody can understand it. I can’t recall how many times I’ve seen the show; I’ve watched most representations in Sibiu and all those performed abroad, and I always find it interesting.
What is your relationship with the performance now?
Silviu Purcărete: It’s a fairly odd relationship. It’s very old, though this Theatre still plays some of my even older performances that I rewatch every now and then, such as Godot (Waiting for Godot, 2005, n.r.), which is even older than Faust. Of course, Faust lost a lost when Ilie Gheorghe left. This was one of the show’s big wounds but luckily, it’s gained a lot when Miklos Bács joined the team, for he is a very good actor, very dear to me. First of all, it’s thanks to him that the show lives on; otherwise it would certainly disappear. Of course, his Faust is made of a different skin and flesh, has a different age, another dimension compared to Ilie Gheorghe’s. Nevertheless, it is essentially the same character.
Vasile Șirli: Not intending to pass any gratuitous compliments, the complexity of the director’s artistic personality makes for the basis of the script and the directing reading. Then, the actors’ skills are decisive, alongside the soundness of the cast and the definition of the world we aim at creating. What I like about Silviu Purcărete, and what I’m about to say is based on the many years we’ve worked together, is that he doesn’t aim for the spectacular. The performance is the result of a need of the dramatic evolution. Everything is totally justified, follows a perfect theatrical logic and then, in the second part of Faust, when we are told “Let’s go!”, a whole other world opens and you literally stand up and go in there, through a physical gesture. Long time before the premiere, we wanted an even bigger space so that, while the audience walked through it, we would have wanted to install tens of speakers playing music and sounds that would accompany them through that world. Walking through Walpurgis Night is an initiatic journey, that makes one take to the heart the good and evil of life. One walks through a very elaborate, baroque world, but perfectly justified by the concept of the show. When creating this show, we worked in a similar manner to car manufacturers. They first create a concept car, a prototype from which they later keep the functional, economically possible elements. But Silviu Purcărete first designed an absolute version of the show. We wanted a huge hall, perhaps 10,000 sqm big in his mind, not 1,500 sqm as the first venue, the Simerom hall. But this is precisely about the beauty of this lack of measure, in the artistic sense, that we’ve put into this work.
You composed the music, but also worked with the actors on interpreting it. Music is a defining element of the show’s sound universe. How was this selected?
Vasile Șirli: All the music in the show is sang at the beginning, while spectators take their seats. We have a choir of students warming up somewhere; in fact, this is the group singing the songs that I composed but never made it into the performance. If you pay attention, these set an ambiance. That’s a living world, sang by students on holiday or after classes, one can hear a piano, somebody rehearsing with a choir. Psychologically speaking, it means a lot to the actors, for they are already focusing on the show. But this also marks the audience’s accession to the mood of the play: they’ve taken their seats and hear some noise, something’s going on at sound level. Silviu Purcărete has a special sense of sound spatialization. For example, choirs are heard from under the seats, others sing very far behind, so sounds create a real sound space. All this spatialization sets the opening of that huge space in the second part of the show, which is like a theatre cathedral. Theatrically speaking, everything is extraordinary: the set, the lights, the space, the actors’ remarkable interpretation, the contribution of the choir. Besides the two main characters, the choir is the cherry on top. They set the tone and I would like to give credit to the technicians in the performance too: the falling wall, the flames, the moving ramp, everything is in sync and happens organically. I admire their work every single time.
How has the show changed for you when the venue changed from Simerom hall to Fabrica de cultură?
Silviu Purcărete: I don’t really follow the performance. I see it very rarely and never from one end to the other. Of course, at some point, it moved to another venue, on tour it was played in other spaces, some more fortunate than others. That’s ok. In theatre, changes can never reach perfection. The conditions we work in impose a lot of decisions. Venues were taken down, so we had to look for others.
Your shows – and I’m not just talking about this Faust, but also Metamorphoses, Lulu, and Waiting for Godot – almost all became heritage performances, they’ve been rescheduled throughout the seasons and FITS editions. How do you see their destiny beyond the theatre world in relation to the touristic city of Sibiu?
Silviu Purcărete: This is above all the work of Mr. Constantin Chiriac, who has invented this concept and makes these shows live on. Surely, I’m happy to know some of my performances are kept alive, stay in the repertory and live a longer life than usual. There’s a friendship between me, this place, the manager of this theatre, Mr. Constantin Chiriac, and the local group of actors. On the other hand, Sibiu lies at the centre of a stunning region and it seems wonderful to come and to live here.
Vasile Șirli: I think they did very well to prolong the life of this show despite the changes in cast, despite the people entering and leaving the choir. Faust is still played due to the vigilance of the Theatre in maintaining its quality. In theatre, it’s very important for somebody care for the preservation of quality.
And perhaps, not last, Sibiu is the home of this group of actors to whom you are connected by experiences and shows that I’m not sure could have been created with other interpreters.
Silviu Purcărete: I don’t know. Of course, anything can be done with anyone, at any time. But everything lives its life in the place where it’s been created. So, these performances are born in and belong to this place.
Through the quality of the theatre and its Festival, Sibiu has sparked a phenomenon that I’d call the Faust effect. A visit to Sibiu begins by discovering its baroque architecture, the wall of the medieval fortress, the charm of the Lower City, of its narrow streets and picturesque terraces, and continues with the museums and the theatre. The label “heritage performance” draws our attention on the living, intangible, ephemeral heritage which the audience is invited to discover, this year too, through the summer season of TNRS in the touristic city of Sibiu.