`Plugarul si Moartea` (The Ploughman and Death) at Teatrul Maghiar in Cluj
Between giving Prince Charming a slap on the face and check-mating the crusade knight, Death can indeed afford a TV show. The one novelty element of the props is the versatility similar to that of a video game, like a carousel of images playfully mixing up perspectives. Apart from this, it is about the same old funereal fads – macabre dances, litanies, seduction, and the petrifying arrogance of having the last say. Everything is then subject to verbose set direction aimed at exorcising rather than dramatizing the anguish. Mihai Maniutiu’s concept of turning a medieval dialogue that can still inspire existentialist queries (via Heidegger) into a TV program is a risky affair. The challenge is manifold and involves dramatizing a literary text, updating it from over half a millennium ago, and melting it into a reality that is representative of contemporary phenomena. However, too much ‘aesthetic’ interference has made the original text barely recognizable because its initial pathos is buried under a pile of media artifices. We are left with the muted hopelessness of a TV producer under the sad comedian guise of Aron Dimeny. Instead of an interlocutor to match, with a stringent apodictic dialectic, a silent admirer of futile defiance and polite granter of lenience to a sure victim, honoured by the game of philosophical invectives and behaving reservedly from a sense of sobriety as to his inescapable mission, viewers are left with the image of a TV kitsch magician.
Just like Dali’s oneiric dramatization of The Temptation, Maniutiu’s Moartea wishes to distract by creating a hypnotic carnival. This kaleidoscope of masks turns the perspective on its head – it is not death that intensifies life through the fruitful tension of limitation, rather life is seen as a (slightly) prolonged macabre dance. Thus, it is Death who is the interpreter, not the poor intoxicated man reduced to the mere presenter of an alienating show. Here is where the director believed he could weld together the two hermeneutical dimensions of alienation imposed by death on the human condition, on the one hand, and the estrangement of one’s self induced by the show’s conventions, on the other. Conventions that are in contradiction with personal claims of authenticity, more so as in this TV era the stage seems more open to anyone than at any other time. In other words, it is less conventional. Yet this poor choreographer of personal unhappiness does not seem to be experiencing a vocational crisis (he does not leave the set in search of a more breathable prairie, finally free like Robert Redford in The Electric Horseman), nor does he appear to be the victim of laceration other than being the victim of frame-up. Such a TV show is an engaging memento mori, but it has little to do with the medieval Ploughman’s mood. Imprecations, interrogations, and acts of defiance resembling self-flagellation, none of them have a place in the world of magical improvisation. Not even Shakespeare himself was ambitious enough to cast Hamlet in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If an iconoclastic director can afford to place Hamlet in a comical setting, his success would depend exclusively on the original theatrical coherence. However, apart from this original sin in the designing process, Mihai Maniutiu’s show benefits from the inspired option of rejecting satire in favour of intimist drama. Despite being watched by the presumptive eyes of millions of TV viewers, the characters are also shown during a discreet mirror game behind the scene, which not only humanizes them but also offers their common performance an entirely different weight. The ambiguity between fascination and banter (also exhibited by Fellini in Ginger and Fred), inevitable in a TV culture often imbued by kitsch, does not rob the protagonists of the presumption of honourable day-workers in the suffocating world of entertainment. Their effort is meant to suggest the artistic proximity of death. As professionals of the spectacle, they can only defy Death by staging it for cathartic (though false) purposes. Yet, they become authentic due to their mortality.