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Europe in the cellar

Moldovan playwright Nicoleta Esinencu explores the identity of her divided country.

21. February 2019
Magazine > Feature > Europe in the cellar

In other countries, Nicoleta Esinencu’s critical plays are admired; in her home country, they cause scandals. That’s why she stays – to explore the identity of her divided country and express it in her plays.

The room where rehearsals are about to begin is cold, damp, and dark. There’s a power cut, though it’s only midday. Nicoleta Esinencu shines a torch on a window blacked out with masking tape, where a cable enters the cellar through a crack. Along with three actors and an assistant, she tries to get the light and sound systems operating again. Intense activity takes place within twenty square metres. One actor lays cables right across the room while another is working on something on stage and Esinencu is discussing things with a colleague. Something rattles, squeals, judders, then there’s a click and a lamp bathes the room in wan light. It’s running on the Chişinău Theatre Academy’s main emergency electricity supply.

The light reveals the concrete walls, the low ceiling and scraped-off plaster. This place is called the Bunker, and that’s exactly what it looks like. This is where Nicoleta Esinencu is currently showing her new play Recviem pentru Europa, Requiem for Europe. “If there’s a power cut when we’re actually performing, we just have to improvise,” she says. The 39-year-old has a rasping voice and you can hear the ironic undertone. The actors laugh. They’re already familiar with all that: rooms where the electricity is cut off and the heating doesn’t work in winter. This is theatre made in Moldova.

Esinencu has regular guest appearances in Germany, Austria, France and Sweden, where audiences appreciate her critical approach and the angry honesty of her texts. In her home country, the Republic of Moldova, Esinencu is happy when she can find any kind of space at all to present her works. The group has to leave the Bunker immediately after the performance at 9 p.m. on the dot; the actors don’t even go back on stage for the applause, because that takes too long. “The Academy doesn’t really like us,” says Esinencu, who studied here herself, still in that ironic tone. Perhaps it could even be called cynicism.

She digs a hammer out of a box and bangs a nail into the seat of a broken chair. The Bunker can seat an audience of forty people. Esinencu stands in front of the stage, her bright blue eyes critically examining the three boxes on which sewing machines are placed. “They must be in a line directly under the light,” she says, her arm tracing an upright line in the air. The actors push the furniture around, just a few centimetres. Then the sewing machines are tested; they rattle like rifles. Esinencu isn’t convinced; she’s not satisfied with the sound of the middle machine. A perfectionist, she pays attention to every little detail.

Europe was seen as saviour after the Soviet Union collapsed. Hope was no longer Russian, but European; the alphabet was Latin instead of Cyrillic.

Her plays, on the other hand, illuminate the big picture: Moldova, its problems, and Europe. Her play FUCK YOU; Eu.ro.Pa caused a scandal in 2005. It’s a monologue in which she calls Europe to account, that was seen as the saviour after the Soviet Union collapsed. Hope was no longer Russian, but European; the alphabet was Latin instead of Cyrillic. “I feel as though I didn’t have a country during my childhood,” the play states. The author writes her rage as she feels it, harshly, directly. “What has my country done for me? Papa, I don’t like it up my arse. That reminds me of my country. When you love, and it hurts.” For the play’s performances in Moldova, Esinencu had to change the name to Stop Europe; it was given a 16 certificate. The text still hasn’t been published in Esinencu’s country.

To find her stories, the writer digs deeply into her home country, seeking remote places and their inhabitants and interweaving her fellow citizens’ biographies with her own life story. This is her way of approaching the identity of a torn country, taking up topics such as homosexuality, nationalism, and exploitation.

Feminism is another of her topics and the focus of the next play that she is currently writing. She searches for inspiration in Străşeni, a small town an hour’s drive from Chişinău. The theatre team and a few friends have come along. The group of eight people is sitting in a minibus; it’s thirty degrees Celsius outside, but the bus has no air conditioning. Esinencu wipes her face with a handkerchief. And she talks: about her three years at the state-run Eugène Ionesco Theatre in Chişinău, where she worked as a dramatic adviser after completing her degree. Then the financial crisis struck. The director cut plays from their programme because there wasn’t enough money, especially for costumes. “That’s the most important thing for actors, as we learnt at university,” she comments with a sceptical smile. In Esinencu’s opinion, costumes were the least essential aspect; for her, the content of the play was always of prime importance.

She started to rebel against the established theatre, wanting to escape dependency on state subsidies, and joined with colleagues to set up the alternative Teatrul Spalatorie (Laundry Theatre) in 2010. She ran her own theatre for seven years. There were none of the hierarchies typical of large theatres: the members of the collective reached joint decisions. “We spent years building up our audience, but the young people moved away so we had to keep starting from scratch.” Last year they closed the theatre. Organising it was too difficult, and the expense too great; the small team couldn’t manage it. Esinencu wanted to concentrate on the main thing, that is, her plays, what she wants to say to people. Since then, the group has been straying from one location to another.

Esinencu and her companions leave the bus and march on through Străşeni on foot, past a park and the town hall that greets visitors with six huge pillars. Esinencu pulls a green cap from her rucksack, places it on her curly, light brown hair, and exhales loudly. The group stumps along the sandy path up a hill until they come to an iron garden gate. A woman with small, smiling eyes comes out of the little house behind the gate. The 60-year-old hugs her visitors, who all call her Maria, and invites them into a garden with dozens of cherry trees. There’s a big table in the middle of the orchard, covered with Moldovan specialities: meatballs, pickled vegetables, and stuffed dumplings. Maria has really gone to town for her visitors. Pigeons flutter and coo in an aviary in the garden while a loudspeaker plays traditional music. The meeting is a combination of garden party and research; everyone eats and laughs, while now and then the hostess tells another part of her story.

Maria put up with her permanently drunk husband’s excessive behaviour and the blows that showed her what he thought of her. When the villagers started to spread the rumour that he had a lover, the humiliation was too much for Maria. She filed for divorce and started working in a factory. She was a single parent in Moldova in the 1990s, just after the Soviet Union collapsed and the country was lapsing into poverty and frustration. Mothers were leaving the country to earn money elsewhere. Maria too left her children behind and set off towards Italy. Her flight ended in a Hungarian prison, and two weeks later, she was back home.

Nicoleta Esinencu props her chin on her arm and absorbs Maria’s words. “What’s the main thing that you don’t want your daughters to experience?” “To be beaten by a man,” answers Maria without a second’s hesitation.

Admired in other countries, in her home country scandalised: playwright Nicoleta Esinencu is a critical voice in Moldova. Photo: © Martin Zinggl

While Esinencu’s friends rest in the shade under the cherry trees after the meal, she writes notes in a little book: patriarchy, violence, hard work, poverty. “That’s the daily reality for Maria and many other women, even though it shouldn’t be,” says Esinencu, gazing thoughtfully round the garden.

For one of her earlier plays, about the Holocaust, Esinencu visited villages from which people were deported during the Second World War. She talked to their relatives and listened to their stories. “The holocaust is denied in Moldova.” It isn’t mentioned at all in the schools. It was through talking to theatre colleagues in Berlin that she heard for the first time that deportations also occurred in Moldova, then part of Romania, and that thousands were killed there during the Second World War. Back home, she started to investigate and wrote everything down in her play Clear History, which caused an uproar. “Politicians manipulate us; they divide society in which a lot of hatred is developing. We are caught up in a huge identity crisis. The problem is that we’re out of touch with our own history.”

“Politicians manipulate us; they divide society in which a lot of hatred is developing. We are caught up in a huge identity crisis. The problem is that we’re out of touch with our own history.”

– From the piece Clear History

Esinencu’s focus on precisely this issue is what offends and provokes people, particularly in Moldova. And she enjoys that. Thanks to scholarships, she was able to spend several months in Germany and France. Whereas many of her artistic colleagues have remained abroad for years, she keeps being drawn back. She wants to develop her theatre further, to change things in her home country, despite the adverse conditions. “There are hardly any opportunities – either financial or ideal – to present works here. There simply isn’t anyone who’s interested in our art.” Esinencu talks casually about her country’s plight, appearing hardened to it. “I’m no longer naive enough to hope that politicians will ever change anything.” She has a real hatred of Moldova’s political system that is repeatedly suspected of corruption, in which huge sums of money disappear while most people live in poverty. “I would never accept any money for my work from this state.”

Foreign foundations are Esinencu’s main sources of financial support. But she doesn’t accept money at any price. One German foundation reduced the funding for her current play Requiem for Europe, she tells us. The play’s subject is the exploitative working conditions in Moldovan factories that produce cheaply for the EU, presenting Moldova as the new China: Versace, Armani, Nike, Zara and also Dräxlmeier, the German auto parts supplier. The foundation didn’t accept Esinencu’s criticism of the latter company. They demanded that the writer change her texts. There was no question of Esinencu agreeing to that. “The foundation pretends to be democratic, then they treat us like that.” The reason for the rejection wasn’t the critical presentation of the company, the foundation says now in justification. “The problem was simply the text’s overall anti-European attitude,” they explain in a statement. Esinencu rejected the funding completely. She managed to stage Requiem for Europe despite this.

A week after the outing, Esinencu presents the play to an audience of 35 in the Bunker. The director stands behind the audience, leaning on the door frame and watching the room with her sharp eyes. The three actors in overalls stand up behind their sewing machines. In an ostentatiously friendly tone, they address the audience in English, Romanian and Russian:

Thanks, boss, that we have to wear uniforms that we pay for ourselves.
Thanks, boss, that you teach us how to work hard.
Thanks, boss, that you’ve installed surveillance cameras everywhere.
Thanks, boss, that you allow me to work three shifts over 24 hours.
Thanks, boss, that you take care that my pay is never more than the minimum wage.

For the grand finale, the factory workers play Ode to Joy, the European hymn, on their sewing machines. They press the pedals with their hands and accelerate until the music gets out of control and morphs into something else: Verdi’s Requiem.

Original in German. First published on Reporterreisenmoldau.de, as on 30 June 2018 on spiegel.de and on 7 August in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Translation into English by Bridget Schäfer.

This text is protected by copyright: © Christina Fleischmann. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Europe, Moldova, Chişinău, the cellar. Final rehearsal of “Requiem for Europe”. Nicoleta Esinencu is a critical voice in Moldova. She produces independent theatre. The actors (from left to right): Doriana Talmazan, Kira Semionov, Artiom Zavadovsky. Photo: Photo: © Éric Vazzoler / Zeitenspiegel