Ion Creanga’s writings are sacred to the Romanians who imbibe his fancy almost from birth, but nothing he wrote could be more colourful than his life. A one-time priest who quarrelled endlessly with the church – almost as though he had one of the little devils that pop up in his stories sitting forever on his back – he was finally defrocked and took on a gargantuan quantity of lovers. He became a schoolmaster, tobacco-salesman, Tolstoyan simple-lifer and later bosom-friends with Mihai Eminescu, Romania’s poet in excelsis – and through all this never stopped being dogged by controversy and conflict. Towards the end he turned obese and epileptic, as though even in plumpness he could find no repose. But it is his ‘peasant tales’ which have endeared him to Romanians – flights of fancy with a Chaucerian love of food, drink, and sex – and furious laughter at those in authority, especially priests.
Absolute! is a one-man show based on his work by Marcel Iureş, Romania’s best-known actor, who seems destined for the history books as well. On Romanian stages since the 1970s, giving still-spoken-about performances of Hamlet, Richard III and Henry IV, he has since found wider fame (and a younger audience) in Mission Impossible and Pirates of the Caribbean. Absolute! saw him for one night back on a London stage, reconnecting with a Romanian émigré audience, and on fine comic form.
The evening began with Iureş on stage as the audience filed in – dressed in a shell suit, crabby and discombobulated from alcohol and stirring a tin of some nameless gunk on a spirit burner – the archetypal down and out. Soon the lights go down and his deadbeat begins recounting one of Creanga’s tales – as if to a drinking companion – about a boozey soldier whose spiritual progress becomes a bet between God and a simpering St.Peter. In return for a kindness the soldier is rewarded with a sack which can trap anything he wants. Scenting his kind of jollies, he travels down to hell and the blasphemous fun begins.
Luckily Iureş is the kind of actor who can fill a stage – there is something prowling and vulpine about him, and his face has got craggier with the years. His unrepentant sinner living for booze, cigarettes and women – the grandfather you’re half-ashamed of, half grateful for – makes a fitting narrator for Creanga’s bawdy irreverence; at times his performance is so well drawn you feel you can smell the alcohol. Yet this seems like a show largely for Romanians – the provided surtitles make a nice gesture to non-Romanian-speakers, but a frustrating one too, as much of the comedy seemed to be in Iureş‘s asides to the audience, which one suspects are unscripted. Creanga’s appeal to his countrymen too would seem to be in his familiarity to them, and the associations it brings; that and the anti-clerical humour which retains its fizz in a country where Orthodoxy is still such a vivid force. As a chance to see a skilled character actor go though his comic paces, the piece was often delightful, but slight. You wondered finally what it had added up to, and were left wanting a more substantial showcase for Iureş‘s obvious gifts.
But the Romanians loved it, bursting into laughter at all those untranslatable jokes, and giving him a standing ovation at the end. Creanga is theirs, Iureş is theirs too – his target audience, at any rate, went home on a cloud.
Absolute! was presented by the Romanian Cultural Institute in London.