She has been described as the “angry voice of Moldova”: Nicoleta Esinencu’s productions are made of polemical outbursts against Europe and moving monologues on life in her home country, set to the polyrhythmic beat of bangs, scrapes and buzzes of household items from pots and pans to sewing machines. It’s a haptic, agitprop style that Esinencu performs in basements and bunkers in her home city of Chișinău, where her fierce 2005 breakthrough Fuck You, Eu.ro.pa! caused a scandal. Just a couple of actors and a few props are all she needs to launch a theatrical tirade against the patriarchy, the family and capitalist exploitation. Esinencu has been increasingly producing in other European countries. This year marked a breakthrough for the artist in Berlin, where she is currently living for a year as part of the DAAD’s Artists-in-Residence programme, with two productions at HAU. In March last year, Requiem for Europe was invited as a guest performance and in October, her first in-house production, The Abolition of the Family, celebrated its premiere. Both performances blew us away, making Esinencu our favourite director of 2019. We caught up with the 40-year-old dramatist to find out more.
You’ve been in Berlin for six months now. How would you say theatre here compares to Moldova?
State theatres in Moldova mostly just show traditional and nationalist plays, almost all of them have a sexist and misogynist discourse. There is some independent theatre but it’s more about selling tickets and having fun as opposed to dealing with problems. Nine years ago, we started our company Teatru Spălătorie – theatre laundrette. We moved into a basement that became our stage. The building doesn’t exist anymore, they tore it down to build luxury apartments. Now we have to rent spaces to perform in Chișinău. Sometimes it’s a theatre, other times it’s just a cellar. Once we performed in a disused bunker.
How can you survive working under these conditions – you don’t get any funding from the Moldovan State, right?
All the money comes from abroad actually. Our last three performances were co-produced with Austrian and German theaters, The Abolition of the Family is a HAU production. We don’t make much money selling tickets. Usually we can only pay the actors a small fee and that’s it. Sometimes the performances are sold out but it can also be difficult to draw a crowd. We keep having to build a new audience each year because so many young people are leaving the country. They don’t see a future in Moldova.
You’re very critical towards your country, yet you’ve decided to stay there. Why?
I do think about this a lot but the answer is that I was born there. The reality is that we live in a world where not everybody has the freedom of movement and for us Moldovans it’s not always easy. In Western Europe we are considered migrants while the Western Europeans are seen as expats all over the world.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Moldova lost a lot of infrastructure. Today, the country is a hub of cheap production and has the lowest salaries in Europe. Has this made people nostalgic about the past?
Yes, the older generations who are now struggling to survive. In Soviet times, it was possible to have a job, a salary, a yearly holiday and a small amount of savings. Today that’s not the case. The younger generation is very anti-communist without knowing anything about communism. If something is bad or wrong, it’s communist. However the discourse is slowly changing and we’re starting to talk about how it really was: Back then we had a school, a library and a cultural centre in every village. Now that’s all been destroyed.
In your performances you call for an end to patriarchy and the abolition of the family. How are messages like this received in your home country?
We will perform The Abolition of the Family in Chișinău, so we’ll see. I think people are open to a discussion on topics like this, but the family has a very important place within Moldovan society. It’s untouchable. But that’s precisely why we have to talk about it and deconstruct it as a concept. As for the patriarchy: We did a production last year called Gospel of Mary. I rewrote the bible from a female perspective and made her a goddess. That was a big provocation. It was mostly men who reacted the strongest – they felt attacked. That’s good because it’s how I feel every single day as a woman and nobody cares.
You also like to break taboos in your work, for example in 2012’s Clear History, which deals with the mass deportation of Jews from Moldova, in which the local population was happily complicit – facts that are swept under the carpet in modern Moldova.
Even today, not much is taught in schools about the Holocaust in our region. It’s still a taboo topic. When I was in school, we didn’t learn anything about it. In Germany, somebody told me about the Holocaust in our region and I was completely surprised. When I got back I started to read more about it. This is how I came to work on Clear History. People’s reactions have been different but some are starting to go to these formerly Jewish villages, to go to their grandparents and say: Tell us, what happened?
You describe yourself as a dramatist rather than a director. Why is that?
I studied playwriting and never had this dream of becoming a director. We had no directors at our drama school so we started to direct ourselves as a team. Somehow I ended up becoming a director but I don’t feel like that’s so important. It’s a group process in our company – and that applies to the writing too. This is also important on a political level: We want to create a non-hierarchical environment.
You favour simple stage designs: they’re modular, portable, you could wheel them on or off stage fairly easily. Is this for artistic or practical reasons?
Budgets and transport play a role but the most important reason is that I think it’s a shame to spend so much money on a set that you will put in the trash after two years. Very few theatres actually recycle their stage designs. It’s a political decision to not spend all this money on stage design and costumes. Lighting is also often overdone: I saw a performance recently in which a woman was lit by 55 different spotlights. One person – 55 lights! That’s crazy.