The exposed nerve of a reignited public tragedy hangs in the ether of Teatrul Luceafărul Iaşi.
We don’t quite know what to do; is it over? How can we applaud that which has just unfolded before us? How do we, the bystanders, simply move past the performance we have just experienced?
Young women and men around the theatre cry – not just those hiding in the safety of the audience, but those courageous young souls onstage, as well. Real, unencumbered sobs wrack their way through the room; together, we bond in the aftereffects of a societal trauma.
We have engaged in the collective act of healing.
153 Seconds, directed by Ioana Paun, is nothing short of superb. From the viscerally affecting poetry of its script (written in Romanian by Svetlana Cârstean) to the modular, impactful scenography (executed by Catalin Rulea), 153 Seconds falls somewhere in between powerful memory and vivid nightmare. To those who do not know 153 Seconds’ historical context, they will leave the theatre feeling merely unsettled. To those versed in the reprehensible carelessness that caused the Collectiv Nightclub fire of 2015, they will leave the theatre feeling fundamentally changed in their views on the necessary mediation between political action and creative output.
The Collectiv nightclub fire occurred in Bucharest on 30 October 2015, killing 64 people and injuring 146. Dozens of victims had to be transported to hospitals outside Romania due to overcrowding in both Bucharest and Iaşi.
This fire was preventable on nearly every level.
The nightclub’s capacity was eighty people, yet on the night in question, the headlining band (Goodbye to Gravity) had been offered a binding contract wherein they would not have to pay rental fees if they could draw a crowd of four hundred. So, the club was at over five times its capacity.
Collectiv had also completely coated its walls, pillars, and ceilings in extremely flammable soundproofing foam, unwilling to pay extra for fireproof coating.
The club had also provided the headlining band with outdoor firework pyrotechnics never meant to be released indoors.
The only exit to the club was barely wide enough for one person to squeeze through, let alone more.
There was only one fire extinguisher in the building.
There were no fire sprinklers.
When the pyrotechnics hit the soundproof foam, the club was immediately set ablaze. Because it was a heavy metal show, the crowd wrongly assumed the fire was part of the gig’s spectacle. The fire spread across the foam and the foundation of the building, trapping the crowd inside; the foam, being as flammable as it was, also began to drip from the ceiling onto the crowd, causing fatal burns to those below.
Those who were able to run were trapped in a deadly bottleneck in the club’s only exit; several victims of the fire died not through burns or through chemical fume inhalation, but from being trampled in the panic.
The Collectiv nightclub fire is upsetting, to say the least, and 153 Seconds does not cut the audience any slack in its retelling of this haunting event. We enter the theatre as a dense crowd, funneled into an entirely dark theatre through a claustrophobic makeshift hallway. Only upon the performance’s conclusion did it hit me: we’d willingly put ourselves in a hazardous situation for the sake of our art.
We were no different from those lost in the fire.
The performance begins with a pre-recorded monologue, eerily read by Bogdan Dimofte. The set, a flexible, moveable orange grid, stands strong center stage, glowing under black lights. This grid represents the container that stood outside Collectiv, providing yet another barrier to escape for those who were trapped within the club.
The voice tells us of the structural inadequacy of the club, the quality of the soundproofing foam. And it never lets us forget: the fire burned for only two and a half minutes.
We then meet the victims (some are actors, and some are, incredibly, survivors of the Collectiv fire), the representatives of a broken Romanian youth. They swing cordless microphones around, reveling in the feedback loop they create. The sound design is uncomfortably loud at times, but that’s the whole point; to watch this tragedy unfold from anyplace other than one of discomfort would be disrespectful not only to those who had suffered from carelessness but indeed to those onstage willing to relive this trauma in performance after performance.
These fourteen actors embody the emotional weight of the story they must tell. They do not overact, nor do they gloss over the more difficult moments. Each performer’s pacing and presence onstage is nothing short of exquisite; this is truly an ensemble piece of theatre, one with no weak links.
Ioana Paun is a master of image; vignettes are beautifully divided by their associated signs. In one particularly affecting moment, each person onstage indulges in a glass bottle of Coke.
Sip, smile, wipe lips, repeat. Sexy and carefree, the whole way through.
The cycle repeats several times. Then, one by one, each figure takes a handkerchief from their pocket, stuffs it in the open lip of the glass bottle, and takes out a lighter.
The overhead theatre lights suddenly go out, and we are in complete darkness, save for the pathetic attempts at Molotov cocktails being lit by tinny, spark-heavy Bic lighters.
The gasps rang around the theatre as the connection clicked. Imminent fire hazard, public performance space, bottlenecked entrance, and a large crowd. Obviously, we were safe, but this convention was absolutely incredible and fully implicated its diverse audience in the unfolding events.
153 Seconds concludes with a pointed series of questions aimed at exposing hypocrisy within a suffering Romania. People are leaving at a devastating rate; wouldn’t you, though, if you had the chance? If you knew the corruption that so pervaded your local governments? People are rioting in the streets; wouldn’t you, though, if your child had nearly been killed in a fire at a club that was given its full operating license despite not having a fire permit? The youths who flee Romania are seen as hindrances to outside societies and cultures, while those who stay are doomed to engage in the generational conflict they themselves so resent.
The dramatization of the relatively recent Collectiv nightclub tragedy is symptomatic of a stagnated, angry Romanian youth. This ensemble of artists and activists understands the impact that ethically-executed art can have, especially art that is so inextricably linked with its political impetus. 153 Seconds is a theatrical event that transcends its place within the Iasi International Theatre Festival for Young Audiences; it speaks to a populace outside Romania, and to generations beyond those directly affected by the fire. 153 Seconds is a winning combination of thoughtful dramaturgy, meticulous scenography, and precise performance, thus hopefully setting a new standard on what we as critics, dramaturgs, and academics define as “documentary theatre.” We can only but hope that those outside Romania will get to experience this important piece of commemorative art.
153 Seconds ran on 9 October 2019 at the International Theatre Festival for Young Audiences in Iaşi, Romania.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.