Meșterul Manole

Kurt Murray after the play by Luchian Blaga
Bubble Laboratory
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Meșterul Manole

[email protected] evokes the spirit of Fringe Theatre, offering viewers plays produced by companies low in resources but high in imagination and talent. Meșterul Manole from Bubble Laboratory is a blast from the past: an actual Fringe performance recorded live in 2014. The play is from the extreme edge of the Fringe being immersive / interactive and performed in Romanian.

According to a Romanian folktale, Manole was a master builder who, to appease his patron the prince, sacrificed his wife to ensure a monastery endured for eternity. The prince, to ensure the monastery could not be duplicated, stranded the builder and his workers on the roof and they fell to their deaths trying to escape. A well of clear water, named after Manole, is believed to mark the spot where the builder fell.

Bubble Laboratory exploits the anarchic spirit of fringe theatre to illustrate the dangers of submitting to unreasonable authority. In the present day, a tour guide directs tourists around an exhibition. In return for the tourists telling the sins they have committed, statues of Manole, his wife and friend along with the prince and priest come to life and enact the legend—with a little help from the audience.

The cast are dressed in the manner of the ‘living statues’ that, prior to lockdown, used to cadge coins from shoppers in city centres. Manole is covered in plaster and has the tools of his trade strapped to his chest. As this is immersive theatre, the audience is heavily involved in the play. They confess sins, join in singing, read lines, share biscuits and mime to Donna Summer. The film, therefore, catches the mixture of exhilaration and embarrassment experienced by audiences taking part in immersive theatre.

It could be argued that the techniques of fringe theatre trivialise the grim legend. In immersive theatre, the audience is rarely seated comfortably so to hold attention performances tend to be broad, even shouty. The film exaggerates this approach and becomes hard to watch when the cast go right over the top, howling like demons. The script is translated into English subtitles and something may have been lost in the process with lines like "The alcohol boiling like in September".

The recording of Meșterul Manole gives people who have never attended an immersive fringe performance the chance to see what it is like. Enthusiasts will see it as one more pleasure lost due to the health crisis. Sceptics may see the loss of such extreme forms of entertainment as one of the rare benefits of lockdown. But at least viewers have the chance to make up their own minds.

Reviewer: David Cunningham