“The Girl From The Rainbow” is a one-woman show written by Romanian playwright and actress Lia Bugnar. When the play premiered in 2012, the part was played by Tania Popa, who reprised the role in London in 2016. Young actress Ilona Brezoianu plays the Girl in this production, and from what I’ve gathered, has garnered critical acclaim as well as awards from previous performances. From what I saw at the Leicester Square Theatre on the afternoon of April 2nd, those accolades are very well-deserved.
The play follows a young Romanian prostitute who operates from a seat in the back row of the Rainbow cinema, and entertains her clients while the movies are playing. She has therefore become a very cinematically literate hooker. The premise is immediately good: there she stands, in front of an audience, talking about her favourite films, the clients she was with when she was watching them and some of their stories, followed by a more maudlin second half in which she goes into her tragic early life story – and all of it is sometimes interrupted by traditional Romanian songs, some quite cheerful in the beginning, but getting more and more tragic and moving as the story advanced into an examination of her family life.
You can always tell when a play is written by an actor, because there’s an extra understanding there of what is playable and what isn’t, and this piece really allows the actress playing it to explore a huge variety of emotions. It is a great showcase for an actress of talent, and if Lia Bugnar were better-known in the English-speaking world, I’m sure even big names would be interested in taking it on. Maybe after this performance in London there will be enough interest to get it translated.
Because, of course, this performance was in Romanian with English subtitles. Come to think of it, I’m not sure how well it would do in translation really, because so much of it felt so quintessentially Romanian. It was clear once the play got going that most of the audience were Romanian themselves, from the way they responded to the performance. That only made the entire thing all the more special, in fact: there was a great atmosphere to it, permeated with a sense of nostalgia for home and language that really added to the performance itself. It has been a long time since I’ve sat through a play where the audience was this quiet – there seemed to be none of the usual fidgeting in seats, or rustling of bags, or throat clearing and coughing that you usually get. Maybe a lot of it was down to the fact that most of the audience seemed to be Romanian (some even sang along to some of the traditional songs) but I think there was a little more to it. After all, I don’t speak any Romanian, but I still didn’t feel left out.
When acting is really good, the language barrier becomes completely unimportant. And Ilona Brezoianu pulled that off beautifully. There were moments where she held the entire room in the palm of her hand, myself included. There is not a doubt in my mind that she is a great actress. She had a habit of smiling and laughing through her tears as she spoke of her reminiscences that made the words all the more moving. She also succeeded in treating the entire piece as a conversation, so much so that you could feel the audience wanting to talk back and answer her a lot of the time. In fact, there were moments when she almost made me feel as though I could understand her, as if I too spoke Romanian in that moment.
Unfortunately, because Ms. Brezoianu’s acting was so absorbing, it made the tech mistakes with the subtitles all the more annoying. Sometimes you could tell that her asides had been improvised on the spot and the subtitles simply weren’t equipped for them, but when she was just performing the piece there were often delays that were extremely off-putting. Again, her acting was so good that I could always tell when what she said didn’t coincide with the subtitles, and that happened one too many times for my comfort. It was distracting and frankly annoying to not be able to follow what she was saying just because of the bad timing of the subtitles. Tech mistakes with subtitled shows are bound to happen, but when the acting is so good, that makes them harder to forgive. I’m bound to say that she never lost the audience – the majority seemed to speak Romanian, as I said, and the ones who didn’t were often too interested in watching Ms. Brezoianu to pay too much attention to the screens.
I was disappointed in the ending of the play. The beginning hit all the right notes, with the anecdotal film reviews punctuated by sexual encounters and mishaps, interspersed with cheerful Romanian songs – I remember thinking there were a bit too many of them, at one point, because I was enjoying the monologue so much I was impatient for her to get back to it. The second half of the piece, however, often veered towards the tragic, when the girl focuses on her family history – how happy the family was in the old days, and how everything went so horribly wrong as to justify her current situation. The film reviews disappear completely, the anecdotes about clients are forgotten, and the songs become increasingly sadder and more moving. Ms. Brezoianu’s performance of them was riveting and very emotional, but the play itself seemed to lose some of its punch as it became more melodramatic.
As for the ending itself, I thought it incredibly clumsy. Through no fault of Ms. Brezoianu, she very nearly pulled off what I consider to be an impossible scene, but ultimately failed to disguise how ridiculous it was. The piece suddenly turns into an interrogation by a police officer (where did he come from? why? we will never know) and it is implied that this interrogation will end in her death. I can’t say this does much to assuage prejudice of Romania’s police, but then again, that wasn’t the point of the play. A spotlight shines down on the girl as she gets beaten up by this officer. Now, there’s no one else on stage, so Ms. Brezoianu had to pretend to get beaten without even the aid of a sound effect for the slaps and punches. It is incredibly difficult to not make that look like a pantomime. Again, Ms. Brezoianu is good enough that she very nearly pulled it off, but ultimately, there was no disguising what a silly way that was to end an otherwise superlative piece. I say it is a crying shame to have such an awkward ending to what could otherwise have been a great achievement. It still was one, in terms of acting – my warmest congratulations to Ilona Brezoianu, that was one of the best performances I’ve seen in a long time, and she certainly deserves any accolades she may have received for her work in this play. Hopefully she’ll get to have some international recognition as well in her future career, she certainly deserves it. But the writing, which started out as stellar, did leave a bit to be desired towards the end, I’m sorry to say.
The audience didn’t seem to mind it, though. After singing along and crying with the girl from the Rainbow, they stood up and gave her a well-deserved standing ovation. I think that, even if it was only for an hour and a half, Ilona Brezoianu took most of that audience from that little underground theatre in London back to Romania that afternoon, and they were appropriately grateful to her for it. It was very touching to participate in that, even if only as an observer.
April 2, 2017