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The Stage: All the world's a train station

"Fanfara Kalashnikov" at the Orient-Express Festival. © Oliver Paul - National Theatre Stuttgart.
"Fanfara Kalashnikov" at the Orient-Express Festival. © Oliver Paul - National Theatre Stuttgart.
22 July 2009 – Die Zeit (Hamburg)

For 80 days, German, Turkish, Romanian, Croatian, Serb and Slovenian actors have been criss-crossing Europe on a train transmogrified into a theatre-on-wheels. The object of this project launched by the Stuttgart National Theatre is "to foster understanding between nations". Easier said than done, says a journalist from Die Zeit, who boarded the train for the stretch from Istanbul to Bucharest.

A blind old man is sitting on the platform at a train station in Romania. The Orient Express dashes through here everyday, and everyday the blind man waits on the platform. One day his daughter plays a compassionate hoax on him: she puts a rusty old train door in front of him and says the train has stopped here just this once and he should climb aboard. The blind man holds tight to the door, his daughter points an electric fan at him, and the greybeard is whisked away, in spirit, to the West.

This scene is from a Romanian play entitled Occident Express by Matei Visniec. It has now been premiered in Bucharest – albeit not in a theatre, but in a train station. Orient-Express – eine europäische Theaterreise (“Orient Express: A European Theatre Trip”), a brainchild of the Stuttgart State Theatre, is a collaborative production involving input from theatre troupes in Turkey, Romania, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. The theatre train itself is of Turkish provenance. By this time it has crossed seven borders and 3900 kilometres. The train pulled out of Ankara back in May, stopping first at Istanbul and then at Bucharest, Craiova and Timişoara (Romania), Novi Sad (Serbia), Zagreb (Croatia), Ljubljana and Nova Gorica (Slovenia), and Freiburg (Germany). Another local theatre company boards the train in each country, and plays specially written for the journey are performed at each station along the way. The train recently reached Stuttgart.

So what’s the point of sending a trainful of actors – who can hardly understand one another, by the way – through Europe? Was it worth it? I joined them for a short leg of the journey, from Istanbul to Bucharest, to find out.

So why is an actor-packed train traversing the continent? The Stuttgart Theatre adduces all manner of concepts to explain: the meeting of East and West, the terror and delight of sheer mobility, the attendant anxieties and promises of the EU’s eastward enlargement. And it takes a pan-European effort to put all that on track.

You soon realise what’s missing is someone on board who speaks all the languages – or a language everyone speaks. When it comes down to it, the only remedy is a heady brew of charisma and tobacco. Fatih, the Turkish conductor who finds a solution to every problem, knows two words of German and three words of English. He tackles technical hitches at foreign stations pretty unflappably with the aid of at least five different languages, international broadsword Esperanto and a slew of cigarettes.

Now the train has left Istanbul, we’re in for a 28-hour ride to Bucharest. At 11 am one of the guys in the German contingent says, “Anyone got any bright ideas on how to handle the international communication here?” “The Turks are already in the kitchen,” says another. “They’re already grilling,” says a third.

Is Ireland sober? Is Ireland stiff?

It takes till evening to make any headway on the international communication between Germans and Turks, and it might well have come to naught were it not for the timely intervention of a neutral Scotsman and a bottle of Johnnie Walker (“Is Ireland sober, is Ireland stiff”: this line from James Joyce about his native country could probably serve as the pan-European motto). But it turns out to be a great, even utopian, night, and one of the players from the Turkish National Theatre provides gorgeous background music on his oud.

Before that we were stuck on the Turkish-Bulgarian border for eight hours. There was some friction between would-be EU candidate Turkey and EU outpost Bulgaria about our train: the bone of contention was a missing customs declaration. The problem had escalated until "Sofia" and "Ankara" eventually cleared it up via top-level channels.

Ah, Europe. One hardly knows which to admire more: the art of organisation, which has supplied this continent with a single railway system – or the art of bureaucracy, which does a brilliant job of sabotaging the system. Stuttgart playwright Christian Holtzhauer says he came up against the most relentless bureaucracy at Italian Rail, which charged the train €60,000 for the route and €6,000 for stops in Italy – per day! Hence the decision to circumvent Italy.

In Bucharest they performed on the outskirts of the city. “In Ceauşescu’s day, every Romanian dreamt of being able to get on this train and ride to the West,” says Romanian director Alexandru Boureanu, “that’s why this play is called Occident Express.

In one scene, a Croatian, a Romanian, a Bulgarian, a Serb, a Bosnian, a Hungarian, a Macedonian and an Albanian are sitting side by side on a fence. All of them are staring off into empty space – towards the West. Then the Bulgarian says, “I don’t know how my neighbours swear. I don’t know how a Ukrainian, Hungarian, Serb or Bulgarian swears. But I do know how Americans swear.” And the Serb joins in: “Fuck.”

“We have a lot in common,” intone the Albanian, the Serb, the Croatian, the Macedonian, the Romanian. Then they all don headphones and listen to American pop music.

At the airport in Bucharest, the traveller realises that the Romanians’ yearning has long been eerily fulfilled: the Americans are there. The building is full of US soldiers. They are wearing camouflage fatigues and looking haughtily right through the civilian passengers. “Where you from?” one of them is asked. “Straight from home.” “Where you flying to?” “Afghanistan.” This scene gives the erstwhile passenger on the Orient Express theatre a clammy feeling. People shouldn’t fly so much, it suddenly occurs to him: they ought to take the train a lot more.

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