Interview with Timotei Cobeanu, Romanian writer and performer
How long have you lived in the UK and where in Romania are you from?
I'm originally from Bucharest, but used to spend much of my childhood up in Bucovina, the northern (and a very beautiful) part of Romania. Me and my mum and sister moved to Sheffield, England when I was 13, joining our dad who had come here a year earlier. We wanted to start a new life, experience a new culture and enjoy more opportunities.
How did you start doing theatre?
I wanted to perform ever since I was little, and had acted a little bit there before moving to England. But I started doing theatre during my GCSE's. That was a big game change for me, and although it was still very early stages I felt very sure it was something I wanted more of. I really enjoyed being in the rehearsal room, and in the process. It was something so new and refreshing to me, knowing that every class would be different. I used to be a bit scared of it, but it also excited me greatly. The idea of playing, of talking to people through stories. At school in Bucharest you had to do things very systematically, but as a child I never really connected to that work frame. I had a lot of energy to express, and still do.
Tell us about your two plays, NUMB and If Mouth Could Speak.
They both tackle very urgent social issues and offer to answer those deeper questions...of identity, of suppressed feelings, of family conflict or loss...But they do it very differently which is great because they offer different perspectives on the subjects.
NUMB is this very ambitious show, it starts off as a punk gig and it slowly morphs into a story. There's something very raw and punchy about it, and it’s sparked a lot of powerful conversation after each showing. NUMB unpicks the recent suicide crisis in the UK, 74% of people dying by suicide are men. It happens as a result of depression, emotional instability and lack of control over their lives. It's a very provocative piece in that respect - it challenges the audience's perspectives on what it means to be a man, and if that means anything at all. In the second half of the event audience members can go up and improvise with the actors on stage to change the outcomes of each scene. It's social theatre at its best, so we encourage as much interaction between people. That way we can gain a much better understanding of masculinity and gender as a community.
If Mouth Could Speak, which I wrote and perform in, is a 35 minute monologue that mixes beat poetry with 3D sound design, electronic music and jazz to tell the story of Danny, a young immigrant lost in the dizzying tides of underground London. It explores life in the big city, rave culture and his psychological breakdown as he faces psychosis in an ever isolating city.
It's my debut play as a writer-performer, and has received numerous 4 and 5* awards recently, not only from reviewers but also hundreds of impassioned audience members and even Royal Court Writing Tutor Jason Hall. I'm very proud of it and would love it if as many fellow Romanian friends would come to watch it. It's a very unique story and I think they could get a lot out of it, especially as it deals with the immigrant experience in London.
Are you drawing from real life in your show If Mouth Could Speak?
In some ways. I studied Philosophy and Ethics at school, so those deeper subjects and big questions always attracted me. This was the first time I felt like I could express them in a creative way, which was very challenging at times but also so rewarding.
I guess the London narrative was drawn from my own experiences of the city since I moved here, yeah. Or maybe subconsciously it was inspired by something completely different, I don't know. But the first few years were quite a rollercoaster for me in terms of finding my feet and feeling at home here. London can be the best night out in the world, but it can also be such a pressing and isolating mess, especially if you are here on your own, away from your family or close ones. I guess If Mouth Could Speak mirrors that sentiment in those moments when Danny, the protagonist, is both totally in love but also completely broken by the city.
What inspiration do you take from Romanian culture in your work as a writer/performer?
There is something quite direct and unapologetic about our culture. From the way we speak, to how we socialise and how we act in our communities. There's a sort of fearless expression to say what you feel and what you think when you feel that way, or at least where I grew up. It can be quite overwhelming at times, but that's great. It feels very honest. I think you can find part of that honesty and urgency in my work.
NUMB is an exploration of masculinity and high rates of male suicide. What inspired your company create to create this work?
We had been to see a couple of Forum Theatre shows - a style of theatre where once the play has finished, the audience is invited on stage to change the outcome of certain scenes for the better. The idea in Forum Theatre is to come up with active solutions for the social issues presented in the play. It felt like we had discovered such a powerful tool for change, that we thought it would be perfect for a play like NUMB.
The whole point when trying to dissect mental health is to have a conversation about it, learn from other people's insights and their personal experiences or opinions on the matter. We were essentially witnessing people's minds being challenged and even changed, as they understood more by taking part in an active conversation. It was so inspiring and motivating.
Catch NUMB at VAULT Festival, Waterloo, Feb 1-2 - (tickets), and If Mouth Could Speak at CLF Art Cafe, Bussey Building, Peckham, on Feb 27 and 28. Get a 20% Discount on group bookings of 5+ with the code TEATRULTRAU20