Star by night, convict by day

The hottest ticket in the Romanian capital is for a play whose star actor is escorted to and from a maximum security prison by armed guards brandishing automatic weapons…

An already excited crowd is swelling outside of Notarra Theatre in Romania's capital city, Bucharest.
But anticipation reaches fever pitch as the play's star is seen approaching from a distance, shortly before he will give another acclaimed performance.

His armoured car screeches to a halt outside the theatre's front doors and the handcuffed youngster steps out, closely accompanied by several armed guards.

In the theatre hall, to the untrained eye, there is almost nothing unusual about the play "The Temptation of Judas".

However, a closer look reveals something else is going on as a whole squadron of police officers position themselves around the theatre and settle down to watch the evening's performance.

They are not so much looking forward to the subtleties of Giovanni Papini's lines, but rather concern themselves with being in the best locations to block any escape route its actors may use to flee by.

For Miodrag Stoianovici, an unassuming young actor and the centre of all of this attention, is no ordinary thespian.

His being on stage is just a short leave from his prison cell, where he is currently serving a sentence for drug dealing and drug abuse.

Crime and Punishment

Only four months ago, Miodrag was free, and attending classes at an acting school in the western Romanian town of Timisoara, the country's third largest academic community.

Located near the border, the place is a genuine paradise for drug users.

Miodrag and his friends had been up to their ears in rehearsals for their play's grand premiere.

But that is when the artist was caught in possession of cannabis, which had been supplied by a fellow student. Some of it was for personal consumption, the rest to sell on to his peers.

Miodrag received a two-year prison sentence.

Too late to find a stand-in, the play's director took a daring decision to premiere the play in Miodrag's prison, receiving permission from the prison's chief.

The show was a smash success.

Then came the tour. The team would choose no other actor to replace Miodrag.

And so it began. Prison after prison, theatre after theatre, the play was taken to the people, accompanied by a small army of armed police officers and convoy of police cars and vans.

Walls do not a prison make

Prior to every performance, the play's director must obtain permission from the Timisoara Penitentiary chief warden, so that his star may be released for just several short hours: a little more than the duration of the show.

Handcuffs are only removed when Miodrag is on stage.

Much ado for the director, Cosmin Plesa, but the trouble is worth it, he says.

"Sure clinging to Miodrag was a setback for the team, but, at the same time, we all depend on him, artistically," argues Plesa.

There was quite a stir surrounding one of Miodrag's most recent performances, he recounts.

"Miodrag had to be moved under armed escort for 400 miles from the low security penitentiary of Timisoara to the high security facility Rahova, on the outskirts of the Romanian capital," said Plesa.

"He only tasted liberty for a few hours - a short emotional reunion with family and friends, the play, and then, curtains.

"Right after his performance, he was rushed back to his cell, without even getting to sign an autograph."

Judas repented

"Young and foolish, this is how I got myself behind bars. I did the crime, now I do the time," admits Miodrag.

"And I am not much flattered with the crowd tonight, because, let's face it, they have not come to see a great artist, but rather a prisoner that acts."

None the less, people continue to flock to see Miodrag perform, and the artistic community in Bucharest is sympathetic to the young man's endurance.

Notarra Theatre's manager, Romanian actor Mircea Diaconu, has agreed to promote the play without a second thought.

And he even agreed to exhibit pictures made by Miodrag's drugs supplier, also an arts student, in his theatre.

Not surprisingly in Romania, as with all other circles of culture and creativity, light narcotics consumption is generally regarded as being part of an artiste's diet.

After each show, the play's star attraction receives handcuffs instead of flowers and fan letters.

None the less, Miodrag may say that he has it good.

Being incarcerated has brought him early fame in a country where young actors have to wallow for years in poverty and often settle for a career spanning decades of underpaid, underappreciated gigs.

Miodrag's supplier and friend is serving five years alongside him.

If Miodrag Stoianovici remains on his best behaviour, he may be released, under Romanian law, after only one year behind bars, with his friend in tow after a few more months.

However, if either is ever caught dealing or using drugs again, their next sentence could be up to 20 years.

Meanwhile, the play's director is determined to stage the show for another season.

And both young men have more than a passing debt to "The Temptation of Judas" as a short cut to an otherwise unpleasant stretch in one of Eastern Europe's least favourable places.