Barbara Wysocka is a theatre and opera director, actress, violinist, and winner of Paszport Polityki (Polityka's Passport Award). She creates experimental, multidisciplinary works combining installation, drama, documentary and music. She staged Wyspiański’s tragedy in the convention of a journalistic reconstruction of events; and she set a didactic eighteenth-century comedy in a modern Warsaw backyard.
Barbara Wysocka was born in 1978 in Warsaw. She graduated from the Acting and Directing Department of Ludwik Solski State Theatre School in Kraków. Previously, she also studied violin at Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg.
She debuted in 2004 in the role of Pascal in Daniel Danis’s Kamienie i Popiół/Stone and Ashes, directed by Iwona Kempa at the Hieronim Konieczka Polish Theatre in Bydgoszcz. Soon after, she joined the National Old Theatre in Kraków. She has been a full-time actress at this theatre since 2008.
She gained recognition for her performances in Michał Zadara’s productions. On the stage of the Old Theatre, she starred as Judyta in Juliusz Słowacki’s Father Marek (2005), Aricia in Jean Racine’s Phaedra, and Iphigenia in Iphigenia, New Tragedy by Racine based on the script by Zadara and Paweł Demirski (2008). She was also Cassandra in Jan Kochanowski’s The Dismissal of the Grecian Envoys (2007), and she performed in Utopia będzie zaraz / Utopia Will Happen Soon, a play recalling the reality of the 80s in Poland, which combined texts by Paweł Demirski and The Books of the Polish Nation by Adam Mickiewicz.
She has collaborated with Zadara many times in many different theatres. At the Stu Theatre in Kraków, she played the Bride in Stanisław Wyspiański’s The Wedding (2006), and at the Contemporary Theatre in Wrocław, she took on the role of Antonina Wielikanowa/ Lot’s Wife in Genesis 2 by Antonina Wielikanowa and Ivan Vyrypaev (2007). She also played Clytemnestra in Iannis Xenakis‘s Oresteia (2010, Grand Theatre National Opera in Warsaw).
Audiences also remember her from many other performances given on the Kraków national stage: as Agnieszka from Marek Hłasko’s Ósmy dzień tygodnia/ The Eight Day of the Week directed by Armin Petras (2005) as Aleksandra Bilewiczówna/ Character in Picture/ Ewa Nowowiejska in the irreverent Trylogia / Trylogy directed by Jan Klata and based on novels by Sienkiewicz (2009).
Wysocka had guest performances at the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin (Ozonkinder, 2006), and at Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz (Speeddating, 2006). The actress collaborates with German film directors, and starred in the following productions: Am Ende kommen Touristen directed by Robert Talheim (2007), Nachmieter by Marc Christopher Metzger (2009), Polnishe Ostern by Jakob Ziemnicki (2010), and Fremde Farben directed by Kamila Kuczyńska (2011).
In the Kraków Theatre Academy, she directed Niby –Alaska / Kind of Alaska together with Jan Peszek, based on texts by Harold Pinter (2007). At the same time, she worked on Wyspiański’s Klątwa/ The Curse at Old Theatre, which resulted in a poignant performance.
The hell of people overlaps with the hell of a place (...) – wrote Łukasz Drewniak. – Wysocka’s performance provokes concerns, it stays in your mind for a long time, and it pressures you to think back on the selected words, gestures, sequences. (Dziennik, Nov. 30, 2007).
Over a period of four years following the premiere of The Curse, Wysocka staged her performances at the most important theatres in the country. Her productions were presented at the Warsaw Theatre Meetings, and collected prizes in national theatre reviews. The director skillfully adapts classics to contemporary realities. She staged Wyspiański’s tragedy in the convention of journalistic reconstruction of events, and she set Franciszek Bohomolec’s Pijacy / Drunkards, a didactic eighteenth-century comedy, in a modern Warsaw backyard (2009, National Old Theatre in Kraków). Reflected upon from all possible perspectives, the brilliantly played drunkenness sparkled with shades of farce and seriousness.
The director often designs the sets and musical arrangements for her performances, and willingly uses multimedia. In her staging of Heiner Müller’s Volokolomsk Highway, a drama about a man plunged through recent history in a machine (2010, Polish Theatre in Wrocław), Wysocka used documentary films. In her production of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s A Gentle Creature (2010, Hieronim Konieczka Polish Theatre in Bydgoszcz), Wysocka preceded the main play with video recordings of the characters’ life. Her stage designs are often called installations. Such was the character of the stage in The Curse, which was the deserted space of the former Old Theatre Museum
The stage was interestingly arranged, poles were plastered with newspapers, and the screens displayed the images of Gręboszowa, texts of biblical warnings, photos of actors in their roles (Michał Mizera, Teatr 2/2008)
In her staging of Peter Handke’s Kaspar, (2009, Contemporary Theatre in Wrocław), a story of language, its structure and strength, the background of the stage was a scaffolding, and the theatrical action was complemented by film screenings.
One of the distinguishing marks of Wysocka’ performances are the musical arrangements.
Wysocka treats the text as a musical score, and the actors as resonators. Text flows rapidly, faster and faster; it loops, stutters, breaks into voices, perishes, and then flows again, tears apart, rushes. Language is not the property of characters, it passes into the possession of the actors – noted Marcin Kościelniak. - (...) the stage becomes a space of events (collisions), more linguistic than fictional. (Tygodnik Powszechny, May 7, 2011).
It occurred in Kaspar, in which one of the topics was language, as in Georg Büchner’s Lenzu (2011, National Theatre in Warsaw) – a study of the disintegration of the personality of the romantic poet.
The best proof of the director’s sensitive ear for the musicality of theatre was her staging of Philip Glass’s The Fall of the House of Usher, an opera based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe (2009, Grand Theatre National Opera in Warsaw) which was recognised as an excellent production. The theatrical action perfectly corresponded with the composer’s repetitive score. At the same time, the director captured the dark mood of the story, however, rejecting the staffage of Gothic novels and setting the story of an unhappy family in the reality of the recent past, spanning three decades.
Another production, Opera Documentary about the Round Table, with music written by Tadeusz Wielecki and inspired by the film by Piotr Bikont (2009), was a behind-the-scenes look at the memorable negotiations, and can be regarded as complementing her musical projects. For Wysocka, The Round Table is the founding myth of Polish society, it is, as she said, its "Oresteia". The performance was commissioned by the Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute on the occasion of the Warsaw Theatre Meetings.
In June 2011, she starred as Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, directed by Michał Zadara at the Polish Theatre in Bydgoszcz. A year later, she directed George Buchner’s Lenz at the National Theatre in Warsaw, and in April 2012, she directed and starred in H. Müller and P. Dusapin’s Medeamaterial. On September 30, 2012, Wysocka premiered with Woyzeck / Wozzeck at the Kammerspiele in Munich. Another collaboration with Michał Zadara was Fantazy after Juliusz Słowacki in 2015 where Wysocka played the role of Idalia.
On November 30, 2012, the Polish Theatre in Wroclaw held a premiere of Philoctetes, an ancient play directed by Wysocka and staged in Poland for the very first time. On stage, there were only four actors, empty space, bass sounds and a lot of questions: "Should a person excluded from society, sentenced to 10 years of exile, imprisonment and humiliation, forgive his tormentors? What is morality and in what cases does it legitimize violence? What are the higher purpose and the national treasures? Could they justify mass murder? Is it possible for a text written almost 2.5 thousand years ago to still be relevant and sound like a contemporary political thriller?" – as written on the theatre’s website.
Aneta Kyzioł of Polityka weekly noted: "Wysocka stages the drama, written in 409 BC, as a series of psycho-political negotiations played on a sloping platform, to the accompaniment of guitar riffs (Rafał Kronenberger in the role of the chorus). In addition, it has handsome actors in paramilitary costumes, and carnage at Troy to the rhythm of The Doors’s Riders on the Storm for the finale. A pretty little thing.” The audience rewarded the director with applause, and Magda Piekarska reported in Wroclaw daily Gazeta Wyborcza:
Philoctetes is the second production by Wysocka staged at Polish Theatre in Wrocław. As in Volokolomsk Highway, here she takes a closer look at the masculine world of war and politics. She reconstructs its mechanisms on the stage with pinpoint precision. But while the Highway dazzled with design and the structure of its musical composition, this time we get a much more modest performance. Space is limited here to a square surface, tilted toward the audience and covered with paper, on which appear the names of the heroes of the Trojan War, hand painted by Neoptolemus. Lemnos is nothing like a Greek paradise - a bare piece of land, cold and unpleasant. Neoptolemus wraps himself up in a feather jacket, and it seems that the newcomers with faces half-covered with glasses sailed here not by ship but by submarine. Somewhere in the distance, echoes carry the sound of explosions. And the text of the Greek tragedy combines with the conventions of a political thriller.
The musical talent of the director was also manifested in the performance Jesus Christ the Savior, in which she sang, and sometimes screamed and musically recited, the legendary monologue of eccentric German actor Klaus Kinski. She was accompanied on stage by two musicians – drummer Leszek Lorent and guitarist Bartłomiej Tyciński. She collaborated with Michał Zadara on Chopin Without a Piano during which she executed a literary transcription of the two piano concertos by Frederic Chopin. The performance premiered on 23 March 2013 at the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Kraków. The scenario was based on theoretical and philosophical works, biographies, Chopin's letters and interviews with outstanding pianists. Łukasz Drewniak in a review for Teatralny.pl webside wrote:
Chopin by Zadara and Wysocka is a tribute to experimental theatre, which does not betray high culture and becomes a classic right now because of the quality of performance. It is a new tone in Polish theatre which hopefully will not be wasted.
In 2014 Wysocka directed Moby Dick, an opera in four acts based on Herman Melville's novel. The opera was staged at the Grand Theatre – National Opera in Warsaw. The director created images correspond with the music composed by Eugeniusz Knapik and libretto by Krzysztof Koehler. Wysocka admitted it was the music that made her engage into the project.
She is also the author of a theatrical documentary about the unusual biography of Alina Szapocznikow. Wysocka explored a world in which, she says, the history of art was written by males. Szapocznikow / State of weightlessness / no gravity was an interdisciplinary work combining installation, drama and documentary. The performance took the form of a puzzle, and was very subjective. She created on stage a sort of space for discussion, a workshop in which she studied the phenomenon that was Szapocznikow. She searched the archives, reviewed all available materials – videos, photos, documents, accounts of those who knew the artist. The performance captivated the audience of the Warsaw Theatre Meetings during which it was staged.
In 2015 Wysocka directed Lucia di Lammermoor after Gaetan Donizetti at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich which is one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world. In the spectacle, she takes the audience on a journey to 19th-century America where the political class brings its own downfall because of its excessive struggle for power. Wysocka's starting point for the play is a tragic history of the Kennedy family. In an interview with Anna S. Dębowska, Wysocka told about her attitude toward the main character.
Madness is a relative word. Can you call a woman who opposes humiliation, putting her into position of an object in men's hands and being a political tool crazy? That is what the people whose plans she has foild call her. My Lucia is a steong woman who does not to be a victim and refuses to accept rules imposed by the society. She voices her objection loudly and clearly – she kills her husband who was chosen for her and wins. („Gazeta Wyborcza” daily, 26.01.2015)
The premiere was a long awaited event, there was even a documentary made about the play and broadcasted in national German television. The film's director, Alexander Kluge, is one of the most significant German filmmakers of the 19th century. After seeing the dress rehearsal, he said:
I am deeply moved by the staging. The images created by Wysocka go to the very heart of the drama and the action makes us think about the most painful and contemporary problems of our world.
Another realization from Barbara Wysocka was Julius Caesar in 2016, staged at the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw. The play was one of the finalists of the Golden Yorick Competition which rewards Polish artists for staging Shakespeare pieces or plays inspired by his works. Wysocka plays also the role of Mark Antony. Magdalena Hajdysz from the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre wrote:
Barbara Wysocka in her Julius Caesar wanted to try the old form of political theatre which was not turning our views on life upside down, but confirming the everyday recognition: what is the good and what is the bad. But today everything sucks. And what next? The hidden message of this play is that it is not clear at all what to do. (Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre, 11.06.2016)
Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, December 2011, update: February 2013, August2014,AL, transl. GS, 07.10.2014, July 2016 (ND)