Jan Englert is an actor, director, professor, and since 2003, artistic director of the National Theatre in Warsaw. He was born in Warsaw in 1943.
He made his film debut at age 14 when he played the liaison officer Zefirek in Kanał / Canal (1957), the well-known film directed by Andrzej Wajda. Although he dreamt of becoming a sports commentator, his early adventure with film influenced his later choices in life. In 1964, he graduated from Warsaw's National Theatre Academy of Dramatic Arts (Państwowa Wyższa Szkoła Teatralna). Immediately after graduation, he began working in the Polski Theatre. For many years he played minor parts before appearing in more important roles, such as Helingebal in Irydion, based on a play by Zygmunt Krasiński (1966).
His big break came in 1968, thanks to a successful Theatre for Television production, which won several prizes at international festivals. After watching the Notes / Notebook by Zdzisław Skowroński, in which Englert played the part of Stefan Bielak, Kazimierz Kutz cast him in the two films of his Silesian Saga: Sól ziemi czarnej / The Salt of the Black Earth and Perła w koronie / The Pearl in the Crown.
Since then, Englert has appeared in over one hundred film roles. These have included Dr. Judym in a film by Włodzimierz Haupe, Orsza, an insurgent in Jan Łominicki's Akcja pod Arsenalem / Operation Arsenal, Konrad in Filip Bajon's Magnat / Magnate, Wiktor in Roman Zaluski's Komedia małżeńska / Conjugal Comedy. Although significant, these were not leading roles, with the exception of Dr. Judym. In 1997 he admitted,
I am fully aware that my work has been rather coincidental. I played a great many roles that went unnoticed, and a few terrible or mediocre ones for which I was awarded, and, unfortunately, I am keenly aware of this. What has always pained me has been that my greatest successes have been always somehow due to my psychological and physical image. This profession is not a just one, and success is not always solely the result of one's talent and skills.
He owes his great popularity mostly to his roles in TV series, such as in Janusz Morgenstern's Polskie drogi / Polish Roads (1976), Jerzy Antczak's Noce i dnie / Nights and Days, (1977), Ryszard Ber's Lalka / The Doll (1977), Jan Rybkowski's Rodzina Połanieckich /Połaniecki Family (1978), Juliusz Machulski's Matki, żony i kochanki / Mothers, Wives and Lovers (1995). Some of his roles have became cult classics: that of Zygmunt, one of the characters from Janusz Morgenstern's Kolumbowie / Columbuses, a four-episode screen adaptation of a novel by Roman Bratny of the same title about the young Home Army (Armia Krajowa) soldiers during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, and the role of Rajmund Wrotek, a camera operator for the Polish Documentary Chronicle, and later, a documentary film director in Jan Lomnicki's TV series Dom (made in 1980-2000), a multi-plot story of a Warsaw block of flats told in the context of historical and social changes in post-war Poland. Zygmunt's poignant sayings quickly entered everyday speech and his character is proving to be a role model for today's generation of viewers, as well. Englert's looks have meant that he is often cast in the role of handsome "lover" types. His characters have usually been nice, straightforward, honourable and clear-cut, often consumed with a mission or noble passion. "I wish people would stop looking at me as just a 'pretty face', as someone who is incapable of deeper emotions on the screen," he said indignantly several years ago in an interview. In recent years, viewers have seen another side of Englert in his roles as Jarek Bronko in Jan Łomnicki's Szczur / Rat (1994], Huba in Kazimierz Kutz's screen adaptation of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz's Sława i chwała / Fame and Glory (1997), the gangster Lipski in Juliusz Machulski's Kiler / Killer (1997), and its sequel, and the character of Death in Dariusz Zawiślak's Świąteczna przygoda / A Very Christmas Story (2000).
Despite his undeniable successes on the big screen, theatre is still most important for Englert, whose theatrical roles, which are increasingly gaining critical acclaim, are the best proof of this.
Theatre is a place where I put my professional skills to the real test. It is also the only place where the viewer participates in the creative process. Contemporary theatre demands that an actor completely change his performance technique, that there be a change of convention. Then one cannot communicate with the viewer beyond the text or character. Brecht-like "standing aside" does not work anymore. I must be the one who takes the viewer away. (Przegląd Tygodniowy, December 3, 1997).
After working at the Polski Theatre from 1964 to 1969, he worked at the Współczesny Theatre from 1969 to 1981, then again at the Polski Theatre under the direction of Kazimierz Dejmek from 1981 to 1994, and, since 1997, at the National Theatre (Teatr Narodowy).
Theatre is still a place where one can be an artist. In film, it is the director who is the artist, and the actor is a more or less an object being photographed. This is the reason why the theatre gives me the most satisfaction. (Slowo Ludu no. 2031, July 3, 1998).
According to critics, his greatest stage creations have been the character of Leon Węgorzewski in Witkacy's Matka / Mother (1970), Vatzlav in Sławomir Mrożek's Vatzlav (1982), Konrad in Stanisław Wyspiański's Wyzwolenie / Liberation (1982), Gustaw in Aleksander Fredro's Śluby panieńskie, czyli magnetyzm serca / Maidens' Vows, or The Magnetism of the Heart (1984), Bartodziej in Slawomir Mrozek's Portret / Portrait (1987), and the title role in William Shakespeare's Richard III (1993). At the National Theatre, he has played in Shakespeare's King Lear (1998), Gajew in Chekhov's Wiśniowy sad / Cherry Orchard (2000) and Latka in Fredro's Dożywocie / The Annuity (2001). Of his role as Bartodziej in Portrait, critics wrote,
Bartodziej's face is as lifeless as a mask most of the time. Jan Englert uses very subtle yet varied means of artistic expression, with consequences rarely seen on our stages, to build a portrait of a man whose apathetic withdrawal from the world into himself borders on a psychological disorder. (Krzysztof Kopka, Teatr, February 1988)
Englert became involved in directing in the late 1970s. Fascinated with the classics, he is most eager to put on stage productions of the Polish Romantics, as well as plays by Witkacy and Anton Chekhov. He has produced several key Polish works of drama for the Theatre for Television, which have included Irydion, a rarely performed stage piece by Zygmunt Krasiński (1982), Kordian by Juliusz Słowacki (1994), and Dziady / Forefathers' Eve by Adam Mickiewicz (1997). In the latter two, Englert cast Michal Żebrowski, his pupil and one of the most talented actors of the younger generation, in the leading roles. Forefathers' Eve, presented in two parts, launched a deep, widespread discussion on how to read, interpret and perform nineteenth century classics. The director asked himself rhetorically,
(...) What could young people find interesting in Romanticism? I believe everyone can find the drama of a great figure interesting, an existential drama one about who we are and how we should live in the world around us. How can we overcome mediocrity? How can we create? (Trybuna, November 17, 1997)
Since 1980, Jan Englert has been a lecturer at the State Drama School in Warsaw (Państwowa Wyższa Szkoła Teatralna/now known as the Academy of Theatre - Akademia Teatralna). In 1981 to1987, he served as Dean of the Acting Department, and was elected to the post of rector three times – in 1987-90, 1990-93, and 1996-2001. For him, his greatest achievement during this period has been the renovation of the Collegium Nobilium, the school's theatre, which stands where the Piarist monks' eighteenth century stage used to be.
Teaching gives him great satisfaction. "I relish my work with students. It gives me a Pygmalion-like satisfaction. None of my own roles have given me as much joy as a successful debut by one of my students". In May 2001, he was made honorary professor at the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts in Moscow.
Acting is the fastest aging profession in the world because it depends on the viewer. Striking a balance between aesthetics in our art, to which we are accustomed and wish to defend, and the audience's taste (not always identical to ours) is to find the golden mean. The whole secret of our profession lies in this 'knack'. This talent can be mastered by teaching it to others. (Dziennik Polski No. 58, March 9, 2001)
Jan Englert is also a screenplay writer (Wielka wsypa / Great Blunder, Szczur / Rat) and has contributed essays to the Warsaw daily Rzeczpospolita, in which he observes modern society 'from the wings', reminding readers in the voice of a sober critic,
Aspiring to an international career and recognition beyond one's own backyard is absolutely natural, provided that it does not become a disease which destroys the achievements of many generations. I assure provincial Poles that someone like Fredro, for example, is not one bit worse a playwright than Moliere, although it is only in here in Poland that he's found his place. (Rzeczpospolita No. 138, June 15, 2001).
Englert is very popular. In his many interviews, he shows a great sense of humour, and is not afraid to poke fun at himself:
Luckily, I convinced myself that I don't deserve to be shut up in a reservation yet. Don't think I'm saying this because I'm jealous of Harvey Keitel or other actors I admire. I'm a provincial actor and this is important to me. I'd rather be a star in Skierniewice than a third-rate actor out in the big wide world.
While working on his own prjects, he later became director of the National Theatre in Warsaw. Englert performed, directed and invited young authors to the theatre. He starred in Jerzy Grzegorzewski's plays: as General Chłopicki in Stanisław Wyspiański's Noc Listopadowa / November Night (2000); Count Henryk in Zygmunt Krasiński's Nie-Boska Komedia / The Undivine Comedy and Macbeth-King in Stanisław Wyspiański's Hamlet (2003). Grzegorzewski gave him parts in his version of Tadeusz Różewicz's Duszyczka / Little Spirit (2004), as well as in Antoni and Jerzy Grzegorzewski's original play On. Drugi powrót Odysa / He. The Second Homecoming of Odysseus (2005). On top of that Englert played Witold III and the Emperor in Jerzy Jarocki's Błądzenie / The Wandering, a production based on the works of Witold Gombrowicz (2004). Maja Kleczewska choose him for the part of Theseus in Phaedra, a play based on the works of Euripides, Seneca, Per Olov Enquist and István Tasnádi (2006).
As theatre director Englert grappled with Witkacy. At The National Theatre in Warsaw he directed Kurka wodna / The Water Hen (2002) and Bezimienne dzieło / The Anonymous Work (2005) - a diploma play brilliantly performed by the students from the Theatre Academy.
Elżbieta Baniewicz wrote about Bezimienne dzieło,
The play turned out to be very funny and very serious at the same time. The humour was top-notch, while the meaning of the philosophical and catastrophic dialogues thrown by suffering artistic characters at barbarian society was piercing. (Twórczość No. 12, 2006).
Moreover, the National Theatre performed brillantly another play directed by Englert: the Polish premiere of Power (2005) written by Nick Dear, a contemporary British playwright. Recently Englert returned to the classics. He produced Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, a universal political drama, at the Television Theatre (2005). He chose an interesting, contemporary setting, in addition to superb acting (Englert played the title role). Then again at the National Theatre he produced Aleksander Fredro's Śluby panieńskie / Maidens' Vows where he played Radost (2007). Englert directed Chekhov's play Ivanov (2008) with Andrzej Łapicki, returning to the stage in the part of Count Shabelsky.
The director of the National Theatre, as an ally of the neo-traditionalist Artur, proudly repeats “I'm so old-school” and by this token he makes perfect use of the opportunity to be a bit ironic about himself. His tango with Edek (Grzegorz Małecki), who eventually takes over control of the house, is rather uptight. Hence, in this dance one can discern a chance for resistance against stupidity and power.
Englert has also opened the doors of the National Theatre to the young generation of directors such as Michał Zadara, Grzegorz Jarzyna and the controversial Russian artist Konstantin Bogomolov. As he admitted in a conversation with Dorota Wyżyńska: “I propose the most interesting texts of diverse genres. It is important however, that they are worthwhile productions. As a gambler, I enjoy taking risks. Running the theatre is politics. And after all these years, I've gotten to know what heart palpitations really are."
It was on the national stage that Grzegorz Jarzyna had a chance to stage the legend of the vampire Nosferatu and offered Englert the leading role. The artists had already collaborated on the highly acclaimed production T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T staged at TR Warszawa. Jarzyna recalled in Dziennik Teatralny:
I'd been looking for an actor to perform the leading role for quite a long time and I couldn’t imagine anyone other than Jan in this role. It’s because he is mature, and he can see things which I can’t. I’ve been looking for a very aware man who has raised children, and who knows what it means to have a career. We didn’t really know each other. His performance in Katyń finally convinced me. It was real. He performs truthfully on the stage because he is also a film actor. In the context of Pasolini it was of utmost importance. I wanted to show that art of acting is something realistic, truthful.
To that Englert responded:
When I became the director of the National Theatre, I wrote to Jarzyna offering to collaborate. I must confess something. And my students are my witnesses. When Jarzyna appeared on the theatrical horizon I said in public, at the academy, that my feelings for him are like those of Salieri for Mozart.
For the TV Theatre, Englert directed Hanoch Levin’s The Labor of Life and Aleksander Fredro’s short play Nikt mnie nie zna / No One Knows Me, arguing that a real classic doesn’t lose its relevance despite its costumes, customs, and technique, for the human being in fact stays the same, it is just subjected to other pressures. However, the classics should be staged in a manner comprehensible to a contemporary audience. In 2014, Englert received an honorary award at Dwa Teatry (the Two Theatres Festival) for transferring the famous staging by Jerzy Jarocki Miłość na Krymie/ Love in the Crimea to TV theatre.
The last play he directed up to date in Narodowy Theatre was - yet another time in his career - Kordian (2015), to which he added quotes from Wyspiański and exercepts from Faustus, which was enthusiastically received by the critics.
A play of such caliber is only created once every ten years or even more rarely. A play that restores our faith in a theatre that confronts what's most important. A play that is alive, rapacious even, enchanting and wise at the same time. The script itself deserves a deeper analysis. In a two-hour play, Jan Englert was able to include all of the most important plots of the tragedy, open it to ideas from outside (there are many quotes, from Wyspiański among others), anchor it in the history of theatre and find a relation to the present - wrote Tomasz Miłkowski (Przegląd nr 51/14.12.2015).
Updates: 2008, 2014, July 2016.
Translated by: Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer
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