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Paweł Demirski

Monika Strzępka i Paweł Demirski; fot. Natalia Dobryszycka/East News
Monika Strzępka and Paweł Demirski, photo: Natalia Dobryszycka/East News

Paweł Demirski is one of Poland’s most famous and controversial contemporary playwrights.  Working almost exclusively with his partner Monika Strzępka, he has confronted the Polish audience with difficult and painful social questions in a style that often borrows from popular culture and the methods of documentary theatre.

He has treated classic texts to vandalism, mocked the established order, and ridiculed the myths and heroes of previous generations of artists. Antagonistic, critical, and unapologetically political, his writing has given voice to the values of the left, values that have been largely sidelined in the wake of Poland’s transformation to capitalism.

Paweł  Demirski was born in 1979 in the city of Gdańsk, Poland’s largest port city on the Baltic Sea, and the birthplace of it’s Solidarity revolution. He studied architecture at the Polytechnic University in Gdańsk and later Journalism at the University of Wrocław. In 2003 he won a grant to study at the Royal Court Theatre in London where he spent a year observing rehearsals and seeing contemporary British theatre - especially documentary theatre. He made his debut in the theatre with the play Unconsciously in 2002, a piece based on the true story of a woman who asked a protestant minister to help her commit suicide. He changed the minister into a Catholic priest in his interpretation setting it squarely in the Polish context. Following the success of this piece, he was invited to became the literary director of the Wybrzeże Theatre in Gdańsk where he remained until 2006.  It was during this period that he began collaborating with his partner, the director Monika Strzępka, and became active with a group of young new left activists in the organization Krytyka Polityczna /Political Critique. Two important plays from this time are From Poland with Love, a piece about emigration and Polish identity and Wałęsa, A Merry and Therefore a Very Lugubrious History a critical retelling and demythologizing of the Solidarity movement.

During his tenure at the Wybrzeże Theatre, he also curated and produced a series of one-act plays inspired by the documentary theatre movement that focused on difficult Polish social issues including abortion, poverty and neo-fascism.  This project is considered an important moment in the development of Polish documentary theatre.

In 2006, he wrote the play When They Come to Burn Down Your House, Don’t Be Surprised based on the true story of a worker killed in an industrial accident. In the play the worker’s widow fights the company to expose the truth of her husband’s death, while the lawyer defending the company is revealed to have lost her own father during Martial Law in the 1980’s in a crime that was never investigated.  

Monika Strzępka i Paweł Demirski, 26.01.2011 Wrocław, Teatr Polski, fot. Bartek Sadowski/Fotorzepa/Forum
Monika Strzępka amd Paweł Demirski, 26.01.2011 Wrocław, photo: Bartek Sadowski/Fotorzepa/Forum

In 2007, he set his sights on Poland’s national poet and bard Adam Mickiewicz, in a radical deconstruction of The Forefathers’ Eve, his most famous dramatic work. The play, titled The Forefathers’ Eve. Exhumation, confronted Polish Romanticism and the myths that Adam Mickiewicz worked so carefully to create. It caused a scandal when it premiered. This was followed by Once, there was a Pole, a Pole, a Pole and the Devil, a smashup of personalities from Polish history and contemporary life that calls into question the underpinnings of Polish identity.  The play is peopled by women prisoners from Auschwitz, a criminal, the last leader of the Polish communist party, a German tourist, and a defrocked priest.

Demirski does not accept anything on faith: neither the authority of the classics, nor of widely accepted dogmas that frame our thinking about the world. By creating other, alternative versions of well-known literary and film histories, he tracks, reveals and mocks, one after the other, the mechanisms governing collective imagination and the consciousness of Poles. He reaches into well-guarded areas, reveals all the places where critical vigilance is losing ground to inertia, where thinking and self-reflection are pressured and imposed by top-down ways of interpreting reality, which somehow people recognize as their own autonomous ideas. - Igor Stokfiszewski, from the introduction to Parafrazy.

In 2008 he made Tykocin, a play about Polish and Jewish relations, with the director Michal Zadara and a team of Israeli actors in Tel Aviv.  The play is about two journalists and a student who arrive in the town of Tykocin to investigate a woman who is being awarded for saving Jews during World War II. In the course of the play it appears that the woman in fact saved a Jew, but she was probably also involved in the murder of other Jews. The play has three different endings leaving the truth of the matter ambiguous.   

He worked again with Michal Zadara in 2008 at the Stary Theatre in Kraków on an adaptation of Racine’s Iphigenia, called Ifigenia, a New Tragedy. Staged with minimal design, and a score made from sound and noise, it retells the Iphigenia myth in a contemporary military unit stranded by a hurricane.

Later in October of 2008 he returned to work with Monika Strzępka in Opole on an adaptation of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera called an Economic Opera for Pretty Women and Wealthy Gentlemen, a musical satire of neoliberalism, market crises, and the financial elite.

Demirski’s artistic strategy consists in placing the issues encrusted with the post-political magma of public life and confronted with the limitations of our mental, emotional and world view on a collision course with prejudice and well-being. In this way the artistic gesture becomes both a political gesture, forcing the resignation of feigned impartiality, insincere conciliatory rhetoric, and above all from noble universalization. - Joanna Krakowska, Afterword in Parafrazy

In 2009 he wrote Diamonds Are Coal That Got Down to Business, a deconstruction and adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya set in a contemporary neoliberal purgatory. The piece had its premiere in Wałbrzych and was later translated into English and published in the anthology (A)pollonia in 2015. This would be the beginning of an important series of pieces in collaboration with the theatre in Wałbrzych.

In 2009 he made another piece in Wałbrzych with Monika Strzępka in response to the hugely influential communist era television serial 4 Tank Men and A Dog, called Long Live War! The piece takes a critical eye to the TV series’ sentimental and propagandistic retelling of the war, and in the process focuses on the real horrors of the second world war. The piece won several awards and made Demirski and Strzępka two of the most famous names in contemporary Polish drama.

Also in 2009, he made Art for a Child at the Teatr im. Norwida in the city of Jelenia Góra with Monika Strzępka directing. A black comedy about Europe where Nazi Germany won the war, centers on a child who is found hanging from a tree in a parachute who can remember nothing except 'flying over the ocean'. Strangely, the Europeans are overcome with compassion and try to help the child.

After a year off, in which their first child was born, Demirski and Monika Strzępka made The Saint Sophia Hospital Mothers at the Teatr Rozrywki in Chorzów. The piece is a grotesque cabaret chronicling their own personal nightmarish experience of giving birth in a Polish state gynecological hospital. The play focuses on the question: Who can say, with full responsibility that I am ready to be a parent, and later can their children ever forgive them? The piece was also partly inspired by Carlos Saura’s 1976 horror film Cria Cuervos.

Also in 2011, he made In the Name of Jakub S. at the Dramatyczny Theatre in Warsaw, a piece that explores the peasant roots of modern Poland. It is a play about modern dreams and peasant mentality, and how Poland’s peasant roots subconsciously affect contemporary Polish society. The action is split between the Peasant Revolt of 1846, and the controversial figure of Jakub Szela, a leader of the revolt, and contemporary Poland.  Demirski uses his typical dialectic comparing the sharecropping system of the 19th century, where peasants paid most of their production to their lord, with contemporary debt driven capitalism. The play went on to several festivals and won many prizes.

In 2012, Demirski wrote About Good a play about the theatre and the ways it is funded and made in contemporary Poland.  Partly inspired by Monika Strzępka’s notorious expletive filled radio interview on TOK FM where she decried the system of theatre funding in Poland before storming off the air, the piece is a kind of staged protest, and depicts theatre makers fighting against the city government. Amy Winehouse makes an appearance as a kind of narrator, who apologizes for the actors lack of rehearsal time, due to their political activism. Actors play multiple characters including Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the journalists who uncovered the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon.

In 2012, Demirski made Company in Poznań at Nowy Theatre with Monika Strzępka, a play that explores nepotism and corruption in the privatization process of formerly state owned companies.  In the play, a group of people try to buy a railroad station and find themselves lost in sea of bureaucracy, lies and corruption.

Also in 2012, the pair made Rainbow Stand, a hilarious satire that mocked Polish attitudes towards homosexuality and their obsession with soccer. The play focuses on a much publicized media story about a group of gay soccer fans that wanted to have their own stand in the Euro Cup in Poland.  

In the winter of 2012, Demirski and Strzępka made a major production at the Polski Theater in Wrocław called Courtney Love about the famous singer, her husband Kurt Cobain, and their grunge music world. The ensemble spent six months learning how to play rock and roll and performed all the music live. The piece investigates the cannibalistic nature of fame, and focuses a critical eye on their own motives and the meaning of artists in society.

In 2013, Demirski and Strzępka headed to Kraków, to the Stary Theatre where they made The Battle of Warsaw, 1920.  The piece looks at the birth of modern Poland, when General Piłsudski and the Polish Army defeated the Red Army and founded the 2nd Republic. Seen partly through the lens of Karl Marx’s writing on Poland, it satirizes popular conceptions of Polishness, and the heroic narrative of Poland’s birth.  The piece focuses on unknown and obscure figures and stories that surround the famous heroes of the War.

After a six month break, the pair returned to make a new piece in 2014 in a co-production with the Imka Theatre in Warsaw and the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre in Kraków, this time in the form of a political serial called Curse! Meaning episodes from the Time of Hopelessness. The piece celebrates the mass demise of the Polish parliament, with clear references to the Smoleńsk catastrophe, seen through the eyes of vacuous television journalists. The piece attacks equally all levels of power in Polish society including the Church, the Media and the Government. In the first episode Christ appears to announce the apocalypse. Other episodes included such titles as Religious Education and Witches Sabbath.

Also in 2014, Demirski and Strzępka returned to the Stary Theatre in Kraków with the play Not Divine Comedy, on the subject of Poland’s uprisings and revolutions based on the writings of the Romantic author Zygmunt Krasiński who also appears as a character in the piece.  Krasiński is portrayed as an anti-semite living in terror of Polish history and her many failed revolutions.  It takes the bitter judgement that Poland’s many fights for independence has led her to an empty neoliberal purgatory and that the development of Poland’s middle class was only made possible by the death of Poland’s Jews in World War II.

Pawel Demirski, together with his partner Monika Strzępka have blazed a prolific path through contemporary Polish drama. They have been an influential and important critical voice in society, subjecting Polish values, myths and history to rigorous examination in plays that are staged in an energetic and inventive style.  Actively seeking controversy and always ready for a fight, they have asked hard questions, probed painful wounds, and challenged the accepted narratives of contemporary Poland. They are also arguably two of the most important voices of the left in Poland today.   

Paul Bargetto's picture
Paul Bargetto
2016/01/29
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Paweł Demirski

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