Conservative spectators are not immune to social or political issues, yet they believe in a theatre is not a newspaper, especially of yesterday news, nor a carbon copy of what is happening in the streets.
Over the past few years the Polish theatre scene has seen the rise of a trend, especially amongst critics, which is based on the confrontation of traditional and contemporary, engaged theatre. Reviews are founded on the notion of a pro-active theatre, concentrating on major social issues relevant today
In response to that radical view, some teams vivaciously defend a rather journalistic notion, which ignores the discourse of the author, yet underlines the interpretation of the director. Through the analysis of the situation or the use of provocative stimuli, the play can be set at the centre of shocking social issues, flaunting politically challenging, uncomfortable and violent themes. This specific kind of theatre has its own group of critics, press and defenders, gathered around the Warsaw Theatre Forum (Warszawskie Spotkania Teatralne), an event presenting shows from Wałbrzych, currently considered the capital of emerging new theatre.
One of the most notable examples of this new scene is represented by the laureates of the Polityka Passport 2011, a duo consisting of stage director Monika Strzępka and playwright Paweł Demirski. Both are very engaged in the actions of left winged Krytyka Polityczna publication - attacking elitist and deceitful historical records, the rules of the free market and globalisation that creates stronger boundaries of exclusion. Aficionados obviously perceive such spectacles as "Był sobie Andrzej, Andrzej, Andrzej i Andrzej" / "There was Andrzej,..." and "Niech żyje wojna!!!" / "Long live War!!!" as bearing a great load of rebellion and radical critic of the establishment, social injustice, lack of representation of minorities within the social debate, as well as modern acting and sophisticated theatrical style. Sceptics on the other hand see those like rather trivial journalism vulgarly wrapping common ideas, such as the iconic adventures-propaganda TV series "Czterech pancernych i psa" / "Four men and a dog", that got revamped as a historical document, which in the context of primitive theatrical aesthetics, filled with simplifications and tautology is combined with puppeteer-like acting, deprived of any credibility.
Conservative spectators are not immune to social or political issues, yet they believe in a theatre is not a newspaper, especially of yesterday news, nor a carbon copy of what is happening in the streets. It should, rather, present itself as an art form that expresses a distanced reflection about the world, through multidimensional metaphors or universal messages, presented by actors who not only use nudity and shout, but many means of expression.
Shown in Wrocław, Strzępka and Demirski's next endeavour, "Tęczowa trybuna 2012" / "Rainbow Tribune 2012" treats of the place and rights of gay people in society (not only in the context of the World Cup); the play is placed amongst critics' favourites of the year. Also included in the list are "Generał" / "The General", by Marek Kalita and Aleksandra Popławska, inspired by the figure of Wojciech Jaruzelski from Teatr IMKA, as well "Utwór o Matce i Ojczyźnie" / "Piece about the Mother and Fatherland" by Bożena Keff, directed by Jan Klata, depicting anti-Semitism through the perspective of the family.
The trend that follows the journalistic approach in theatre, used as a political forum, generates great interest in the press, in spite, perhaps, of its artistic value and often at the expense of other shows. Critics seem to tolerate plays that are written and set in contemporary times, and used in the urgency of the news, as those will probably fall into oblivion after a few seasons. But when it comes to the rewriting of classical Polish and international pieces by directors and playwrights, where theatre is transformed into political thesis read in yesterday's newspapers and inspired by celebrity columnists, reviewers become more aggressive. The adaptation of universal matters to prosaic themes appears as an unsuccessful trick which only leads to caricature that fail in the formulation of a comprehensive collective thread.
Such newsworthy subjects as the Smoleńsk plane crash, where tragedy is a uniting force on a national scale, has inspired the creation of two shows based on Adam Mickiewicz's "Dziady / Forefathers' Eve": "Mickiewicz. Dziady. Performance" directed by Paweł Wodziński, presented in Bydgoszcz and "Dziady" directed by Krzysztof Babicki, shown in Katowice. Both plays are set in a homeless shelter, putting the emphasis on the misfits, that are excluded not only because of poverty, but also because of intolerance. The character of Konrad, as seen in Babicki's play, is a man whose life started at the rise of the Solidarity movement, who thirty years later can only perceive the world as a big war of everyone against everyone. That same figure in Wodziński's eye is a cynical thirty year old, who fights alongside Father Piotr not as much for the sake of mass souls as for electorate appeal. Democratic elites, drowned in their own matters are shipping away from regular people as a threatening climax rises; in the end, both groups stand facing each other, only separated by fences. Some critics regret the approximate execution of both ambitious messages, as the dramatic value becomes opaque, and the public witnesses a completely hermetic attempt at journalistic reassessment of a universal tragedy.
A comparable modernisation of a classic piece was presented by Mikołaj Grabowski, whose take on Adam Mickiewicz's "Pan Tadeusz" / "Mr Tadeusz", a romantic-patriotic mythical tale of his homeland, became a pilgrimage of compatriots in search of Polishness within and around themselves, or an epic poem as read by Witold Gombrowicz. The director's tricks, shared by many fellow theatre figures, consisting of mocking national flaws and caricatured habits, does not bring anything new, original or pertinent to the alleged diagnosis, which ultimately falls into a sub-category of redundant poetic derision.
Probably in rebellious response to the post-modernistic deconstruction of classic texts filled with tame notes and against the explosion of fanatic Christian patriotism after the Smoleńsk catastrophe, the subversive "Msza" / "Mass" was presented at Teatr Dramatyczny in Warsaw. The actors recreate a full liturgy, along with a sermon "in intention of Christian's responsibility for the world", collecting money for "the social committee of preservation of the old Powązki cemetery"... Is the performance a testing of faith, often instrumentalised by politicians? A test for elites that are so ironically set towards collective rituals? Or is it a serious attempt at finding a community? Young artist Artur Żmijewski's concept is certainly radical, yet the ultimate moral, if there is any, relies on the personal interpretation of each viewer. In any case, the clergy didn't demonstrate an affront in response to the show, suggesting that the show is not very powerful in its artistic message or its depiction of religion.
A tremendously different approach was chosen by Jerzy Jarocki to introduce his "Sprawa" / "The Case" on the stage of National Theatre. The script, based on "Samuel Zborowski", "Raptular", Slowacki's "Dziady" and other texts was vivaciously bashed by Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz, the author of "Samuel Zborowski", as a foundation myth of civic disobedience and inflexibility with the Smoleńsk catastrophe as a background. Yet some critics define the latter's interpretation as wrongfully tendentious, as it is formatted by the constant intervention of the news in theatre reviewing. Therefore, this bold, ambitious and ambiguous piece that attacks literality has been mostly perceived in an opaque fashion. The director confronted the bard's texts to archive images documenting celebrations at the Royal Castle in Warsaw and the burial of Juliusz Slowacki's remains in Wawel in 1927; the combination of both narratives is so contrasting that it only compounds the misconceptions of the subject.
Jarocki reads Słowacki's text on multiple layers, through his biography as well as his rampant poetic imagination. Pieces of mystical era are mirrored with immigration conflicts and enslaved nations, leading to the formulation of fundamental ideas, some of which have yet to get out of the fog. The author is presented as an extremely bright and conscious man whose aim was to stimulate the collective cerebral effort of future Polish generations in the hope of creating a great and powerful country. This goal had to be achieved through the intellectual discipline of inducting sense into individual and collective creations, while rejecting altogether the acts of noble liberum veto and anarchic disobedience. Słowacki studied the journey of the soul through history, especially the history of his homeland, appreciating the Manichaeism of the process, an opposition he wanted to marry through formal dialect. In "Sprawa", Jerzy Jarocki demonstrates the confrontation of numerous notions and statements derivative of Słowacki, placed above explicit news topics.
Unfortunately, this type of theatrical reflection is becoming a rarity, as depicting multidimensional, ambiguous and complex realities expressed via original set design seems to be out of fashion on the Polish drama scene. One of its primary causes is the systematic closing of theatres of repertoire, which gather several generations of very versatile actors that fluidly camp various sensibilities, styles and eras of classical drama. A brighter light is put on author’s theatres, adapting literature from various eras and styles to what the director chooses to say. Those gather a team of actors that work around a leader, focused on success, especially on an international level – as such projects are often sponsored and produced in collaboration with numerous foreign festivals.
One of its finest examples is Grzegorz Jarzyna's "Nosferatu", created with the collaboration of the National Theatre in Warsaw and several festivals. The production, based on Bram Stoker's novel from 1897, which inspired the films of Friedrich Murnau and Werner Herzog, was produced as a play that should be saleable everywhere. Unfortunately, critics unanimously agreed upon its intellectual vacuity, the kitschy lack of irony and distance towards the obsolete tradition of horror films. Neither did the music, composed by famed composer John Zorn, nor the participation of Austria actor Wolfgang Michael in the title role save the play from sinking; some reviews compared the failure of the production to the equally criticised play "T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T.", based on the writings of Pier Paolo Passolini two years ago.
A notable exchange programme seems to overturn the dynamic of Polish theatre, with one of the most anticipated premieres of the year being "Jackson Pollesch" by René Pollesch at Teatr Rozmaitości in Warsaw. The play revolves around the author's pressure of creativity that actually kills the artistic creation. The show was reviewed as amusing yet uninspired, a weak result many blamed on the virtual absence of the theatre's director Jarzyna, who spends more time directing foreign stages and complaining about a constant lack of funds in Poland.
Other productions featuring mixed production teams included: Węgier Gábor Zsámbéki's "Kazimierz i Karolina" / "Casmir and Carolina" by Ödön von Horváth at Teatr Narodowy, which got cancelled right after the premiere proved it a flop; on the same stage, Jacques Lasalle presented the coolly welcomed concerto "Lorenzaccio" by Alfred de Musset, before showing Molière's "School for Wives" about which critics said only Andrzej Seweryn as Arnolf saved from absolute boredom.
In parallel to those widely promoted premieres, some critics applauded such more discrete plays as Maja Kleczewska's stage adaptation of Luchino Visconti's masterpiece film "The Damned" / "La Caduta degli dei" shown in Opole. The director depicts with precision the moral degradation of a dysfunctional family yet evenly affected by wealth. Kleczewska gave up the original set of the Third Reich of the 1930s in order to demonstrate how easily some are able to resign from common decency, ignore pathology and cruelty, also known as the ultimate palpable and visible evil, just to achieve power. In this light the dawn of values equals the dawn of humanity.
Another director to watch is Agnieszka Glińska. Following the ironically truculent "Mewa" / "Seagull" by Czechow shown at Teatr Narodowy in 2010, she presented Iwan Wyrypajew's "Iluzje" / "Illusions" at Teatr Na Woli. Glińska chose two pairs of actors to analyse their feelings and complicated relations in an unusual fashion, using irony as the ultimate referee in this dialectic game.
The end of the year saw the premiere of the amusing spectacle "Moralność pani Dulskiej" / "The morals of Mrs. Dulska" by Gabriela Zapolska. With this new take on an oldie amongst Polish playwriting, Agnieszka Glińska presented one of the greatest stage successes of the year. The naturalistic limitations of the play are skilfully and amusingly overturned, while the psychologism of the characters is broken by dance and music, while the set is transposed in contemporary times. The viewers witness a living modern space in opposition with the outdated suffocating salon of Kraków, animated by a great team of actors, most notably Monika Krzywkowska in the role of Dulska, an actress at her finest according to reviewers.
Iwona Kempa is another name amongst the best stage directors of the year. After several years of successful adaptations of Hanoch Levin's texts, she came back in 2011 with yet another of his plays, "Udręka życia" / "The labor of life" at the Juliusz Słowacki theatre in Kraków. The show focuses mainly on the actors, who revolve on an empty stage, devoid of set design and decorations or any interpretation support of any kind. The actors perform the Israeli playwright's text with precision, empathy and care, yet joyful moments of comic relief are a common rhythmic base as well. Here, the fluid, unaffected acting, stripped from any characteristic note or genre wraps Levin's drama in a universal light, a quality often strangled by the play's urban customs.
Like most stages in Poland, Warsaw theatres are suffering of the crisis, yet not simply on a financial level. Despite continuous complains about lacks of funds, none of these venues has closed during the whole season, while new, private ones keep on blossoming everywhere, along with numerous festivals (over 200 registered this year!). Not a single week passes without a festival, series of events, forums, reviews including puppet, musical and dancing happening somewhere in Poland. Critics point the finger on the quality of the theatre scene in the country, which would possibly benefit from a fewer number of events, in favour of more sophisticated productions.
An exception to the rule appears to rely on the autonomic venue of Nowy Teatr, which has its own stage, which presented in November the much anticipated show "Opowieści afrykańskie według Szekspira" / "African Tales by Shakespeare" directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski. Referencing a spectrum of Shakespearean works ("Othello", "The Merchant of Venice" and "King Lear"), as well as J.M. Coetzee's novel "Summertime", the play gathered more unanimous praise than most of the director's work in the last years. The realistic atmosphere tinted with mystery is reminiscent of Edward Hopper's melancholic and alienated paintings, as depicting people caught in stolen moments of urban solitude and introspective silence. Or the documenting of the oddity of regular people's life, such as seen through the eyes of filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, flies on a white piece of paper.
The Shakespearian relations between the characters are transposed into contemporary reality, in which the actors re-invent their roles. As the space of a large city suggest the changing lights for each scene, associated with live images and original score, the set design and sensorial decorum are significantly more subtle than in most modern productions. No need to have radio speakers yelling hits from pop charts louder than the actors voices, nor to blind them with aggressive neons. The urban heartbeat and its pulsating streets are quietly present, but not overwhelming. The characters of these tales are inhabitants of a huge metropolis, where races, religions and cultures melt, not without conflict. Often aroused by irrational fear of what is different, unknown and strange, the explosions of violence are also framed within raw emotions, suspicions, gratuitous cruelty and helplessness facing suffering, none of which can be strangled, hidden or changed into empathy. The play also unveils the emotions dictated by physical urges, rarely feelings, as the positive ones seem to be in shortage, each character protecting himself from the other by an armour of brutality and cynicism. Warlikowski's show seems to legitimate the demand of productions based on extremely extensive rehearsal periods, leading to exquisite theatre pieces.
Polish theatre continues to evolve, with experimental productions from the youngest generation prying at the essence of the Polish spirit through its history and its character today.
Warlikowski's African Tales by Shakespeare Returns to the Stage
Jarzyna's "Nosferatu" - A Ballad of Good vs. Evil
Grzegorz Jarzyna's "T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T." in Great Britain