Żmijewski confronts Polish theatre tradition with its society's strict Catholic conventions in his latest production of "Mass". The reaction of critics and clerics has been decidedly placid, indicating that the performance doesn't push the envelope of theatrical canons or of religious beliefs far enough to incite much fervor among audiences.
"Mass", directed by Artur Żmijewski, Teatr Dramatyczny in Warsaw, photo by Rafał Żwirek
Żmijewski confronts Polish theatre tradition with its society's strict Catholic conventions in his latest production of "Mass". The reaction of critics and clerics has been decidedly placid, indicating that the performance doesn't push the envelope of theatrical canons or of religious beliefs far enough to incite much fervor among audiences
For two consecutive evenings at the end of October artist Artur Żmijewski reconstructed a Roman Catholic mass on a 1:1 scale. The mass was not celebrated in a shrine, but held on the stage of Warsaw's Teatr Dramatyczny. The performance of "Mass" attempts to touch upon ideas such as the capability that art has to influence reality, as well as its ability to speak with a bold voice within a public discourse. Is it only the religious rituals that are capable of expressing a common pain and significant reflection? Perhaps theatre can also live up to the task.
One of Poland's most renowned and celebrated artists, Artur Żmijewski, draws upon Jerzy Grotowski's legacy of attempting to transgress the framework of theatre and entering the space of ritual, thus creating a new sense of community. Żmijewski was a student at the famous Kowalnia studio at the Department of Sculpture, led by professor Grzegorz Kowalski in Warsaw's Academy of Fine Arts. His controversial work has been acclaimed over the years, and the artist has been invited to be the curator of next year's Biennale in Berlin. The artist has remarked that "We will place the mass, the most famous 'performance' under scrutiny, and transfer it into the space of theatre. We make theatre which, in a way, is a documentary".
Gazeta Wyborcza critic Roman Pawłowski puts the focus on the theatrical aspects of the Żmijewski's work, as opposed to its purportedly heretical nature. In his article "Unholy Mass" published on the 7th of November, 2011, Pawłowski writes that in Polish tradition, theatre
is endowed with the particular, sacred role of uniting the community and to build its spiritual life. The director and fervent Catholic put it best with the saying that God invented theatre for those for whom the church is just not enough. Żmijewski, in confronting theatre with ritual, deconstructs this myth. the expectation that theatre will be something more than church is a fantasy. We don't believe in the theatrical mass, just as we don't believe in theatrical fiction. Instead of participating in the ritual, we uphold the passivity of the consumer. The only vivid moment throughout the entire hour-long theatrical mass was when the "holy man" went into the audience and began collecting money. And when the false cleric asked for a prayer for those who came to this house of worship to seek truth, the room filled with laughter. Truth in theatre? Please! It would be naive to seek any truth in post-modern theatre.
Roman Pawłowski goes on to say Żmijewski has pricked the balloon of Poland's theatrical mysticism and it is slowly deflating. He also quotes an earlier article by Father Andrzej Draguła ("Theatre is not capable of Blasphemy") in the same newspaper, which suggests that "nothing really happens in the performance", dashing both its attempts at a successful work of theatre and a challenge to the church. Draguła writes, "Instead of leading theatre in the way of ritual, Żmijewski has proposed the exact opposite - he's made the ritual theatrical and killed it on the stage". He calls the production a "recitation of the text which talks about the show".
The roles of the priest and a member of the clergy are performed Piotr Siwkiewicz and Krzysztof Ogłoza, respectively. According to Żmijewski, the idea for this project came up during the period of national mourning which was officially announced in Poland after 98 people, including the country's presidential couple and leading figures of the Polish political scene died in a plane crash near Smolensk, Russia, on the 10th of April, 2010. During the time of this state mouring, numerous cultural events were called off, and all theatres remained closed.
Up until the premiere of this performance, it was not known whether the audience would finally succumb to the idea, and, giving in to the power of ritual, perhaps join in the chanting of songs, respond to the calls of the 'priest', and maybe even receive communion? The bread hadn't been consecrated, but social pressure or habit may have proved to be stronger. Żmijewski says:
We are all familiar with this accesible plot, which I personally have imprinted in my mind rather strongly. I believe this to be the case with most of the audience members, as well. This results in a corporeal discipline, it makes you kneel, make a sign of the cross, sit, get up etc. It makes you enter and leave at appropriate moments.
Even one of the actors, Krzyszto Ogłoza, admitted to theatre critic Marcin Krasny for the Wprost weekly that at one point he got carried away, explaining
This project evokes ambiguos feelings. On the one hand I know that I'm an actor, who merely plays a priest. I haven't been consecrated as one, and I find myself in an entirely conventional space. But on the other hand – when some members of the theatre's technical staff were present during one of our rehearsals, I sensed a certain level of tension and excitement which made me feel strangely responsible for what I was doing.
Artur Żmijewski emphasises that he doesn't intend to create a parody or criticism of the mass, "We have put together this piece with all due respect, and we are putting a lot of effort into it. There isn't a moment of mocking in the "Mass". Being ironic is not my intention".
"Msza" / "Mass" is deprived of any additional commentary from the author. The sermon given during this "Mass" proceeds in accordance with the lithurgical calendar – it is appropriate to the date that the event takes place on. The sermon's theme is a reflexion upon the sacerdotal position. According to Żmijewski, the sermon is a call for dignity, respect of one's neighbours and a warning against looking down on others.
• Staging: Artur Żmijewski; cooperation: Igor Stokfiszewski; stage and production assistant: Magdalena Buczek; literary assistant: Katarzyna Dudzińska; production: Sławomir Adamko; stage manager: Tomasz Karolak.
Priest - Piotr Siwkiewicz
clergy member - Krzysztof Ogłoza
churchwardes - Jacek Błażejewski, Marek Lisik
choir – Chamber Vocal Ensemble of the State Music School nr 1 in Warsaw: Anna Bednarczuk, Dorota Braun, Zofia Kiniorska, Karolina Lizer, Katarzyna Mazurkiewicz, Wiktoria Ryńska, Aleksandra Szaniawska, Marta Urbanowicz, under the direction of prof. Ewy Marchwickiej.
"Mass" premiered October 29th, 2011 at the Gustaw Holoubek Dramatic Theatre in Warsaw.
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