New productions highlight the writer’s disquieting theatricality – directed by the stealthy provocateur Krzysztof Garbaczewski in Wrocław on the 15th of December, Michał Znaniecki and Adrian Blanco in Buenos Aires, and Italian grandmaster Luca Ronconi in spring 2014.
Photo credits: Natalia Kabanow / Teatr Polski.
There’s a rapacious element to the theatre of Witold Gombrowicz. It's not just in the mechanism driving his three major plays, each written at a different phase over his strikingly nonlinear career. Ivona, Princess of Burgundia (1938) predicted the postwar-era's absurd tragicomedies, took some 20 years to finally hit the boards – and's now as frequently staged as any modernist classic. That element, meanwhile, is on ready display in the way play-acting springboards and see-saws through most of his writing – what author more persistently affirms that all the world’s a stage? And it's bountifully evident in the way the theatre community mines the spectrum of his novels, stories and non-fiction to fuel new stagings worldwide.
Yet Gombrowicz scoffs in print that he'd not been in a theatre for 30 years (he also had no patience for opera or poetry, and dismisses painting and the gallery scene with cutting precision). A scholarly anecdote says that he once offered to repay a loan by writing that person into his Diary but was refused – and now gets the last laugh, with that momentous work available in two dozen languages. It's even made it, yes, to the stage. Director Michal Grabowski and IMKA Theatre play a trim version of the thick Diary, which they brought outdoors in June 2013 in Warsaw for a night show before a packed lawn at the Krolokarnia summer palace.
Photo credits: Natalia Kabanow / Teatr Polski
Culture.pl takes a tour of four Gombrowicz productions in late 2013 and early 2014. They may indicate how theatre, at its best, remains a bastion for dispute (just recall the last time you heard anybody speak out at the movies). At Teatr Polski in Wrocław on the 15th of December, a production from the private papers in Kronos premieres– a text that’s not only not a play, Gombrowicz never even intended it to be a book. Just published in May 2013 with extensive footnotes, Kronos has also taken to a stage in Argentina as an experimental oratorio in late November. An incomplete play, unpublished at his death in 1969, continues its run at Hasta Trilce in Buenos Aires, directed by Adrian Blanco. And a piece adapting Pornografia, the novel he designed as his least comic – in it, he “resigned from humor, which isolates”, according to a Diary entry in 1960 – had preview performances in Italy at the Spoleto Festival in July, and premieres in 2014 at prominent theatres in Milan and Rome.
Rehearsals began in October for the new work premiering this weekend by Krzysztof Garbaczewski, with a schedule of dates through mid January at Teatr Polski in Wrocław. It's the debut theatre presentation from Kronos - and what text could seem more unwieldy for the stage, that home of the most real of the arts, a form that still enjoys the prerogative of making mistakes? When Kronos was launched as a book in Poland in May, it provoked extremes: revelatory indulgence and dismissal. Its dry factuality becomes a final leer, an ultimate unmasking from an author who never staged life in pretty pictures.
In statements to PolskaLokalna.pl, the director says his new piece is inspired by Kronos but does not adapt the text - that he and the cast are working on how people create biographies. "It's very difficult to stage Kronos in the theatre", Garbaczewski declares. "Kronos is an interesting construct of identity that seems to be very contemporary – like creating somebody's profile on Facebook or Twitter". The large character list includes performing legends Pola Negri, Jim Morrison, Michael Jackson; also on board are Susan Sontag, Rita Gombrowicz (the writer's widow) and Jesus. The theatre's site lists the running time as "unknown" – a video trailer follows a bare-chested pair in a corridor and could compete with Nymphomaniac's promotional material in the category of "inscrutability".
Garbaczewski's awards include the Passport prize from Polityka magazine and best director in 2010 at Kraków's annual showcase of new Polish productions, Divine Comedy. His version of Ivona in 2012, shot by roving cameras and playing out largely on screen, is as intriguing as recent Gombrowicz productions get and traveled to the Timisoara Festival in Romania in November. A loose trilogy of Polish history pieces made over the past year in Poznań (Balladyna), at the acclaimed Stary Teatr in Kraków (Portraits of Polish Kings) and Stone Skies Over Warsaw, his piece in August with the Nowy Teatr in Warsaw at the museum dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising, have been praised as fresh takes on important themes and criticized for the director's loose harnessing of stage energy.
In a conversation this summer, Garbaczewski mentioned that the streaming details of Kronos suggest "novels" – which is more or less the opposite of reviewer complaints about the book's anti-literary nature. He said he was keen to create a stage language imparting that nature, kept bone-dry by one of literature's masters of tone. Live music for the Kronos production is performed by Julia Marcell – they first worked together on Stone Skies – and video by Robert Mleczko, whose live projections kept Portraits of Polish Kings at a lively pitch.
Kronos will surely be made into other theatrical guises – on a radio broadcast after its publication, Michał Grabowski, former director of the renowned Stary Teatr, told the moderator he was “still reading”. The new text received a novel treatment from Michał Znaniecki, this time in Buenos Aires, where Gombrowicz lived from the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 until his return to Europe in 1963. As with Garbaczewski, Znaniecki averted any literal adaptation of the new book. Kronos: Una Calma Erotica was billed as a monodrama poised on Rita Gombrowicz's decision to publish the text (which had remained unknown for decades, even among Gombrowicz experts). Znaniecki – former director of the Poznań Opera with recent productions of Karol Szymanowski's work in Buenos Aires and Bilbaoa, Spain – had workshopped the piece for the El Tigre Opera Festival in suburban Buenos Aires. The esteemed actress Marilu Marini took the lead, in a musical setting for guitar and bandoneon, the small, fleet squeezebox that's at the heart of tango music.
Director Adrian Blanco first took up Gombrowicz in 2004, staging Operetta with his own company, then adapted the slim novel Trans-Atlantyk with the National Cervantes Theatre in Buenos Aires. That production was invited to the International Gombrowicz Festival in Radom in 2010, and swept best director, best production and best actor, for Gustavo Manzanal as Witold. Blanco also works from Argentine writers – Leopoldo Marechal in the director's Megafon o la Guerra, Roberto Arlt, Copi (Raul Damonte Botano) – figures he refers to as “autores malditos” in an interview about his new Historia production with La Nacion, the leading Argentine newspaper.
Historia is a play Gombrowicz worked on intermittently and ultimately left incomplete – he'd planned for his protagonist to intervene in the course of the Second World War. Discovered in his papers, it’s been filmed several times for Polish Television Theatre including a sultry version by Grzegorz Jarzyna with TR Warszawa, and scored by composer Oscar Strasnoy as Geschichte, an a cappella music theatre piece (which came to the Warsaw Autumn festival in 2012 – but invented an early gang rape and had little wonder left as Witold’s family molted into military and royal leaders in a world about to fall to pieces).
Blanco adds copiously from other texts for his new piece. Importantly, he adds the late-life Gombrowicz, watching the Apollo moon landing as he lay dying near the end of the 1960s, and watching his younger self contend with life. In his interview with La Nacion, the director said of Historia, “We’re taking it as a spinal column and completing it with other fragments”, fashioning two hours of what the newspaper termed “a kind of history of the writings of the author”. Blanco and his collaborator, Jose Paez, take their own parries at completion – the original script peters out, but Gombrowicz left indications about where it was headed, following power themes that he'd take up again in Operetta. “We’re taking the planned Hitler-Stalin meeting and writing it out”, Blanco told La Nacion.
Comments in interviews cite primal humour, improvisations leading to the absurd, actors working in chorus to “denaturalize the dialogue”, physical action presented in precise montage – and, according to Clarin, “a staging more full of surprises than Narnia”. Blanco is no fan of minimalist theatrics – “enough of empty tables and no representation. I’m for a theatre that’s total” – plus he pithily encourages fellow directors to “stop reading German reviews”.
His Historia received support from the Polish Embassy, as did an autumn exhibition at the National Library, WG! Witold Gombrowicz Momentos Singulares. Featuring some 60 photographs by Miguel Grinberg, a friend of Gombrowicz (Grinberg edited the first periodical dedicated to Gombrowicz, an issue of his journal Eco Contemporaneo). On display were exquisite line drawings by Mariano Betelu, another of the writer's Argentine friends, Polish posters and press clippings, and artifacts including the pipe he left to Betelu and the tin cup adorned with characters from his works in enamel paint for the tiny son of Rosa Maria and Alejandro Russovich, who translated the play The Marriage into Spanish for its first edition. The exhibition was also supported the Biblioteca Polaca Ignacy Domeyko at the Casa Polaca in Buenos Aires. Public celebrations of Gombrowicz continue in August 2014 in the Argentine capital with the International Congress on Witold Gombrowicz.
The Spoleto Festival in July held the anteprima, or previews, of Pornography, the new production coming in early 2014 from director Luca Ronconi and his Santacristina Theatre Centre. Three and a half hours in length, Ronconi’s adaptation has a cast of 10, with Riccardo Bini and Paolo Pierobon in lead roles as the fascinatingly manipulative Fryderyk – "(at one time he was involved in the theatre)", as the novel notes at the outset and in parentheses – and his companion Witold.
The original novel Pornografia (1958) has a title that now seems easy to swallow; the first English translation direct from Polish arrived in 2009 from Grove/Atlantic. It sets the scene in central Poland in the midst of German occupation and marauding resistance bands, sequestered in countryside manor houses like those in which the author spent his boyhood. The protagonists step from the Warsaw train at the Chmielów siding – it's near the estate of the author's grandparents – and they will simmer in a heightened air of irreality that might politely be attributed to authorial distance (Gombrowicz never returned to Poland after leaving in 1939). Carriage rides on sandy tracks take the cast to church, bending down from the high Sandomierz plateau where cherry orchards flourish today, then through gorges and rural crossroads. In town, of course, "there were no Jews". One late complication comes when Siemian, a Home Army hero, decides he can't lead any longer and is locked upstairs, as with Edward Rochester's first wife in Jane Eyre.
The director Ronconi, over the course of an illustrious career that includes the Europe Theatre Prize in 1989, has a history of literary adaptations for the stage. More recently, he's established development projects with the Spoleto Festival, where his new productions go through research workshops for a summer then preview performances the following year, as has been the case with Pornography.
It will premiere in 2014 on the 13th of March at Milan’s renowned Piccoli Teatro, then at Teatro Argentina in Rome on the 9th of April. A highlight of the year for Gombrowicz activity, it's also momentous in the theatre world as it is reputed to be Ronconi’s farewell production. Another titan of international theatre, Ingmar Bergman, bowed off the stage at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm with Gombrowicz, premiering a long-planned Ivona in 1996. Both directors had corresponded with the writer – an exchange in 1968 shows Ronconi eager, or overeager as it turned out, for rights to Operetta, then the writer's latest play, in an attempt to mount it at Teatro Stabile in Rome.
The performances at Spoleto in July, as previews, weren't widely reviewed. Commentators on Italian media and theatre sites, though, mention how the two leads push the younger couple – the girl of the manor and the overseer's boy – "in a way that resembles Aminta by Torquato Tasso", and that Pierobon and Bini "act in a feverish and spasmodic way". A fulcrum in the drama is the risky relationship between adults and youth, and one commentator name-checks Bataille: eroticism, naturally, leaves behind death. It's all more about voyeurism than pornography, states one writer – "and more about voyeuring ourselves not others, our own dark, ugly characteristics".
In these brief reports (translations courtesy of Alicja Rosé), indications gleam of uncanny transformations that sometimes occur when seasoned direction takes up strange, probing work. The vertigo in Pornography is said to be distinctive; a lesson Ronconi gives "through his long and dizzying performance is probably to recall for us the inexhaustibility of dramaturgic resources, of the possibility of theatricalizing words". Which, it's noted, is converse to the "common alienation effect of so many productions of directors worldwide". Stage props provide the church altar, the carriage, the ceramic bowl at dinner – yet the director shows "the other side, that there are two threads entwined, woven together, and the other one is this fragile instability in life, essential insecurity… he is able to strip the superstructure to reveal the substance [...]".
Pornografia is one of few Gombrowicz works that's seen life as a movie. Made by Jan Jakub Kolski in 2002, it was spotlighted the next year at the New York Film Festival but got limited attention from distrubutors. And had limited success achieving the elusive Gombrowiczian voice, choosing instead to wield curious visual artifices and graft a backstory onto Fryderyk – as if an enigma has need of an explanation. A film by Jerzy Skolimowski in 1991 adapted the novel Ferdydurke but fell wide, or short. According to Rita Gombrowicz, Ken Russell managed to set up a project to film The Possessed late in his career – then couldn't get insurance for his cardiac problems.
Perhaps film's not well adapted to Gombrowicz, the arch mocker of form – after all, who can deeply admire something that gets acted out the same way each time it screens? There's a similar risk his work runs today: of enervation, after decades of play productions and theatricalization of the rest of the writer's bracing work. Krzysztof Garbaczewski has spoken of working from the intense novel Cosmos (1965)– though not as a theatre piece. One of Garbaczewski's peers, Radek Rychcik, another young gun of the contemporary Polish stage, angers visibly when asked about theatre companies making comfortable Gombrowicz shows, productions that lean on his comic reputation rather than reaching for the acerbic core of his art. Disturb, disturb – that's Rychcik's view of the writer's work. Disrupt when you’re not disturbing. Gombrowicz never wrote to be comfortable.
– Alan Lockwood, 11.12.2013