New? Young? Younger? Polish Theatre After 1989
default, 'Francuzi' (The Frenchmen), directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, photo: promotional materials, Scena z przedstawienia "Francuzi” w reżyserii Krzysztofa Warlikowskiego, 2015, fot. Tal Bitton / Nowy Teatr
The year 1989 introduced a dramatic change not only in Polish history and political life but above all in Polish mentality and culture. The liquidation of censorship and full freedom of speech were the external signs of a deeper change.
It is no surprise that 1989, besides the understandable hope for a better future and normal life, gave birth to great expectations for a new theatre. One could observe the helplessness of most of the directors that came to the fore in the 1980s. The theatres, overwhelmed by normality, soon began drawing conclusions from the new, better world, most of them following the way leading to ‘commercialisation’. Becoming mired in their artistic claims, they started to please the audience. Hence, the phenomenon of ‘boulevardisation’ of stages that once were very ambitious.
The theatre was becoming a place of more or less decent entertainment, a place to spend some nice time after a lavish dinner and the long working day of the new people living in the new world. There would be nothing abnormal or flattering in this phenomenon had it not been for the scope and the natural regret that one could not transform ordinary people into angels, as the romantic poet wished – that on the contrary, angels were becoming ordinary people.
Irreversibly, Polish culture had begun the process of a radical paradigm change. The romantic framework, which was binding during the two centuries of fight for sovereignty and identity, was finished. No one knew what was going to take its place. A new theatre was expected, and it was not able to emerge. It would take a few years. On the cultural scale, this is not much; on the scale of a single life, however, a life starving for an artistic theatre, it can feel like ages.
The singularity of Lupa
A traditional imperative of the Polish artistic theatre, deeply rooted in the philosophy of romanticism, was the idea of the theatre as an instrument of discovery that has no need to follow the rules of rational knowledge. The theatre allows, even feeds itself on the irrational, mystical or metaphysical. In interpretations of Polish literature of the romantic period, however, a political and historical-philosophical aspect dominated. Little attention was given to the existential. It is existence that became the fundamental topic of the new Polish theatre. Existence and ethics. Luckily, at the end of the 1970s, Krystian Lupa appeared on the Polish stage.
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From the very beginning, Lupa was a separate artist. He was creating a kind of theatre that was totally individual, original, focused on the topic of existence. He started out in Jelenia Góra, and in the ’80s, he started to work in Kraków’s Stary Theatre. He began with texts by Witkacy. Then, obstinately and constantly he focused on adaptations of Austrian drama and prose: Kubin, Musil, Bernhard, Broch, Rilke. Although for many years, he was underestimated, or even treated by the critics with hostility, he faithfully followed his own path. As a consequence, after 1989, he was virtually the only artist ready to undertake new artistic challenges.
Lupa takes the theatre very seriously. He does not allow the possibility of theatre changing into entertainment, or a place where one can have a good time. The theatre ought to be a dangerous intellectual adventure that leads the viewers to unexpected self-knowledge, to discoveries that we sometimes refuse to accept – discoveries that are sudden and drastic. The theatre is almost a ritual space, a space of transition from everyday dispersion into an essential state of concentration.
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Lupa discovered the fact that prose, in its theatrical unreadiness, brings new possibilities to the stage. The force of narration allows shaking the order, allows the chaotic to enter on stage, and knock the viewers out of a state of peace and self-satisfaction. The open structure is honest; it neither creates illusions nor deludes the viewer. Lupa's discovery exposes the tragic character of human existence.
This belief, combined with the conviction about the possibility of intuitive knowledge – not rational or sensual, but achieved beyond the ordinary order of reasoning – made Lupa an artist reviving the romantic mission of the artist. A hallmark image from Bernhard's piece Immanuel Kant is worth mentioning here: A nearly blind philosopher, a thinker reminiscent of Homer, sails to America to get eye surgery. A singular exchange is to take place – Kant will offer America reason, and America will restore Kant's sight.
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Another discovery crucial for the theatre's uniqueness is the way of acting that Lupa executes. Or rather, it is the way of the actor's being, for it is forbidden in this theatre to act. In Lupa's opinion, acting, or pretending, creating an acting illusion counts as artistic prostitution. The actor's aim is to find all the necessary emotions within himself. He cannot waste energy once it is gained. The character has to achieve his own theatrical rhythm and life.
This is the only way to ‘un-lie’ the theatre, and only an authentic theatre has a chance to become more important than the violent, new, everyday life that absorbs, like a gigantic black hole, all that is spiritual. A new way of working with the actor – not referring to traditional acting practices, but rather focusing on will and intellect – became the starting point for young directors in their work with the actor.
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Lupa's theatre productions create a marvellous panorama of the history of European spirituality at the turn of the century. Lupa generally believes in this spirit and seeks a way to save its dynamic nature that may rescue humanity from brutishness. Even in a relatively tame play by Yasmina Reza (Art), which actually belongs to the genre of boulevard drama, Lupa found themes and questions concerning spiritual condition – and reflections on the purchase of a white canvas became the basis for a conversation about the nature of friendship and human relations.
Sometimes, I say directly that had it not been for the miracle of Krystian Lupa in the Polish theatre, we wouldn’t have the whole stream of the young theatre today. We would probably be left with useless conventions and the theatre of the great masters, like Jerzy Grzegorzewski, Andrzej Wajda or Jerzy Jarocki – which is magnificent, but nevertheless a farewell to the 20th century. Why Lupa? Because aside of from creating his own theatre he is also teaching actors and directors. Two of the most remarkable young theatre creators: Krzysztof Warlikowski and Grzegorz Jarzyna are Krystian Lupa's pupils.
The circumstances under which Warlikowski and his younger friend Jarzyna began working were already clear. There was no communist regime; the theatre engaged in political games and burdened by national duties disappeared. Artists entering the stage after 1989 were not forced to make any decisions concerning politically engaged theatre. They were neither obligated to declare their will to cultivate it, nor to reject that model. They already had other obligations. The new reality, with an emerging hierarchy of values and non-values – a reality conquered by the icons of mass culture and consumption – demanded a new theatrical language.
There was also a young audience that did not understand the language of old conventions or rejected it as not interesting. It searched for a theatre that would speak their language – a theatre that would not superciliously disregard mass culture, new cinema and music, but rather would undertake a dialogue with them or incorporate them into its own language. This audience needed, simply speaking, a theatre which would not pretend that nothing had changed and that it would still be possible to play at noble gestures and ‘cultural’ plays.
Luckily, since 1990, Krystyna Meissner has arranged the Contact International Theatre Festival in Toruń, and nowadays Festival Dialog, which takes place in Wrocław. These festivals have served as a way of airing out Polish theatre. At atime when traveling still was not easy or obvious, shows representing some of the greatest achievements of the Western and Eastern theatre came to Poland. These performances were confronted with the most interesting aspects of the Polish theatre.
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A particular melting pot, an explosive mixture of exciting new modes and ways of thinking was now arising. By the mid-’90s, the theatre's revival had reached its peak. Everything was ready for the coming of the new theatre.
The strangeness of Jarzyna
Grzegorz Jarzyna – the youngest, barely over 30, awarded with nearly every existing theatre prize in Poland, is presently the director of Rozmaitości Theatre in Warsaw – the stage that has become the main stronghold of the young theatre in the recent seasons. This is the place where young Polish artists are taking the highest risks – attempting to shape the aesthetics of the new theatre and to express the ethos of the public.
Jarzyna, using a different stage name for each spectacle, started in Rozmaitości Theatre with Tropical Madness (Bzik Tropikalny) by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (1997). In Kraków, he staged Yvonne, Princess Of Burgundy (originally: Iwona, Ksiezniczka Burgunda) by Witold Gombrowicz (1997). He followed these in Warsaw, with Unidentified Human Remains by Brad Fraser (1998), Magnetism of the Heart (originally: Magnetyzm Serca) by Aleksander Fredro – a 19th century playwright often identified with the dull theatre of texts at school – and Thomas Mann's Dr Faustus, in a co-production with the Polski Theatre in Wrocław and the Hebbel Theater in Berlin (1999). Jarzyna followed this with Prince Myskin, inspired by Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. The most recent premieres are Uroczystość (Festen) (The Ceremony) by Thomas Vinterberg and Morgens Rukov and Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis.
Ivona, Princess of Burgundia directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna – Image Gallery
Jarzyna treats theatre as an open space, a space of the meeting and merging of different fields of art. The stage always seems to be a part of the whole world, its apparent centre, where the irrational takes supreme control over the reality. Emotions command the rational order. It is a multicultural world, which attempts to recreate the ritual character of the theatre by referring to elements of rites of the East Asia.
Jarzyna once and for all broke in his theatre the possibility of any explicit interpretation of the world and its events. He builds a new realism, but a kind of realism based on irrational foundations. In each spectacle, from beyond a layer of logically ordered events, there emerges a world of chaos and emptiness – as if an icy breeze from unknown places were fanning the stage. At the same time, while the logic of stage events works flawlessly and with full force, the events speed up dramatically in order to halt even more explicitly before the impossibility of existence in the void.
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Magnetism of the Heart begins with a conversation in a salon, typical for a 19th-century comedy. In the last act, however, not a single word is uttered, and the characters that have just tried out some new erotic possibilities stand staring at the earth, as it spins and and radiates a cold, blue glow from somewhere behind the window.
It is hard to say whether Jarzyna revolutionised a way of working with actors. Probably not. He just consistently followed the lessons he took in theatre school and his own discoveries made during his journeys in East Asia. As a result, he broadened the scope of psychological acting with some techniques he observed in the theatre of that part of the world. Jarzyna's actors are forbidden to act. It is forbidden to enter the stage and make any gestures fixed in advance, or to utter any known lines. The scene requires spontaneity and freshness, every single time.
Jarzyna believes in the theatre as a medium and as a way of expression. The theatre is neither a place for fun, nor a place of mutual adoration between the actors and the public. The aim of the theatre is, in the first place, to discover and to express the truth about people and their behaviour, attitudes and motivations – often using brutal means to expose it. The theatre's mission is to gain knowledge about humanity. Jarzyna is interested, first and foremost, in human relations. That is why the theatre is such an appropriate medium of expression and influence, for there is no other place where human emotions reach such a high level of intensity. This is especially the case when theatre is treated very seriously.
In all of Jarzyna's shows, one can find these always precisely planned moments, where the apparently ordered scenic world is being penetrated by the wild and unknown. Irrationality enters, annihilating the whole of the logical order, frustrating the tidiness and carefully built organisation of life. The on-stage mini-society is exposed to the effect of irrational radiance. These are the most interesting moments in Jarzyna's spectacles, the ones that show the true purpose of the theatre.
The kitchen in Uroczystość is a strange place where the priestesses of the Great Disorder appear and wait at the table. They do not represent evil forces, and thus, this show allows for a happy ending, consisting in a great clearing. Jarzyna constantly reminds us about the ultimate incomprehensibility of the world. He tells us that we cannot feel too confident, that we do not have the right to tyrannize our own little world – for we will certainly soon be punished for that reason. Jarzyna believes that the theatre, as a space of meeting for contemporary people and the surrounding cosmos, is a perfect vehicle for traveling in the abyss of mysteries and to at least attempt to come closer to their solutions.
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‘Strangeness’ becomes the best word to describe Jarzyna's scenic world. And once the viewer is spirited away and caught in the trap of this theatre, the show ends – and suddenly it turns out that this strange, apparently very distant, world is nothing else but our own everyday life, that we do not live in a rational world, and that it is precisely the irrationality that can save us from the new iron logic of the new world.
The darkness of Warlikowski
Shakespeare above all. Then classical drama and Robert Maria Koltès. Recently, Sarah Kane and Marcel Proust. This is the core of Warlikowski's theatre. For there is no doubt that this theatre has its own particular poetics, a separate language and style and – last but not least – a particular set of topics and a way of using the theatre as a tool of knowledge, or rather as a way of exploring the human existence.
Warlikowski's theatre is a consistent and inquiring study of evil, of its presence in our seemingly mushy world – where everything seems to lead towards a better, higher and more friendly order. And yet chaos, darkness and irrationality (rescuing humanity, but fatal for the individual) are creeping out from the increasingly widening fissures that attack us with double force. Perhaps this is because there are fewer people with clear aims and life plans, while on the other hand, more and more of us are getting lost in the maze of different paths that lead neither to the summit nor to the depths of the labyrinth.
The African Tales by Shakespeare, directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski - Image Gallery
These paths wind slowly and remain indifferent towards our expectations and aims. Spectacular collapse happens even on the starkest ‘career paths’. It turns out that man is not necessarily good, that he is not able to overcome the chaotic, that the impenetrable and the obscure easily grab our existence, our plans and even the best intentions. We may become, almost unconsciously, participants in crime and the most dreadful acts.
In the case of Warlikowski’s Shakespeare adaptations (including The Winter's Tale, Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, The Taming of the Shrew, Pericles, The Tempest and Hamlet), the director reevaluates the Polish ‘ways’ of reading Shakespeare. The interpretative code of Jan Kott – binding until recently, and emphasizing the role of the Great Mechanism of History – has become outdated in the light of the unknowable and the irrational chaos of existence.
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In Warlikowski's Hamlet, for example – staged, like his Bacchae, at the Rozmaitości Theatre in Warsaw – Fortinbras, a character very important in previous Polish adaptations, does not even appear. The scenes with armies setting out to conquer Poland are deeply and ironically disavowed. Here, Hamlet has ceased to be a drama about power; something else controls the obscure order of the world. It is a aplay where the ‘dark magic of the night is accomplished’, where the instincts and actions forced by the sexual nature of human life come into play. The world is a subject of multiple ambiguity, one where evil starts to exercise its rights.
It is no surprise then, that the show ends with a sentence: ‘What induced me?’ – which Hamlet utters already in full light, as if ‘aside’ from the whole spectacle. The most important questions that Warlikowski poses in his Shakespeare productions are about the fate and purpose of man, about his strength and freedom from irrational forces and instincts.
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A similar thing happens in The Bacchae under the artist’s direction. Pentheus, who, after Dionysus's arrival, may have been the last righteous one in his desperate attempts to defend the previous order, will eventually become his victim. He will become furious, abandoned by Dionysus, and will die torn apart by the Bacchae – although in human measure, he was a just lord defending the power and virtues of his kingdom. An ambiguous game streaked with a rhythm of gender fluidity. The seething between a more feminine Dionysus and a Penthesus defending the male chivalrous virtues results in a scene where Pentheus, dressed in a robe, jiggles a dance, while being reprimanded by Dionysus for spoiling his stylish haircut.
Then, Pentheus, fixed to a spruce tree, will be launched by Dionysus’s phallic force to be torn apart by the Bacchae. Is this a sacrifice? Does this sacrifice result in a transformation? Is this ‘my body and my blood’? The cultural-religious paradigm of the public becomes a part of the theatrical deconstructionist machine. Again, the dark and irrational prevails – although this time, the darkness hides itself in the glitter emanating from a deity.
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Sarah Kane's Cleansed, staged by Warlikowski in November 2001, excited probably the most intense and still=relevant discussion about the theatre that has appeared in Poland in recent decades. The great show was followed by harsh criticisms. Warlikowski has been accused of promoting pornography and of a lack of theatrical skills. And yet, in this performance, his theatre reached its peak: It achieved a clear and crystal language, mastering the poetic force that the viewer feels deep in their bones.
Warlikowski works with a specific theatrical team, together with the stage designer Małgorzata Szczęśniak and the composer Paweł Mykietyn. This relationship, based on community of thought and taste, enables an original and unique style through a long-term perspective. It is a single theatrical mind divided into three, working in a full agreement and concentration of thought. Each time, something much more significant than just a spectacle is established. As always in the case of an outstanding theatre, the compass of the artist's voice is broadened. The limitations known as ‘the limits of theatre’ are explored and surpassed. The viewer discovers new truths about himself, as another part of his psyche is illuminated by the light of the theatre.
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Warlikowski has legions of opponents in Poland (not unlike Jarzyna and Lupa!). The critics follow from the idea of a box theatre – not necessarily a theatre happening in a box-shaped stage, but rather a theatre framed by interpretative and mental restrictions. They don’t wish to get used to the idea that the audience doesn't go to the theatre for a laugh or some emotions, but to think. Locked in the notion of bourgeois satiation and self-satisfaction, they do not accept anything that emerges from the slits of existence. They want pièces bien faites, with well-rounded bronze words uttered by marble statues, or the other way around.
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For such a conservative public, Warlikowski's theatre becomes a notorious social provocation. The provocation, however, is hidden somewhere else – it lies deeper than in the nudity and interpretative freedom that outrages the Polish reactionary. Warlikowski allows himself to make a drastic provocation of our worldview, but his intent is not to stun the public, and rather to subvert the existing ways of thinking. His deeply thoughtful way of using classical texts provide him with even stronger arguments. For his theatre takes advantage of the ruthless power of Shakespeare's and Euripides's dramas, a power that is spoiled and trampled by the enthusiasts of turgid recitatives. What are the consequences?
Warlikowski touches on the most universal problems of humanity, he attempts to tackle them by taking advantage of the full potential that the theatrical poetics can offer. When he gets at the most essential, he is ruthless, even brutal. Yet, he does not achieve this through the bones – he maintains a poetic distance, forcing the viewer to filter his theatre first through reflection and then, afterwards, through the emotions. In this manner, he creates a philosophical reception and forces the viewer to change his way of thinking.
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Written by Piotr Gruszczyński, originally published in ‘Ade Teatro’ monthly, Sept 2002; edited by LD, May 2019