The past two seasons in Polish theatre have belonged to young artists, whose input has stirred our theatre life and attracted most of the critical attention.
The work of these young artists raises many doubts and even some resistance (voices can be heard that there is a war between old and new theatre in Poland). However, nobody can deny that representatives of this young generation are driven by passion, which turns theatre again into a place for reflection on modern times. Maja Kleczewska and Jan Klata have gained perhaps the greatest prominence. To think that their brilliant careers started out in a provincial theatre in Wałbrzych!
Maja Kleczowska, photo:Tadeusz Poźniak/Reporter/East News
Wałbrzych, a mining city in southern Poland just a few dozen kilometers south of Wrocław, is not a likely place for a thriving theatre. The booming mining industry of the 1970s was hit severely by the economic and social transformations after 1989. Unemployment soared to 30% and has remained among the highest in the country. People here live of stealing coal from so-called 'poverty' shafts and the last thing they could ever dream of is a theatre. It seemed that three years ago this provincial stage would follow in the wake of the bankrupting mines and be closed.
If you have hit the bottom, there are just two things you can do: either stay there or try to climb out. The rule in such cases is for someone young, someone not easily discouraged, to take up the risk of reanimation. In December 2002, 35-year-old Piotr Kruszczyński took over as artistic director of the Teatr Dramatyczny in Wałbrzych. He was young in Polish terms and courageous. He believed that if he was to bring the theatre back to life, he must take up a serious and authentic dialog with audiences. Not easy entertainment imparting an illusion of time off from mundane reality, nor forced cultural obligation, which is the nightmare of theatres in small urban centers. Thus, Kruszczyński consistently avoided farces that litter theatre bills, and did not stage anything that could be understood even remotely as obligatory school reading. He started off with Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, well known in Poland not only from the movie starring Jack Nicholson, but also from numerous theatre performances. He asked beginner director Maja Kleczewska to stage it. In her interpretation, the grotesque story about the inmates of a psychiatric ward turned into a call for freedom and human dignity. McMurphy with his anarchistic lifestyle was shown as someone who at least attempts to escape from bleak reality. At the same time, the performance offered audiences a dose of wise humor. It was noted immediately outside Walbrzych and invited to a few festivals - a novum in Wałbrzych theatre history - where it even won some prizes and gained acclaim. Kleczewska went on to adapt for the Walbrzych stage another American bestseller They Shoot horses, Don't They?
Shakespeare's Macbeth staged by Kleczewska at the Teatr im. Kochanowskiego in Opole also scored a huge success. Actually the 2004/2005 season was a veritable festival of the Scottish tragedy in Poland. It was directed by the acclaimed masters, like Andrzej Wajda (at Stary Teatr in Krakow), as well as by the leaders of the young generation, such as Grzegorz Jarzyna (who mounted it in an abandoned factory in Warsaw), Piotr Kruszczyński (premiere at Teatr Polski in Warsaw) and Paweł Szkotak (who made it with members of the alternative Teatr Biuro Podróży as an open-air show, and premiered it in Ireland). But it was Kleczewska's Macbeth that swept audiences off their feet.
In the Opole performance when we first see Macbeth and Banco they are sitting in armchairs and watching television. One has a bandaged head, the other a bandaged arm. When King Duncan appears with his retinue, there is no doubt that we are dealing with the mafia. However, Kleczewska did not go for any realistic portraits; her stage characters are all boiled-down products of modern mass culture. She viewed Shakespeare's drama through various modern clichés, derived mostly from films. For instance the witches are drag queens modeled directly on those in "Desert Queen Priscilla". Quentin Tarantino's perverse spirit pervades the performance, not only because the musical leitmotif in all the murder scenes is Nancy Sinatra's song from "Kill Bill". The drastic scene of the murder of Lady Macduff (raped and killed by one of the bandits, while the other one masturbates) is almost like a film scene - so naturalistically conventional. Once we note Duncan's characteristic gestures while dancing to Michael Jackson's "I'm Bad", and hear Gloria Gaynor's rejuvenated hit "I Will Survive", it is easy to understand the associations Kleczewska uses to construct her Macbeth. She activates them with extreme ease and cleverness. Yet it was not her intention to present Shakespeare's classic drama as a regurgitated set of notes for consumers of popular culture, be it films, television, computer games or pop music. Her Macbeth should be perceived as a protest against evil that has taken over our collective imagination. Indeed, in the contemporary world, evil and violence are no longer banal, to cite Hannah Arendt's worn-out adage; evil has become spectacular, attractive and medial.
The performance can raise doubts, but on an entirely different level. Kleczewska's Macbeth does not concern the essence of evil, but its image. As shown by Kleczewska, evil is very convincing and suggestive. Yet the questions raised by Shakespeare are of a much more fundamental nature: wherefrom evil in man? Why does man kill man? How can one live with the knowledge of ones crimes? Risking trivializing the tragedy in return for a clear message, Kleczewska lost something important - compassion. There is hardly any compassion in the world of the mafia settling its scores. Despite all, murdering a corrupt Godfather is not quite the same as murdering a magnanimous king.
Neither should one overlook the fact that the Macbeth from Opole is on the face of it a fairly typical performance on Polish stages, drawing on a German staging style originating from, let's say, the Berlin Volksbuhne. The youngest generation of directors is often accused of imitation. However, on the other hand, if one looks at the early works of some of the masters of theatre performance, Leon Schiller, Konrad Swinarski and more recently Krzysztof Warlikowski - to name but a few - one will see that all of them in the beginning of their careers borrowed from the Germans to some extent. Maja Kleczewska will hopefully seek for her own original style; she has the necessary talent and skill for that.
By the way, Kleczewska is only one of several women making a name for themselves as theatre directors in recent years. Some of the others are Grażyna Kania, Agata Duda-Gracz, Małgorzata Bogajewska, Agnieszka Olsten, Karina Piwowarska, Aldona Figura. Their spectacles are often more expressive than those of their male peers. In travesty of the well-known book title, you could say that women directors in Poland are from Mars, while the men directors are from Venus. Perhaps the sole exception is Jan Klata.
Jan Klata, photo: Marek Zawadka / Newsweek Polska / Reporter /East News
In 2003 Jan Klata, who was then debuting as a director, came to Piotr Kruszczyński with the idea of staging Gogol's Inspector General. Gogol's plays are performed often enough in Poland, so this did not come as a novelty. What was new, was Klata's idea to move the drama from 19th-century Russian province to a place like Walbrzych in the 1970s, when Poland was governed by the then First Secretary of the Communist Party, Edward Gierek. Klata's Inspector General took issue with a contemporary yearning for the false prosperity and stability of the "sweet seventies". These sentiments were particularly strong in Walbrzych, where the local miners, now so painfully degraded, had been the privileged beneficiaries of Gierek's government. In recalling the fashion, customs and interior decoration of flats from thirty years ago, Klata ridiculed their cheapness. But the really bitter pill came in the finale when a portrait of the favorite Party secretary-general was followed by images of those who followed in his wake as the political custodians of Poland: general Wojciech Jaruzelski who introduced martial law, "Solidarity" leader Lech Walesa, first non-communist prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki and other post-1989 leaders. This finale apparently corresponded with the commonly held view that all men of power, regardless of their roots, are nothing but inspectors: swindlers and thieves. The stereotype is naturally the effect of a low social mood caused by disenchantment with post-1989 reality. Critics accusing Klata of demagogy in the finale must not have understood the hidden meaning. After all, the famous quotation: "Who are you laughing at? You're laughing at yourselves!" comes from Gogol's comedy. Klata simply wanted to say that you, who believe in inspectors, are ridiculous; you create them and you let yourselves be corrupted by them, and then just curse helplessly. The Walbrzych Inspector General turned out to be one of the best acclaimed instances of political theatre in Poland.
With his next performance, Jan Klata soon became recognized as the enfant terrible of Polish theatre. In the summer of 2004, he used the deserted dockyard in Gdansk, the cradle of "Solidarity", to stage his own version of Hamlet, entitled H.. The show was perceived as a settling of accounts with the "Solidarity" myth. Klata's political involvement clearly surfaced also in the adaptation of Andre Gide's The Vatican Cellars at Teatr Współczesny in Wrocław (where the director aimed his sights at Polish Catholic morals) and ...córka Fizdejki (...Fizdejka's Daughter) based on Witkacy at Teatr Dramatyczny in Walbrzych, in which the director forfeited all political correctness in referring to the most recent events, i.e. the recent accession of Poland to the European Union.
The youngest generation of theatre artists is stronger in its reaction to reality and manifestations of evil in our social life than their older colleagues who in the 1990s. Some theatres, like Teatr Wybrzeże in Gdansk, have built their artistic program around this staple. Indeed, this Gdansk theatre launched a fascinating experiment with documentary theatre (the most interesting result being a play devoted to the wives of Polish soldiers deployed in Iraq). For the past ten years, the theatre in Legnica near Wroclaw (where Soviet Red Army detachments were stationed through the 1990s), directed by Jacek Głomb, has consistently followed a strategy of interfering with reality (also literally, as many performances are staged in various urban spaces). Last season's acclaimed premiere was Made in Poland, written and directed by a young filmmaker Przemysław Wojcieszek. The show staged in an unused depot in a district of block apartment houses in Legnica, one of many found all over Poland, tells the story of a completely alienated young man. Bogus, the main hero, writes "Fuck you" on his forehead and tries to start up a revolution in his district, but ends up in deep trouble with local drug dealers. Made in Poland shows a dire Polish reality in places which have not benefited from the transformation following the fall of communism. What makes it different from numerous works dealing with the same topic, not only in the theatre, is the fact that it leaves a glimmer of hope that the main character is not doomed to defeat.
Polish theatre in the past two years was not entirely taken over by the young, although their work was quite naturally the most absorbing. Everyone's favorites from just a few years ago continued to be active. Krzysztof Warlikowski directed Krum, a play by the Israeli writer Hanoch Levin (co-produced by Teatr Rozmaitosci in Warsaw and Stary Teatr in Krakow). Piotr Cieplak gained acclaim with an original staging of Labiche's The Italian Straw Hat at Teatr Powszechny in Warsaw; he combined this classic French farce with eschatological reflection inspired by T.S.Eliot's poetry. Grzegorz Jarzyna turned Teatr Rozmaitości into a project called Teren Warszawa (Ground Warsaw), taking performances directed by him and other young directors into spaces outside the theatre (e.g. Risk All by George F. Walker premiered at the Central Railway Station).
Krystian Lupa at the rehearsal of The Waiting Room, Photo: Natalia Kabanow / Teatr Polski
The masters of Polish theatre have remained active. Krystian Lupa continues a search for self reflection on theatre (Niedokonczony utwór na aktora / Unfinished piece for an actor after Czechov's Seagull and Yasmina Reza's Spanish Play at Teatr Dramatyczny in Warsaw, while taking up challenges following from Nietzsche's philosophy (Zaratusthra at the Stary Teatr in Krakow). Faithful to Witold Gombrowicz, Jerzy Jarocki has directed two pieces based on his prose: Błądzenie / Erring and Kosmos / Cosmos at Teatr Narodowy.
With the death of Jerzy Grzegorzewski in April 2005, Polish theatre suffered a great loss. An outstanding artist of theatre had passed away. Grzegorzewski had been isolated and often misunderstood in his vision of theatre. His sensibilities were a merging of the great tradition of Polish theatre (set down foremost by Romanticism and the Neo-Romantic dramas of Stanisław Wyspiański) and 20th-century avant-garde (also in visual arts). As it happens, the passing of artists of such caliber makes the actual hierarchy of values in art distinctly perceivable. They are demonstrated to exist in reality despite fads and media publicity accompanying this or that event.
Author: Wojciech Majcherek - a theatre critic and essayist for the Warsaw-based monthly journal "Teatr".