The change in the system and the return of democratic freedoms had to have an influence on Polish theatrical life. Theatre - a live art happening only in the here and now - always resonated very powerfully to, or harmonised with, extra-theatrical reality which, by its very nature, was linked very closely to politics.
The theatrical archipelago on planet Poland
Ten years have passed since the historic turning point of 1989 with far-reaching consequences not just in political life. The change in the system and the return of democratic freedoms had to have an influence on Polish theatrical life. Theatre - a live art happening only in the here and now - always resonated very powerfully to, or harmonised with, extra-theatrical reality which, by its very nature, was linked very closely to politics. Stanisław Wyspiański's Wesele / The Wedding in which Poles are constantly observing themselves as if in a mirror, examining their own national, and spiritual, state of health - begins with the line: "Well, sir, what's new in politics?" Before 1989, Polish theatre was often a place of resistance, of the battle for the preservation of a national identity and of spiritual freedom. When (along with the fall of Communism in Poland in 1989) the great dream of freedom suddenly became real, theatre, till then marching in the vanguard, unexpectedly lost its way. It lost its privileged position as the place where, directly or through a complex system of symbols and allusions, people spoke the truth and encouraged others to fight for an end to censorship, for freedom of thought and demanded democracy and full sovereignty. Now truth, apparently at least, was out there on the street and no-one expected theatre to have a political mission. Besides which, in the free-market system which arrived in Poland along with democracy, cultural life, and that meant the theatre, too, had to succumb to the rules of the market and this was far from easy in the face of a universal shortage of money, the pitiful levels of state subsidy and the absence of any tradition of private patronage. It became crucially essential to redefine the place and the role of theatre, to delineate for it new tasks and new responsibilities towards the public that would stem the sudden exodus from theatre's auditoriums.
The early nineties were a difficult period for the theatre. Everything seemed to be more attractive than it. Life was captivating, offering a cornucopia of new possibilities. The traditional strength of Polish theatre, rooted in nineteenth century Romantic drama, constantly relevant and commenting on our reality most profoundly for nigh on two hundred years, withered. There was a suggestion that the paradigm had changed. But if the Romantic paradigm was finished, then what had started? An age of what? Of what theatrical style or convention? Theatre didn't have much time. It instantly started to divide according to new principles. Some of the theatrical companies (the repertoire system based on permanent groups of actors continues to dominate in Poland) succumbed to the pressures of the market, or maybe to the blandishments of easy applause and possible profits, and turned their backs on high artistic ambitions, offering their public entertainment - sometimes well prepared, sometimes easy and pretentious. Not all of them, however, abandoned artistic theatre; some retained their willingness to take the greatest risks, not opting for a warm and comfortable place in the new world. Today we can see that those who persevered were those who triumphed, though often artistic triumph has gone hand in hand with very modest financial rewards. This is what the Polish theatrical archipelago looks like at the threshold of the new millennium; it consists of many magnificent islands which together are beginning to form an increasingly recognisable landscape of the archipelago.
The island of the dead
...is particularly densely populated by artists who have shaped the contemporary look of the theatre. At least three of the artists who changed the face of Polish theatre, achieving great insights and courageously conducting important experiments, must be mentioned. Their ideas changed forever ways of thinking about the stage, the actor, the role and destiny of the theatre. The three great reformers were Jerzy Grotowski, Tadeusz Kantor, and Konrad Swinarski. The first two also had an influence on the way theatre is thought about throughout the world.
Konrad Swinarski (1929-1975) won his place in the history of theatre mainly as a director of Polish national dramatic masterpieces: Dziady / Forefathers' Eve by Adam Mickiewicz (1973) and Wyzwolenie / Liberation by Stanisław Wyspiański (1974). Both productions were shown at Krakow's Stary Teatr during the best period of that company's work. They pointed to a completely new path for theatre: despite their theatricality, the productions went outside theatrical convention; they broke through the magic circle of artifice, they went out towards existence itself. Swinarski revealed that the boundary between reality and theatre is very tenuous, that both worlds interpenetrate and complement one another, and that questions can be answered in both areas with equal relevance. Truth can be found in the theatre, more even: theatre should be used as a tool in the quest for truth. Apart from Polish Romantic drama, Swinarski was interested in contemporary drama, and also in Shakespeare's plays (he died in a plane crash leaving behind him an unfinished production of Hamlet). He produced Brecht many times Threepenny Opera (1958), Dürrenmatt The Adventure of Mr Traps According to Crash (1965), and Weiss Marat/Sade (1964).
Swinarski, who remained committed to the repertoire theatre, gave its artists a new faith in the possibilities of rejecting convention and making a performance a place of vibrant emotions. And he reinforced the audience's faith in the endless vitality of theatrical creativity and its powers of transformation.
Jerzy Grotowski (1933-1999) revolutionised the way people throughout the world thought about the purposes and rôle of theatre. He changed the position of the actor, methods of training him, and the way he worked on his part. The performance itself changed its function, too. It stopped being a spectacle and became a process of transformation in which actors and the audience participate equally. The small number of realised productions e.g. Akropolis / Acropolis based on Wyspiański (1962); Książę Niezłomny / The Constant Prince by Juliusz Słowacki (1965); Apocalypsis Cum Figuris (1968), his move towards extra-theatrical activities, and his eventual break with theatre all led to the formulation of a new purpose for art: art was a way of letting Man move into areas which are unreachable by any other route. Grotowski left Poland (working in Italy from 1985), and much of his work is shrouded in secrecy even today. Since 1990 there has been a Centre for Research into Jerzy Grotowski's Work and Theatro-Cultural Explorations functioning in Wrocław.
Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990) was also a solitary theatrical island. Unrecognised for many years, he had to struggle with financial difficulties in Poland till the end of his life; his Cricot 2 Theatre never even had its own space where it could rehearse and create its shows. Kantor's world-wide success began with the production of Umarła klasa / Dead Class (1975), which was part of his "Theatre od death" series. Kantor, rooted in the avant-garde activities of Krakow's painters, spent his whole life - as befits an avant-garde artist - writing manifestos for the theatre. He constantly, almost obsessively, commented on his own theatrical activity. This is how he defined the essence of "Theatre od death", at the same time discovering one of the deepest secrets of theatre in general:
"Art is always for 'life'. But because it is art, it looks at the most fascinating - because unimaginable - aspect of life which is the idea of death."
This is neither pessimism nor decadence. Kantor's performances, with their intense use of the mechanics of memory and reminiscence, were an attempt to infiltrate through to the other side. The artist himself was the main subject of this experiment and the protagonist of all his performances. He forced his way through to the worlds beyond in order to gain control of the riddle of transience and dying. He loved death, which he loathed. He created not only a magnificent theatrical language, a rich poetics of the theatre, but above all he gave meaning to all theatrical exploration which he placed firmly on the borders between life and death.
A journey to the island of the dead leads to the discovery of one of Polish theatre's greatest assets: authorial theatre, marked by the personalities of great directors, men of the theatre creating their own individual worlds. It also shows that everything of importance in theatre comes from a deep faith in the fact that theatre isn't merely an entertainment, making life more pleasant, a way of passing the time, but a risky journey to the unknown, an attempt to solve the mystery of human existence. Despite the fact that the above-mentioned artists developed their entire theatrical activity at a time when theatre fulfilled many concurrent political functions, their theatre concentrated on Man and drew on that most magnificent of traditions which insists on treating theatre as an instrument of discovery.
The island of the Old Masters
Andrzej Wajda (b. 1926), Jerzy Jarocki (born1929), and Jerzy Grzegorzewski (born 1939) comprise the 'Old Masters' generation of Polish theatre. Still exceptionally strongly involved in the complexities of the Polish situation, very patriotically inclined, they have for many years been putting up the mirror of truth tirelessly to Poles' faces.
For Andrzej Wajda theatre complemented his film work. This director's chief interest was history and its influences on the individual. His best stagings were three productions of texts based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Biesy / The Possessed (1971), Nastazja Filipowna / Nastasya Filipovna (1977) and Zbrodnia i kara / Crime and Punishment (1984). Wajda's commentary on the new Polish reality at the turning-point at the end of the eighties could be found in his production of Shakespeare's Hamlet (1989). The production started a huge theatrical discussion about the place of theatre and its tasks in the new reality. The production was played in the theatre's dressing-room. The hero was an actor, or even an actress (Teresa Budzisz-Krzyżanowska), which emphasised the metatheatrical character of the production. The audience, crowded into the dressing-room of the actress trying on the role of Hamlet, sometimes had the chance to glimpse the action on stage in scenes between Claudius and Gertrude from the back, but the off-stage actions were far more important as Hamlet, suddenly ejected from history's great drama, was left alone to face the question: "To be or not to be". That was a question that could be applied at that time to the whole of Polish theatre, to all its actors. The point was that only a few realised this at the time. In Poland, Wajda is an institution. Despite the difficult times the director has experienced during the nineties, openly admitting to his inability to communicate with the new Polish way of life, his talent has shone with all its brightness recently in film and television drama.
Jerzy Jarocki's comments on the new reality could be seen in Witold Gombrowicz's Ślub / The Wedding (1991). This was the seventh time he had returned to this, one of the most important Polish dramatic texts. This production was a profound and precise analysis of a situation which created possibilities for the abuse of power and freedom. The protagonist of the play - Henryk - returns to the land of his youth from a world turned upside down by war. He is confronted by a situation of pure possibility, pure potential. In a moment "the curtain will rise" and Henryk will start to build his own world. Jarocki's seventh Ślub in the Stary Teatr is one of the greatest achievements of Polish theatre in the last decade. At the Teatr Polski in Wrocław (one of the strongest repertory theatres in Poland) Jarocki returned to Chekhov, presenting Platonow / Platonov (1993) and Płatonow. Akt pominięty / Platonov. The Missing Act (1996). These plays about people who were losers have the same effect as a bucket of cold water poured onto the over-heated ambitions of the "new" man for whom the only value in life is now worldly success. Among the more important productions staged by Jarocki in the nineties have been Kleist's Kasia z Heilbronu / Das Käthchen Von Heilbronn (1994) and Goethe's Faust. Jarocki is also a magnificent teacher of actors. He analyses texts and outlines the actors' tasks very meticulously, demanding from the actor not only great obedience and determination but also superhuman abilities and exceptional concentration. Virtually everyone who has graduated from his conservative and traditionalist theatrical training has done so having acquired a magnificent actor's polish.
Jerzy Grzegorzewski has created a completely individual and separate authorial theatre. He has been in charge of the Teatr Studio in Warsaw since 1982, and he has staged productions there which have experimented with the form of theatre and constantly extended its boundaries. He took no account of the public's tastes or expectations. He cut huge sections of text mercilessly, he combined Beckett with operettas... Every production demonstrated theatre's unlimited capacity as a means of expression, its ability to absorb what pertained to music and visual art. Grzegorzewski, respecting his audience's intellectual capabilities, constantly opened new doors for its imagination. He never crossed the t's, he never allowed the element of publicity to hold sway in his theatre. He always created deeply ironic productions which seemed to be uninvolved in what was happening in Poland. But they only seemed to be so: when Grzegorzewski - the master of irony - became the director of the Teatr Narodowy (The National Theatre) in 1997, he proved how wonderfully the opening up of the imagination can serve to build a national identity which cannot be achieved by declarations or mouthing hollow phrases. Only thinking can lead to understanding, and thinking demands irony. In the nineties he produced, among others, Chekhov's Wujaszek Wania / Uncle Vanya (1993), La Boheme from works by Wyspiański (1995), Dziady - Dwanaście improwizacji / Forefathers' Eve - Twelve Improvisations (1995), Wyspiański's Noc Listopadowa / November Night (1997), Gombrowicz's Ślub / Wedding (1998).
Krystian Lupa's Ithaca
Krystian Lupa (b. 1943), similarly to Tadeusz Kantor before him, built his unique theatre and its complex language very gradually. He had to wait a long time, too, for success, which he was probably never particularly interested in. Theatre is not, after all, a way of achieving popularity or fame. Its purpose is to understand the human soul and the spirit of the world. Today Lupa is one of Europe's leading directors and his productions throughout the continent are hugely successful. What makes his theatre so magnificent? A very special treatment of time, space and the actor in the theatre, and a consistent choice of texts. The stage space is usually separated from the audience by a semi-transparent gauze (a kind of transparent fourth wall) or by wires stretched out like the axes of co-ordinates. The actor - man - figure (the boundaries between these different kinds of being are easily blurred) is enclosed in the laboratory of the human soul. Time often acquires its real-life rhythm, an unhurried tempo in which events have the opportunity to swell and mature, irrevocably and not necessarily showily, towards a culmination. Actors have no right to act, to use a badly understood craft based on pretence. The system of performance created by Lupa demands from an actor extraordinary concentration, courage and a willingness to delve into the most secret nooks of his own subconscious. The results are dazzling. Anyone who has seen the actors in a Krystian Lupa production is in danger of slamming behind him the doors that lead to the theatre of cliché and mere competence. After such an intense production it's impossible to return to conventional theatre where everyone is trying to deceive everyone else. The intensity of this acting, often extending over many hours, leads the audience into a different state of sensitivity, making it ready to accept strange sensations and motives, leads it to a state of catharsis, to a meeting with the spiritual. Lupa is stubbornly diagnosing the spiritual state of his contemporaries by avoiding any simplification done for the sake of publicity or effect. That's why he always turns to literature of the highest quality, adapting novels in a masterful way. The narrative element gives his theatre its epic detachment, allowing it to channel the unleashed emotions. Analyses of a society mired in the chaos of declining values, in a world of disintegration and decadence, lead to conclusions that are, nevertheless, full of hope. There is, in an inhuman universe, a human hope of redemption: in the foreground it's something that theatre gives us, in the background it is faith.
The embodiment of Lupa's theatre could be Odysseus returning to Ithaca - a character in Stanislaw Wyspiański's visionary play Powrót Odysa / Odysseus's Return which the director has staged twice. The Ithaca to which Odysseus returns is no Arcadian land full of happiness nor place of fulfilment. It is a land of humanity's, and its first values', disintegration. Odysseus, by pursuing his destiny, is approaching his death. His place is in Charon's boat. To cross the river Styx is man's true calling.
At the Stary Teatr in Krakow, where he has staged his most important productions, Krystian Lupa has a group of devoted actors who have faith in their master, who are prepared to submit themselves to the hypnosis of hard work involving not only the skills of their craft but above all their private emotions and anxieties. Lupa's actors are actors of huge individuality (e.g. Małgorzata Hajewska-Krzysztofik, Anna Polony, Alicja Bienicewicz, Andrzej Hudziak, Piotr Skiba, Jan Frycz). During the nineties Lupa directed, among other productions, Bracia Karamazow / The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1990), Malte by Rainer Maria Rilke (1991), Kalkwerk by Thomas Bernhard (1992), Lunatycy / The Lunatics by Hermann Broch (1995, 1998), Immanuel Kant by Thomas Bernhard (1996) and Rodzeństwo / Siblings by Thomas Bernhard (1996). Krystian Lupa also teaches directing and acting at the Krakow Theatre School.
A volcanic power
After years of theatrical stagnation and a generation of a black theatrical void for which we have the years of martial law - imposed by the Communist authorities in 1981 - to thank and which were so inimical to theatre, at last, in the late eighties and early nineties, a group of young directors made their appearance. It is not a group one generation or one programme. What links them is simply the time in which they created their theatre and their need to discover a new sensitivity. The interesting thing is that nearly all the directors who were once described by the collective name of "the younger talents" were pupils of Krystian Lupa. He is probably the only artist who created a real school within Polish theatre. Not a group of acolytes and imitators, but people who were capable of absorbing and developing their master's lessons. The most important members of "the younger talents" are Grzegorz Jarzyna, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Anna Augustynowicz, and Piotr Cieplak. They were the first to take note of the fact that in Poland everything changed after 1989, starting with the political system all the way through to the theatre audience and its sensitivity. They weren't contemptuous of the new, young audience whose sensitivity had been shaped to a large extent by cinema, music, and television. On the contrary, drawing from the sources of mass culture they decided to use the theatre to talk about the world of the young using their language, undertaking, at the same time, a vertiginous attempt to raise the new sensitivity to the level of art, to transfer the new reality into the field of art so as to assess it, to examine these new versions of spirituality by using the tried and tested tools of culture. "The younger talents" were the first to accept that one can no longer pretend that the world isn't changing, and that mass culture doesn't control the consciousness, the imagination and the symbolic thinking of young people. Their liberal theatre, which has many conservative opponents in Poland, has restored faith in the possibility of a theatre which conducts a dialogue with its public, has restored faith that theatres can be full, but above all has saved the continuity of the tradition of Polish theatre which was always, at its best, a theatre in an alliance with the audience.
Grzegorz Jarzyna, the youngest of this set, showered with all possible Polish prizes and awards, invited to participate in the Avignon Festival in the year 2000, is the artistic director of the Warsaw Teatr Rozmaitosci, which is the bridge-head of the "younger talents", the place where, taking the greatest artistic risks, they attempt to shape a new aesthetics of theatre and a new ethics for the audience. He made his debut with Bzik tropikalny / Tropical Craze by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (1997). In the Stary Teatr in Krakow he staged IWona, Ksiezniczka Burgunda / Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy by Witold Gombrowicz (1998), and in Warsaw Brad Fraser's Unidentified Human Remains and the Nature of True Love(1998), as well as Magnetyzm serca / Magnetism of the Heart by Aleksander Fredro, a 19th century playwright often associated with the dull theatre of set texts at school (1999) and Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus in a co-production with Teatr Polski in Wrocław and the Berlin Hebbel Theater (2000). Jarzyna is a master at controlling the space of stage action and the space of the audience's emotions. He doesn't condemn any manifestation of the new morality, treating each of its aspects with equal interest. He displays a weakness for pastiche and a great ease at playing with theatrical conventions, he tries constantly to reflect contemporary life in the mirror of tradition and tradition in a contemporary glass, arguing against the hypothesis that "the world is all going to the dogs".
Anna Augustynowicz, director of the Szczecin Teatr Współczesny / Contemporary Theatre, is an exponent of what might be termed a citizens' theatre. The director's subjects of concern are not political or national matters, but the whole question of the disintegration of interpersonal contacts, the profound bestialisation that overcomes a society as it succumbs to commercialism. Augustynowicz does not shy away from brutal methods and extreme theatrical effects. She readily makes the classics contemporary, forcing them into the new everyday vulgarity. Augustynowicz's best production was the play Moja wątroba jest bez sensu / My Liver Makes No Sense (1997), based on Werner Schwab's text. The world of this play is reminiscent of reality after a disaster. The setting is confined to one tenement and the three families that live there. Schwab makes the tenement hierarchic, perpendicular; Augustynowicz brings everyone to the same level, putting the protagonists into three theatrical mansions. It's in them that the mystery of disintegration is played out, from which the only escape is death. Augustynowicz is far from brazen moralising, she doesn't want to instruct anyone. She insists only that we look closely at our life and draw our conclusions from the picture of decay shown. She shows a ritual that is impossible because it shies away from the sacrifice that makes redemption possible.
Krzysztof Warlikowski is fascinating primarily because of his new interpretations of Shakespeare's plays. He has already staged The Taming of The Shrew (1998), The Winter's Tale (1997), Hamlet (1999), Pericles (staged at Piccolo Teatro in Milan at the invitation of Giorgio Strehler), Twelfth Night and The Tempest (productions directed at the Stadt Theater in Stuttgart). Till recently the interpretation of Shakesperean texts in Poland was dominated by the revelatory theories of Jan Kott. Shakespeare's plays were usually interpreted as plays about power, their world was ruled by the Great Mechanism of History. Warlikowski reads the Bard's plays as dramas about existence. He gives them a new reading, translating them into the language of contemporary sensitivity. Warlikowski's productions embrace a post-modern philosophy of art. Very often the action begins in a theatre. The real discussion begins only at the metalevel except that the theatrical brackets undermine the figure's ontology irredeemably. In Hamlet, the eponymous hero concentrates on discovering his own identity. He moves in a world of evil, except that evil has no unambiguous definition here. It has to be recognised because such is the structure of the world. Hamlet is presented here as the story of a family, with an ostentatious dismissal of the political motifs which were once the most important in Polish theatre. In The Taming of the Shrew the director unexpectedly overturns the climax of the play, changing the meaning of the entire text. The vanquished Kate does not make a submissive speech, does not agree to a blind obedience towards her husband. Full of suppressed anger and desperate outrage she speaks like a feminist, undermining the order of interpersonal relations established by tradition.
Another author staged by Warlikowski is Bernard Maria Koltès. Roberto Zucco and Zachodnie Wybrzeże / West Beach are two journeys into the interior of the murky soul of contemporary man, the murky soul of the world, attempting to recreate ritual even if the path to it leads through death. The director's version of Gombrowicz was also a success. Recently, Warlikowski has started to direct operas. In Warsaw he staged the world premiere of Program muzyczny / Musical Programme by Roxana Panufnik and also Don Carlos.
Warlikowski collaborates constantly with Małgorzata Szczęśniak - undoubtedly the most talented set designer of the younger generation - and with the composer Paweł Mykietyn, recipient of many prestigious European awards for composition. They are an exceptional group of artists mutually complementing and inspiring one another.
Piotr Cieplak is leading his theatre towards a naif theatre. He is attempting to restore moral order, believing in the gentleness of human nature and its goodness. His best productions incline towards religious subjects: Historyja o Chwalebnym Zmartwychwstaniu Pańskim / The Story of the Most Glorious Resurrection of Our Lord, based on the 16th century mystery play by Mikołaj of Wilkowiecko (1993, 1994). In turn, Suassuna's Historia o Miłosiernej / Story of A Merciful Woman is an attempt at creating a contemporary morality play. Cieplak has openly addressed his theatre to the young, and they have accepted it with enthusiasm. He uses the theatre as a tool for secular catechism, he teaches about love, sacrifice and forgiveness. His productions veer towards fairy-tale theatre, they are great fables with a moral. This has consequences for the theatrical means he uses. The whole thing creates an impression of subtle amateurishness. Its reality isn't quite completely ready. An angel may have theatrically fixed wings and makes no attempt to hide that. Christ is not completely at ease in the role he's been given, the decorations look as if they are home-made. Cieplak constructs a separate kind of poetics on the restless volcanic island.
Paradoxically, "the younger talents" (Jarzyna, Warlikowski, Augustynowicz, Cieplak) have felt themselves to be responsible for an audience which was of their generation, or younger, and which couldn't find their theatre in the repertory institutions. The theatrical activities of "the younger talents", which is of great worth pedagogically - in the best sense of that word - are far from flattering the new sensibility and the new system of values. They are a wise and well-considered attempt at persuasion couched in the highest artistic qualities. "The younger talents" are continuing the tradition of authorial theatre, building, and each one separately and in their own way, a new theatrical language.
Alternative theatre played a key role in Polish theatrical life of the sixties and seventies. This was the place where firm ethical attitudes (which is why they were frequently subjected to political repression) and, from today's perspective more importantly, a new theatrical aesthetics, new forms of expression were forged. This was the place for artistic experiment whose achievements were then assimilated by the repertory theatre which thereby broadened its own means of expression. Teatr Ósmego Dnia / Theatre of the Eighth Day, Provisorium and Akademia Ruchu / Academy of Movement are companies which are active to this day and are continuing to create very interesting productions which are today, paradoxically, classics of alternative theatre - if such a contradiction in terms is at all possible. There are not many "younger alternatives" today. This kind of theatre has lost its erstwhile universality, its mass-appeal, has stopped being the basic means of expression for the rebellious. Besides, rebellion is taking different paths today. The people who are emerging after 1989, citizens of a new Poland who have not yet acquired a voice of their own, will formulate their artistic statements and social expectations in a completely different way. Of the new alternative groups where "alternative" today implies differences in the ways of working, an independence from repertory structures that require theatres to adhere to set timetables of openings and productions, the most interesting are Biuro Podróży / Travel Bureau, Porywacze Ciał / Bodysnatchers and the newest addition to this group Komuna Otwock / The Otwock Commune.
Biuro Podrozy, founded in Poznan by Pawel Szkotak, learned a lot about theatre from the Teatr Osmego Dnia. They started from an ironic confrontation with the new reality. In time, an enormous poetic power appeared in their productions, pushing them towards the metaphysical. Biuro Podrozy quickly went out into the streets with their shows, accurately predicting the public's rejection of the theatre. Since people didn't want to go into theatre buildings, theatre will start to come to them, confronting them in their everyday places. Biuro Podróży has shown its productions all over the world, winning many festival prizes (including a prestigious Fringe First at Edinburgh in 1995). Their best productions are: Giordano - a poetic tale about defending the truth and constancy as values that constitute human dignity and its capacity for sacrifice; Carmen Funebre - a show which analysed the cruelties of war and was a protest against events in former Yugoslavia, and their latest street theatre piece Selenauts - showing against the background of the history of space exploration the destructive force of totalitarian successes which can be combated with the poetic gift which everyone possesses.
Porywacze Ciał are also based in Poznan. Their name comes from Don Siegel's film Invasion of the Bodysnatchers in which aliens attacked the world and substituted for people their identical physical copies but bereft of souls. The Porywacze Ciał theatre started in 1992. Their productions denounce the hidden mechanisms of a commercial paradise, attempting to restore a hierarchy of values and emphasising the importance of interpersonal ties.
The most radical alternative approaches are those proposed by the theatre of Stowarzyszenie Komuna Otwock / Association of the Otwock Commune. The Association has operated since the early nineties in Otwock, a township on the outskirts of Warsaw. This anarchist group started its theatrical work in 1998. Up till now they have staged three productions: Bez Tytułu / Untitled, Miasta / Cities and Trzeba zabić pierwszego Boga / The First God Must Be Killed. The shows, which create an individual theatrical ritual, fight for an extension of the freedom of thought and of the freedom of expression in the theatre. This is the manifesto that accompanies their most recent production:
"Good evening, the 'Komuna Otwock' presents its agit-prop show called 'The first God must be killed'. The ritual form and reference to mythological beginnings serve to touch upon that which is the cause of the Problem/Man. The sense is a constant readiness to Awaken because survival is the fundamental form of life - not happiness, not art, not love. Another path starts somewhere between the eye and the heart. It is called looking-Seeing, feeling-Doing. The sense is the state of no-Sleeping which we sometimes call a revolution. Good evening."
The Komuna Otwock is one example of the renaissance of committed theatre.
It's also worth noting the work of Towarzystwo Wierszalin / The Wierszalin Association from Suprasla which became very well-known in the nineties, creating an original form of puppet theatre. The Association's director is Piotr Tomaszuk and till recently the chief dramatist of this theatre was Tadeusz Słobodzianek, regarded as one of the most interesting contemporary authors writing for the theatre. The inspiration for the Towarzystwo Wierszalin is the culture of the Polish-Belarussian borders.
The National island
Warsaw's Teatr Narodowy / National Theatre was opened in 1765. It was Poland's first professional theatre, founded on the eve of the partitions. A tempestuous history has been the lot of this playhouse, which from its very beginnings was a bulwark of Polishness (Polish character). Its most recent history is one of shame when, during martial law, the theatre became an obedient tool of the authorities' manipulations, and culminating in a huge fire, and rebuilding which seems to be stretching endlessly. Towards the end of the restoration a huge discussion took place in Polish theatrical circles about the future shape of the national playhouse, and about the ideal candidate for the post of its director. On 19 November 1996 the new theatre staged the Krakow production of Adam Mickiewicz's Dziady / Forefathers' Eve, directed by Jerzy Grzegorzewski - the present director of the National Theatre.
Grzegorzewski consistently produces the plays of Stanisław Wyspiański on the national stage as well as his own shows. He has invited Kazimierz Dejmek and Adam Hanuszkiewicz, former directors of the national stage, to work with him. On the one hand, a peculiar living museum of Polish theatre where honour is paid to the old masters, is starting to form here; on the other, Grzegorzewski is consistently creating his own authorial theatre, constantly experimenting and exploring the boundaries of eclecticism in the theatre. Despite their modernist form, these productions fulfil the needs of a national repertoire admirably. Grzegorzewski is creating an open space for the nation's imagination. In his productions he gathers national symbols, sounds and colours. Here the essence of Polishness (Polish character) is expressed most fully, a Polishness understood as an aesthetic category, not a provincial Polishness but a European, free and a confident Polishness. This theatrical book of national imagination is lined with its author's profound scepticism and irony, it is a very personal vision ceaselessly raised to the level of universality. Grzegorzewski is continuing the ethos of the modernist artist. He is constantly playing with the audience, provoking it to think, opening the gates of imagination, never allowing himself to make a definitive statement. A national ironist in the post of director of the national stage is a guarantee of the highest intellectual subtlety in the productions shown there. Grzegorzewski himself has been saying lately that he is creating theatre for mature people. This declaration seems to be yet another provocation, an attempt to evoke a conflict with "the younger talents". A provocation because Grzegorzewski, with his unfettered imagination, remains a young and constantly exploring artist despite his mature years.
The other Polish theatre with the status of a national theatre is Krakow's Stary Teatr / Old Theatre. In post-war Poland it has often been the most outstanding theatre in the country and one of the finest in Europe. It managed excellently to exploit its distance away from Warsaw and the city's obsession with politics. Among those who worked there have been Tadeusz Kantor, Jerzy Grotowski, Konrad Swinarski, Jerzy Jarocki, Andrzej Wajda, Jerzy Grzegorzewski, Kazimierz Kutz.
And yet more islands
The Association of Theatrical Practices Gardzienice was founded in 1976 by Wlodzimierz Staniewski in a village near Lublin which remains the group's headquarters to this day. Staniewski had just finished a five-year period of collaboration with Jerzy Grotowski's Teatr Laboratorium. The group does create theatrical productions, but its main work is to conduct research into folk culture, as well as ethnic and anthropological studies. Members of the group take part in expeditions. There the shape of future productions is formed, productions which are evolving more and more closely towards modern mystery plays, restoring tragedy from the spirit of music. Their newest production Metamorfozy / Metamorphoses (1997), based on Apuleius's Zloty osiol / Golden Ass, is subtitled: an ethnooratorio. This international group's way of life and methods of work are a bit reminiscent of monastic institutions. The productions are most effective when seen in Gardzienice itself, a small village lost and forgotten by a world of transformations of civilisation.
For many years now Lublin itself has been the home of Leszek Madzik's theatre - Scena Plastyczna Katolickiego Uniwersytetu Lubelskiego / The Artistic Stage of the Catholic University in Lublin. This is a completely separate island. For many years, Madzik has consistently been staging a theatre which is trying to penetrate the mysteries of dying, death and life after death. His productions are being constantly reduced, their means of expression confined. Madzik gave up using colour long ago, now he is also limiting the amount of light used. All the time his theatrical pictures teeter on the edge of visibility as if he were trying to convince the spectators that it's possible to see in the dark. And whoever starts to see in the dark will see what a normal eye cannot see, will penetrate the mystery that is most fiercely shielded from limited human understanding. The actors in Madzik's theatre are students of the KUL, regularly changing, treated consistently as just another artistic mark in the theatre, on a par with stage props, lights, and space. Spectators watching Madzik's theatrical works start to believe that any moment now they will see the whole truth, will experience an epiphany.
The Planet Poland still believes that theatre can save it. That's the greatest strength of the great archipelago on our small planet. A very complicated and wide-ranging archipelago, but still subordinated to the primacy of artistic values. Theatre is a servant of knowledge.
Author: Piotr Gruszczyński, 2001.