In Wałbrzych Monika Strzępka and Paweł Demirskihave been creating plays which rebel against the commercially streaked productions performed in better-known theatres.
By comparison, the work of Krystian Lupa leads one to believe that theatre can be a space not only of serious reflection on life and culture, but also a space in which contemporary spirituality is studied. Given this perspective, his Persona shines through as a rather significant project. Staged at the Dramatyczny Theatre and spread out over two to three years, its focus is to study three iconic figures from the Twentieth Century: the American sex icon Marilyn Monroe, the French mystic Simone Weil and the Russian theatre reformer George Gurdjieff. Complex, diverse, and endowed with the capability to transcend the boundaries of existence given to them, these characters refuse to be pigeonholed. Krystian Lupa does not present their biographies but, instead, creates something of a fantasy on stage inspired by their lives and works. This allows one to get a closer look at the heroes as they collide with the personalities of the actors, treated here as "a tool of transgression in reaching a different, alien and thus inaccessible personality along with its mystery".
This season Sandra Korzeniak showed how a lonely woman, addicted to pills and, more importantly, to the acceptance of others, transforms into Marilyn Monroe - the sexy, provocative and silly blonde created for fans and media. MM was an aphrodisiac on celluloid tape for the masses, a symbol of lust and of women's emancipation for the petty-bourgeois and puritan America of the time. It was also a mask, an outer shell inside which the emotionally unstable Norma Jeane Mortenson (Marilyn Monroe's real name) could hide behind.
Then, Lupa showed an exceptionally complex personality based on the French thinker Simone Weil. Weil claimed that cognition is equal to experience; therefore she treated the human imperative of togetherness with the utmost seriousness, drawing the most extreme existential conclusions. As she wrote about workers exploited by capitalism she attempted to examine their fate by placing herself in a position to experience the same oppression, dependence and poverty. She resigned from her post of a high-school philosophy teacher to get a job as a milling-machine worker at the Renault factory to live off a minimum wage and later became unemployed. She fought together with the International Brigades in Spain, rifle in her hand, just as a man would. During the war, a representative of the resistance movement in London, Weil rationed out her food in the same amounts as the Nazis did for people in occupied France - she was Jewish and had managed to leave the country. Weil treated her body as a slave of thought, an intellectual battlefield. She died of starvation at the age of thirty-four. She was fascinated by Christianity but she was not baptised, yet she remained on the Church's threshold. Many Catholics consider Weil a saint.
In Persona. Simone's Body, Simone Weil's extraordinary personality and cognitive experiments provide a mirror for people to examine their own existential approach. In his pursuit of a paradox, contradictions and falsities the director strove to collide with and confront Weil's experience, her struggle for goodness and truth, using the personalities of actors. Lupa offered both the actors and the audience a form of spiritual adventure and of exposure; an exceptional and tough journey into oneself. The plot takes place in the same stage scenery as the first part of the triptych - an abandoned film studio where Marilyn Monroe had chosen to take refuge from the world. In the second panel it serves as a rehearsal space for a play about the French thinker, produced by a young director (Andrzej Szeremeta). The main character was to be played by Elżbieta Vogler, an actress borrowed from Ingmar Bergman's Persona who retreated into madness thirty years earlier, leaving behind a young son. Lupa gave this multi-layered part to Małgorzata Braunek, an actress who years ago gave up acting in order to study Buddhism.
The play's Elżbieta is full of doubt and twice as old as Simone at the time of her death, a fact the director seemed to forget in his pursuit of ideological similarities as opposed to factual ones. This allowed him to approach the mother (he is Elżbieta's son), frozen in a stupor of silence, and settle accounts with his twisted childhood - perhaps to forgive. Elżbieta, inside, was defending herself from playing the thinker who denied her body and sexuality until she succeeded in annihilating herself through anorexia. She was afraid of destroying her own organised world, of humiliation. Yet she had already become engrossed in Simone's works, and her character grew in her mind like cancer. The fear of confronting this extraordinary saint was then replaced by a feeling of empathy and fascination.
Rehearsals finally begin, the director staging one of Weil's dreams about a mysterious young man. Her love of God proves surprisingly akin to a relationship with and desire for a man. For Artur it was a moment of weakness and exposure for the intellectually self-disciplined Simone, while at the same time making up the instant in which his actress-mother could lose her cold, inaccessible composure. Artur's provocation to raise doubt about the sincerity of Simone's choices proved futile; Elżbieta gave up her part. But then a vision appeared: Simone Weil (played by Joanna Szczepkowska) at the premiere, Maja Ostaszewska in later performances). She was a person lost in her own thoughts, as if she were deprived of corporality, armoured in her black shapeless clothing. The character talked to the actress, but in fact it was Elżbieta agonising about her private worries, who talked to Simone as a woman to a woman, a sufferer to a sufferer. The one who thought through human fate and understood all to one who experienced all and wanted to understand. The mystery of godly and earthly love remained unsolved; yet the women would still end up going down a path filled with doubt and hope.
Thanks to Braunek's intense yet subdued presence, the character of Elżbieta was both worrying and captivating, forcing the audience to focus on the mother-and-son drama. Furthermore, the audience observed the drama of the actress, who was giving in to a schizophrenia of sorts as she got closer to the character of the French thinker. Braunek led the performance with focused attention, this startlingly important journey into her own soul and self, and pushed the audience to follow a similar path. It is not easy to forget her role; like a thorn it reminds us of the need for empathy towards others, about the value of suffering and - most importantly - about bearing witness to the ideas ones professes for one's own life. Lupa protects our spirituality from a deluge of kitsch, junk and commercial reality. This is quite a lot.
A different repertoire, eclectic yet ambitious, was presented by Jan Englert, the director of the National Theatre in Warsaw. He has an excellent company of outstanding actors and directors with which to do so. Given the apathy of other stages in Warsaw, his takes on the appearance of quite a serious programme. One of the last masters of our theatre, Jerzy Jarocki was behind yet another superb drama: Sławomir Mrożek's Tango has been reinterpreted through Gombrowicz's The Wedding, or at least this is how the young actor, Marcin Hycnar played the part (which he won the Warsaw Feliks for). Like his colleague Grzegorz Małecki, whose Edek proved delightful not so much because of the crudeness of his manners - although these were wonderful, too - but mostly because of his dexerity at some semi-legal business, which is currently quite desirable. The rest of the parts were played with an ease typical for the professional set.
A range of directors across generations have summarily drawn up the 2010 repertoire for the National Theatre, from Englert's charming and classy play based on Marek Rymkiewicz's Księżniczka na opak wywrócona / Señora y la criada, which reeled in the Warsaw Feliks award for Ewa Konstancja Bułhak to Piotr Cieślak staged Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, a play in which Janusz Gajos built yet another brilliant role - winning the Tadeusz Boy- Żeleński award for lifetime merit from the Association of Theatre Critics.
Agnieszka Glińska's take on Chekhov on the Teatr Współczesny stageshould be treated as a success. She produced Sztuka bez tytułu / "A Play without a Title, the debut play from Chekhov at twenty so well that Borys Szyc got the Andrzej Zelwerowicz Award for Best Actor of the season, in addition to the Warsaw Feliks for the part of Platonov. Zelwerowicz Award nominations were also given to Monika Krzywkowska for the part of the general's widow, Anna, and Dominika Kluźniak for the part of Sasha Platonov (she also got the Warsaw Feliks for the role). Glińska showed a community without lenience, a circle of boorish, greedy and hypocritical people. Compared to them Platonov seemed almost interesting and unselfish.
In her production of The Seagull, Glińska adopted a similarly ruthless stance towards people, although their images were more subtle in their cruelty - the heroes were not boors but educated individuals and artists. The value of Glińska's production at The National Theatre lies in the multidimensional roles of the characters who listen only to their own ambitions, dreams and fears; thus they prove utterly insensitive to the needs and feelings even of their loved ones. The state of egoistic isolation is emphasised by the absurdity of shared existence, which is at times comic. Each person passes all the others with perfection, they rub against doorframes without noticing, and only some of them - including Nina and Constantin - remain mockingly and bitterly aware of the situation. Perhaps because here sensitivity brings on failure.
Contemporary Theatre has been turning towards film for some time now, transferring film scripts to the stage. Luchino Visconti's The Damned appeared on stage directed by Grzegorz Wiśniewski (who was awarded the Konrad Swiniarski Award) at the Wybrzeże Theatre early this year. It was also directed by Maja Kleczewska in Opole in autumn. In his staging Wiśniewski made allusions to Shakespeare's Macbeth (the witches were played by SS-officers), but instead of brutality and perversion, "the process takes place on the sidelines, which illustrates how clever politicians exploit the weakness of the elites", as Agnieszka Kochanowska wrote in dwutygodnik.com. Ewa Dałkowska i Mariusz Bonaszewski created remarkable characters. Maja Kleczewska embellished the text of The Damned with Stavrogin's confession, as if to redeem the paedophile rapes committed in this well-to-do family. She did not hesitate to show how the lust for power and pleasure can go unpunished among the high and mighty.
Karolina Gruszka received the Aleksander Zelwerowicz Award as Best Actress of the Season for two plays, Lipiec" / "July and Tanic Delhi"/ "Delhi Dance based on the works and directed by one of the most interesting young Russian artists, Ivan Vyrypayev. In both these plays the author of the film Euphoria and the cult flick Oxygen searched for a new language for the theatre. July at the Wola Theatre was a cruel and ironic confession made by a psychopathic killer-cannibal, for whom love and warmth were virtues impossible to tell from the negatives. The petite baby-faced actress, whose face was untouched by makeup, spoke her remarkable lines just perfectly, following the path from decline to salvation, from madness to poetry, and from a rhythmic scream to song, thus creating a new aesthetic quality. Delhi Dance, performed at the National Theatre, was an attempt to talk about Indian dance able soothe heartbreak, painful loss, and feeling of rejection - yet only in the main character's imagination. Comprising seven short pieces, the play proved one in which feelings were coldly discussed and emotions were not performed but shown, while Puccini's and Verdi's music accompanied melodramatic takes styled to look like old cinema. Through the distance the artificiality of the stage reality was creating an illusion of truth or, at the very least, a fresh take in showing emotions.
Lech Raczak's Czas terroru" / "Time of Terror in Legnica was an entirely different case. Based on Stefan Żeromski's The Rose, it revolves around the events of the 1905 revolution and makes up the director's third play focused on the concept of fixing the world. Together with Raczak's previous productions: Dziady / Forefather's Eve (2007), which discussed the issue of a nation's transformation, of a metaphysical revolution making individual and mass suffering meaningful, and Marat/Sade (2008) which focused on the revolution devouring its own children, the play formed a series that analysed radical ideas aimed to save the world, which could be at least saved from evil if it were to come true. This more often than not is not the case, since humans are not programmed beings but biological creatures whose lives occur according to laws more powerful than those invented behind a desk. The triptych from Legnica proved to be an ambitious attempt at looking at the director's own output as well as at the attitude of revolutionary protest that comes from the co-founder of the Teatr Ósmego Dnia / Theatre of the Eight Day.
There were a number of plays whose promotional campaigns were not matched by a quality production. Krzysztof Warlikowski. 's plays were among the biggest disappointments of the year. The French version of "Un Tramway"based on Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, was less than dazzling in spite of the exceptional Isabelle Huppert as Blanche Dubois; Koniec / The End produced with a Polish acting company was still worse. Admittedly, the Polish production did away with the perspex panels concealing sinks and toilets - an indicator not so much of the director's style, but rather of a certain mannerism. The space was arranged panoramically with wooden panels bearing low windows which served as screens for the actors filmed live. The whole acting space of essential props (table, armchairs, bed, and mattress) resembled a minimalist post-industrial interior. Green slats placed in the upper corner would shine at times adding a touch of uncanniness to the show about the way to the gate behind which there is no return.
The script which focused on death used fragments from Franz Kafka's The Trial and The Hunter Gracchus, Koltès's Nickel Stuff film script and John Maxwell Coetzee's novel Elizabeth Costello, all of which were deftly intertwined. Life and death was discussed with the aid of just about the entire world literature. The fusion of authors as diverse as Kafka, Koltès and Coetzee into one theatre narrative essentially showed the mutual incompatibility of keys, of the intensity of experiences and of meanings. The class and status of quoted texts were not without significance, yet it was treated nonchalantly, as if the hundreds of commentaries, from the philosophical to the cabbalistic tones of, say, Franz Kafka's works never existed. For the script's author vision or the journey into the intimate spheres of the director's psyche's proved superior to all other meanings.
For longer and shorter periods the actors would transform into the heroes of individual scenes which had been taken out from the quoted works. The characters existed outside psychology; they appeared suddenly, disappeared unexpectedly; as with Warlikowski's previous plays the characters surprised by their styled image and not by the reality of their experience. Marek Kalita seemed to be the host of this representation of reality; he was present in just about every sequence as a compère, a clerk, a witness, a porter, or a person who steers the movements of the man to the gate. In accordance with the logic of dreams anything could happen here. If the audience's attention was not to be lost they needed to know the rules of the oneiric happenings; yet they remained hidden. The roles created in the play were made of gestures well-known from Warlikowski's earlier productions. Now they arouse suspicion that the show was only a stocktake of devices and means of expression which had been previously used. Did the actors play ghosts haunting the director? The prisoners of their own imagination? Monsters with artificial looks as if they were taken from a magazine? The audience bored by a sequence of incoherent images leaves the show despite the presence of such stars as Magdalena Cielecka, Maja Ostaszewska, Jacek Poniedziałek. They do not wait for the best, final sequence based on Coetzee's text, performed by Stanisława Celińska and Ewa Dałkowska.
The theatrical production of the NIKE Award-winning book - Tadeusz Słobodzianek's Nasza klasa" / "Our Class - was produced as part of the inauguration of his management at Wola Theatre. Unfortunately, it proved quite disappointing. The mass murder of Jews in a small Polish town has been one of the most painful and drastic topics. The long-standing debate about Jedwabne provoked by Jan Gross's book proved how powerfully even now it triggers off heated discussions and how difficult this subject remains. The exceptional case called for an equally exceptional language of theatre. Słobodzianek divided the play into fourteen scenes-lessons in which he showed the fate of a dozen or so classmates from the 1920s until today. The play took on the form of a fairy tale - often used by the playwright - or of a morality play of sorts, but in the end it slid towards cliché. It appeared too serious for a fairy tale and too wordy for a morality play. The tragedy of people sentenced to be burnt alive by their neighbours, itself extremely horrible and traumatic, was pushed away, smoothed out by putting it in the so-called broad historical context, as well as in the stories of the individual classmates told in a manner that bordered the journalistic, even the generic. The inept acting with Odreja Spišak, 's banal situational denouements, his politically correct yet virulent dialogues resembled a children's storybook - an oft-quoted critique of the play. It is a shame that a unique form could not be found.
Jan Klata's Wesele hrabiego Orgaza / The Wedding of Count Orgaz was based on a grotesquely visionary, forgotten novel by Roman Jaworski, one of the biggest eccentrics living in the beginning of the Twentieth Century and whose work resembles the prophetism of Witkacy and Gombrowicz. For some the play showed at the Stary Theatre proved a mad debate about art and religion, about the need of spirituality in a society in crisis - and thus about contemporary metaphysics easily turned into profit. The ideas of the director and the choreographic routines, formed into a variety show of cabaret acts, delighted some, overwhelmed others and obscured the meanings. "With Jaworski you can neither express 'spiritual' issues, nor create psychological interactions", wrote Jacek Kopciński in Teatr, no. 9, 2010.
The spirit of prank has long made its home at Stary Theatre - that is, a buffoonery based on linking the ethereal with the base, much as Bogusław Schaeffer did in his music. From this collaboration with Schaeffer has come a great deal of Mikołaj Grabowski's technique, such as O północy przybyłem do Widawy… czyli opis obyczajów III" / "I Arrived in Widawa at Midnight… Or the Description of Customs III, adapted from Father Jędrzej Kitowicz's and Henryk Rzewuski's work, as well as Chopin i Szopen / Chopin and Szopen based on Chopin's diaries, documents and letters. For connoisseurs of Grabowski's theatre it served as an opportunity to see what they already knew. As for the status of the National Theatre's stage the programme was not exactly ambitious, but no-one said it had to be so.
Regardless whether you are a fan of Monika Strzępka and Paweł Demirski author-director duo or not, there is no denying that they have been consistent in criticising post-Solidarity elites and in defending the excluded. The plays Niech żyje wojna!!!" / "Long Live War!!! and Był sobie Andrzej Andrzej Andrzej i Andrzej" / "There Was an Andrzej Andrzej Andrzej and Andrzej produced in Wałbrzych brought together a group of actors who have been consciously collaborating on creating the shows. The group has been motivated by a similar feeling of dissent towards moralising or sending people to the corner for political incorrectness, and thus emphasising their inferiority. The elites were jeered at; they were shown in grotesque situations, while their well-being was reflected in the sneering mirror of young rebellion. These people did not want to be obedient, dull and forever in the background, as the main parts (and the money) have been already given away in the cultural discourse, art productions and in honours. This rebellious theatre engagé has been paving its way to high society—still critical, despite the "provincial distance" and sharp "tasteless" aesthetics.
Only a small number of theatres chose to notice the two hundredth birthday of Juliusz Słowacki. in 2010. Balladyna at the National Theatre; Zawisza Czarny at the coast's Teatr Wybrzeży; Fantazy in Gdynia; a tribute performance in Bydgoszcz; and Beatrix Cenci at the Słowacki Theatre in Kraków - all but the latter were adapted to the present rather gracelessly. Not one of these productions was noted as remarkable by either artists or critics for their performance or at least an innovative interpretation. In a word, the national classics are not faring well, they have turned out to be too difficult for directors (and for the audience) who lack contact with works on such a high level of complexity. The generation of actors who are now turning seventy, and who still know how to treat the verse of the Romantics, will soon leave the stage.
In a few years we will no longer require this rare skill. Staging classics, that is the reflection on tradition and cultural heritage, will be replaced by the increasingly successful organisation of festivals. We have seen over a hundred fifty of them in 2010, each lasting a few days Thus it is not hard to notice that creative thinking in contemporary theatre life is less awarded than effectiveness in acquiring handsome sums from local governments of various levels. After seeing a few dozen plays produced in the recent season I have no doubt that the lorries driving around Poland carry stage scenery for whey instead of that what is needed for intellectual cream.
Author: Elżbieta Baniewicz, December 2010. Translated by: Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer, December 2010.
For a rundown of the highlights and low points in Polish cinema over 2010, see: Polish Feature Films 2010.