In Poland, theatre has taken the role for generations of becoming the national conscience, compass and seismograph, all in one. And today, with international touring and at-home creativity, the thriving Polish theatre scene is more vibrant than ever.
A nation’s culture is usually signified by one or two dominant art disciplines that help define national identity. Historical tectonic shifts in Poland have been disseminated, filtered and transcended by our theatre, which has functioned as a platform for national debates and cultural polemics. The nation lost its political and cultural independence from the end of the 18th century until 1918, during more than a century of occupation by its powerful neighbors. Throughout that period, official use of the Polish language was forbidden in most of the occupied land – except in the Polish national theatre, where much of the culture’s romantic symbolism was preserved.
Critical originality and the Communist era
Then, after 20 years of independence between the world wars, Poland became part of the Soviet Bloc after 1945 – yet Polish theatre managed to flourish again. Its artists, through a highly developed vocabulary of symbols and allusions, successfully avoided censorship and the imposed aesthetics of Social Realism; its audiences easily understood the criticism of the existing regime. Its participants had to publicly praise the official system, yet everybody understood the unspoken code of communication by which subversive messages were being discussed.
Polish theatre developed sophisticated production values: stage and lighting design, costumes, music and sound were intrinsically and organically developed with the concept of the staging. Every nuance could matter, and the language of a play could send one message while stage design or sound could suggest a different interpretation. History and political necessity precipitated an artistic development – the language of subtext conveyed through theatrical design – that might not have taken place in a free and democratic country.
The Communist political system was also instrumental in developing Polish theatre on the level of management and finances, implementing nationalisation through a structure of government subsidies. This enabled artists to focus on research and experimentation rather than creating a commercially viable final product, and gave rise to directing talents including Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor. Both directors reached international prominence in the 1970s, creating unique yet universal vocabularies and philosophically complex, influential theatre that was eagerly received and commented on in other countries.
Krystian Lupa, and the enfants terribles
When Poland rejoined the free world after 1989, we lost obvious targets for rebellion. We have embraced democracy and economic implications of a neo-liberal free market, and the risk was real that Polish theatre would become mainly a provider of entertainments. But a new generation of directors and playwrights have taken the Polish stage in new, unexpected directions.
The 1990s generation is, in many respects, the “offspring” of Krystian Lupa, the grandmaster of present-day Polish theatre. Through the 1980s, Lupa functioned away from cultural centers, creating uniquely personal psychodramas focused on human nature and its many impenetrable, unpredictable layers. His interests manifested in very intimate, personal work with his actors, and his work continues to surprise and transform perceptions of what is possible in theatre. Real-time "environments" including Factory 2, Lupa’s Andy Warhol fantasy from 2008, can last up to 8 hours, yet it is as if he has surpassed time and space for actors and audiences alike.
Lupa's most notable students are Krzysztof Warlikowski and Grzegorz Jarzyna, the first theatre-makers to diagnose consequences of the post-1989 social transformation. Warlikowski and Jarzyna brought fresh energy to Warsaw’s main stages when they took over Teatr Rozmaitosci, renaming it TR Warszawa. They sought unprecedented diversity and sought out then violated unspoken social taboos. Warlikowski's early works, especially Taming of the Shrew (1997) and Cleansed (2002), and Jarzyna's Celebration (2001) and 4:48 Psychosis (2002), spoke openly about gender, sexuality, family pathologies, racial discrimination, mental illness and suicide. In the hands of these two directors, Polish theatre served individual expression and private, intimate emotions rather than patriotic sentiments as context for national identity – a natural progression in a country that was finally free country, and in its opening society.
The directors Maja Kleczewska and Jan Klata, both students of Lupa at the renowned Kraków academy and contemporaries of Jarzyna and Warlikowski, were the next to gain acclaim in their generation of enfants terribles of the Polish stage. Kleczewska's work has focused on abuses of power in intimate spaces and in the public sphere. She radically re-interpreted texts of Shakespeare including Macbeth (2004) at the Kochanowski Theatre in Opole, and Jelinek, with Babylon (2010) at Teatr Polski in Bydgoszcz. Kleczewska’s imagery shocks and disturbs with associations and references to contemporary events – in Babylon, she intersects Jelinek’s Second World War pieces with scenes from the Abu Ghraib prison in U.S.-occupied Iraq. Klata’s rendition of Przybyszewska's drama Danton's Case (2008) at Teatr Polski in Wrocław sends Robespierre’s cohorts to exact the price of the French Revolution with diesel chain saws, to the soundtrack of “Children of the Revolution.”
Klata's style is very light and quick, full of “sound and fury”; the classics he stages are almost always accompanied by a rock or punk music score, with scenes of borderline hilarity, even silliness. Yet he, the epitome of immaturity, is deadly serious in challenging the existing order and undermining stolid, unthinking patriotism that continues to surface in contemporary Poland.
Polish theatre's new garde
Another young generation is beginning to make its mark in Polish theatre. Playwright Pawel Demirski and director Monika Strzępka’s productions at Teatr Dramatyczny in the rust-belt city of Walbrzych contest the language and values of capitalism, liberalism and politics as applied to arts and culture – and Strzępka’s training in the Warsaw theatre academy also provides variety from Krystian Lupa’s directorial example. Their campy There Was Andrzej, Andrzej, and Andrzej... (2010) is an unparalleled attack on older generations monopolizing access to culture and to the means of artistic production in Poland.
Another artistic tandem, director Krzysztof Garbaczewski and writer Marcin Cecko, deconstruct and debunk icons of popular culture in Death Star (2010) and classics including The Odyssey at the Kochanowski Theatre in Opole (2010), where their youthful re-examination claims the point of view of Telemachus, the young, rebellious, powerless son of Odysseus. In the absence of his father, resenting his mother's passivity, he watches helplessly as his kingdom is being wrecked by her suitors, yet directs his anger at his parents, dancing madly to the Doors: “Father, I want to kill you! Mother, I want to...!”
This generation of directors clearly and loudly articulates their refusal to conform to the political system they’ve inherited. Their means are not subtle allusions or conspiratorial nods directed at audience. They scream, they swear, they name names – in There Was Andrzej… playwright Demirski attacks Andrzej Wajda, the venerable master of Polish cinema, and in Rainbow Tribune (2011), he makes sardonic yet direct attacks on the mayor of Warsaw and her conservative, homophobic politics.
A similarly uncompromising attitude can be found in projects by Marta Gornicka, whose Chorus of Women (2010 – present) is a theatrical manifesto on the role of women in Polish society and the Catholic Church. Gornicka incorporates performers of all ages, backgrounds and professions into her chorus, ensuring that a broad range of voices are heard. Another representative of this generation is Radosław Rychcik, the director of In the Solitude of Cotton Fields (2009) at the Zeromski Theatre in Kielce, a play cum punk-rock concert that toured in over a dozen countries in 2011. Rychcik, Lupa’s youngest, most rebellious disciple, adamantly tries to create his own personal vocabulary on stage, with his own classics to quote, appropriate and reinterpret: Flaubert, Brecht, Bernard-Marie Koltes and Roland Barthes. Rychcik, like Klata, “curates” his soundtracks. His themes consistently concern the most private, intimate, often most shame-filled spheres of human existence.
From Lupa’s theatre fantasies, the high production values of Jarzyna’s elegant spectacles, and Warlikowski’s monumental designs, to the new poor theatre of stripped, exposed, demystified realities in the productions of the Demirski-Strzępka team and Garbaczewski and Cecko, to Rychcik’s and Gornicka’s minimalistic, abstract sets, Polish theatre has eagerly embraced plurality and unprecedented stylistic diversity. In a country positioned between East and West, in a cultural environment rapidly developing against the backdrop of its complicated history, Polish theatre continues to create new language for speaking about the contemporary world. Poland understands itself through its theatre; seeing Polish theatre is one of the best ways to understand Poland.
For more on acclaimed Polish theatre productions from 2012, see:
Culture.pl's Top 5 picks for 2012
Award winners at the Divine Comedy Festival 2012
Author: Joanna Klass, 2013