Forty years since it irreversibly altered the Polish theatre scene, Wajda's adaptation of Dostoyevsky's "The Possessed" resurfaces on the small screen. "The Possessed Years Later" is a documentary film co-produced by Culture.pl recalling the theatrical performance and the drama and joy surrounding its staging.
Wajda's "The Possessed" was continuously staged at the National Theatre in Kraków for 13 years, with each performance fully booked time after time. How did it happen that a politically explicit play outsmarted the censors in 1971? - I understood, that if I was allowed to stage "The Possessed", I could do anything - Andrzej Wajda says in the Culture.pl interview. The director also created the memorable set of the Stary Teatr - a slightly tilted stage swimming in mud over-arched by a disturbing grey sky, jarring guitar sounds, moans and wails coming from the speakers with hooded shadows of people changing the decorations and props to its rhythm. Actors who have tried their hand at the play range from well-known Poles Marek Hłasko and Jerzy Radziwiłłowicz to the young Meryl Streep and Isabelle Huppert.
Louder, faster, cut! In the name of Dostoyevsky!
Andrzej Wajda during a rehearsal of "Wesele" / "The Wedding", Stary Teatr Krakow, 1991, photo: Wojciech Plewiński / Forum
Taking on Dostoyevskian roles proved to be a challenge for the actors, with chaotic rehearsals, challenging discussions and comparisons with the Albert Camus adaptation, and the constant cutting and adding of lines, Wajda admits to having been particularly hard on them. But eventually,
- The Possessed (or The Devils) became a part of our life. Something happened that everyone discovered a devil inside them. - Shortly after the premiere, someone asked me: how did you manage to create such fear in their eyes? Because they [the actors] knew me, we had worked together before, we were friends, they knew I was demanding something of them, but that it wasn't my caprice, but I was demanding something in Dostoyevsky's name. We grabbed the Russian soul by the throat, and this performance remained in us not only for the success that it was, but the internal conflict it caused in us – because we said more about ourselves than we wanted, we opened up in front of the audience and weren't ashamed of showing what Dostoyevsky helped us discover about ourselves - the director reasons.
Andrzej Wajda took his first steps as a theatre director in 1959.
I do apologise, but I don't like you...
Andrzej Wajda during a rehearsal of "Klątwa" / "The Curse", Stary Teatr Krakow, 1997, photo: Wojciech Plewiński / Forum
Wojciech Pszoniak and Jan Nowicki, the celebrated Polish actors, were two of the artists performing in the play. Nowicki was driven to madness. Asked by one of the costume designers (the well-known Krystyna Zachwatowicz) why he wasn't learning his text, as he reminisces in the film, he angrily replied that he would start learning the text only once the director learnt to direct. - The contact with Wajda was wrought with mutual irritation which I tried to sustain at any price - Nowicki recalls in the film - You can hate each other, but the important thing is to keep on surprising one another. The Stary Teatr company rehearsed tirelessly for 11 weeks. The text wasn't yet final and dialogues were being created. As Wajda says "they were created in the actors". Everyday life, with all its weight, entered the stage. After delivering just three lines, one of the actors Kazimierz Fabisiak, died during the general rehearsal. That death, as the actors reminisce, gave the performance an entirely different dimension. "The Possessed" became a curse.
Wajda has also skilfully unravelled false ideologies and disentangled collective illusions.
To the clicking sounds of a typewriter
Andrzej Wajda at the Manggha Centre of Japanese Art and Technology, an institution funded by Andrzej Wajda and Krystyna Zachwatowicz, 2009, Kraków, photo: Bogdan Krężel / Przekrój / Visavis.pl / Forum
Nowicki finally got the hang of the text and dauntlessly took on the role of Stavrogin. The role is still considered to be one of his greatest achievements in the theatre. The opening scene, on the other hand, an interrogation, entered the canon of Polish theatre. "To the clicking sounds of a typewriter, hunched on a chair standing on the proscenium, Jan Nowicki deceitfully drags the viewer into the depths of his dark soul" theatre critic Marta Fik comments. Year after year, the theatre was overbooked, with people waiting in kilometre-long queues in front of the building. Outsmarting the censors who underestimated its political explicitness, the play came to the international theatre festival in London. It made a lasting impression on the public and the critics who drew their attention to Wajda's directing. "Theatre is an intimate art, the experience of the performance allows us to judge most of what the West End offers us as common antics for children" - a reviewer wrote.
The Possessed Years Later
Since then, Wajda has re-staged "The Possessed" several times: at the Yale Repertory Theatre with a performance by the young Meryl Streep, in 1988 "Les Possedos" - the cinematic version of the performance with Isabelle Huppert and Jerzy Radziwiłłowicz in the leading roles, and eventually, in Russia. At the Moscow Sovremennik Theatre, to the dismay of the creators, yet again, the performance became closely tied to politics.
The evening ended with a standing ovation from a public which mainly interpreted the staging as a commentary on the presidential elections and political life in general. "I will present you my plan. What comes first is a fire!" - Piotr Wierchowieński says in the play to Nikolay Stavrogin. He puts forth a plan of how to gain power in Russia through a series of intrigues. Upon hearing these words at the first rehearsal attended by the public, the crowd went dead silent. At the same time a 200-year-old manège in the centre of Moscow, one of the city's most beautiful buildings, a mere dozen metres away from the Kremlin, was on fire. "We really felt like we were in the land of Fyodor Dostoyevsky" Wajda adds. The Moscow performance was meant to come to Warsaw for the 30th edition of the Warsaw Theatre Meetings Festival. For the first time in its history, due to the crash of the Presidential aeroplane on the 10th of April 2010 over Smolensk in Russia, the festival was cancelled.
-I have worked on theatre scenes around the world: in Japan, Germany, Russia, Israel, the United States, but it's precisely the Krakow staging which is the most important performance I have ever directed. Soviet intervention and the panic of censors restrained its expansion, it was never documented, recorded and transposed into television theatre for political reasons. All that remained was a Krakow legend, a London success, Stavrogin's muddy 40 year old shoes and now this cinematic trace: "Biesy po latach." / "The Possessed Years Later".
The documentary film "Biesy po latach" was co-produced by Culture.pl. It premieres on the 29th of April 2014 on the 43rd anniversary of the Stary Teatr premiere.
Author: Anna Legierska, translator: Mai Jones Jeromski 13/03/2014