Grzegorz Wiśniewski is a theatre director. He graduated from the Warsaw Theological Academy and from the Directing Department at Kraków’s School of Theatre.
At the State Theatre School in Kraków, Wiśniewski studied under Krystian Lupa and Jerzy Jarocki, among others. In 1996, he was an assistant to Lupa on the diploma show at the Kraków school, Cherry and Olive Platonov after Anton Chekhov. He also collaborated with Jerzy Jarocki on the staging of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust at the Stary Theatre in Kraków (1997).
Initially, he was associated mostly with Kraków theatres. He debuted in 1997 at the Scena STU Kraków Theatre, with A Woman’s Kingdom by Chekhov. Two years later, he directed Holy Mothers by Werner Schwab – a cut-throat psychodrama with ironic accents. His initial performances describe the two poles of his stage activity. For the rest of his career, Wiśniewski has worked both with classics and with the latest playwrights. He revisited Holy Mothers, the controversial, ‘fecal’ Austrian play, in 2001 at the Powszechny Theatre, presenting deep psychological portraits of lonely, distressed, unfulfilled women. He also staged another contemporary text on the same stage: The Shape of Things by Neil LaBute (2002), as well as White Marriage by Tadeusz Różewicz (2003), a convincing treatise on the misconceptions of corporeality and sexuality.
A little bit before that, Wiśniewski presented interesting interpretations of works by Witold Gombrowicz and Sławomir Mrożek. In 1999, he realised The Events on the Banbury on the stage of the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Kraków, in which he interweaved excerpts from Gombrowicz’s History, whereas at the Współczesny Theatre in Wrocław he tackled The Slaughterhouse (2000). As Leszek Pułka wrote about the performance:
Grzegorz Wiśniewski achieved something extraordinary. There is not a drop of pathos in his show. He presented a dream, taking place in a space surrounded by paper walls, like a house of cards. From the very beginning we are aware that this is theatre, not life, but we also feel straight away that the characters in this dream, whilst appearing in our dreams, talk surprisingly realistically. (Gazeta Dolnośląska, 27.11.2000)
In 2001, the director ‘dug out’ John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen – a play rarely shown in Poland. It told the story of a bank director who defrauded money, to be later captured and sentenced to eight years of prison. The crime narrative isn’t the main point here, however, as the stress was put on human relations and the fundamental question concerned with human evil. After showing it at the Wybrzeże Theatre in Gdańsk, he showed another interpretation of the text at the Polski Theatre in Wrocław (2005). He also staged texts by Chekhov several times. He has worked on Platonov (2000, Słowacki Theatre in Kraków), and The Seagull (2002 – Wybrzeże Theatre in Gdańsk, 2007 – Wojciech Bogusławski Theatre in Kalisz). In the Gdańsk version of The Seagull, besides offering a convincing representation of human dramas and unfulfilment, the director also introduced a discussion on the art of the turn of the 21st century. He put the words of Werner Schwab into the mouth of Treplev, an experimental playwright. When it comes to Russian dramas, Wiśniewski has also shown Maxim Gorky’s Summerfolk (2004, Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw). He also worked on Witkacy’s writings – at the Wybrzeże Theatre in Gdańsk, he prepared the contemporary-sounding The Mother (2003). As Marek Mikos wrote about the performance:
The young director doesn’t engage in a museum-like staging of the eighty-year-old play. His The Mother is a cry of the young generation. […] Everyone is accused in this show, because everyone lies and escapes: into drugs, vodka, pseudo ideologies, sainthood, villainy, or an exaggerated sense of mission. Everyone is, so is Leon, who becomes the central character of Wiśniewski’s show. [Gazeta Wyborcza, 28.12.2003]
Wiśniewski’s next piece on the Gdańsk stage was the moving play by Thomas Bernhard, Eve of Retirement – a story about a petit bourgeois family which throws Himmler’s birthday party. The next play shown by the director at Wybrzeże Theatre was the 17th-century English tragedy by John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi (2006), where the titular character opposes the repressive and patriarchal system. As Joanna Derkaczew wrote:
Step by step, the show demonstrates the demise of the individual and the genuine. The duchess, surrounded by magnificent visual images, becomes humiliated, trampled by the masses, and stung by backroom conspiracies. [Gazeta Wyborcza, 23.12.2006]
Wiśniewski’s last presentations of contemporary drama include Plasticine by Vassily Sigarev (2005, Hieronim Konieczka Theatre in Bydgoszcz) – a profound play about an adolescent and sensitive man’s confrontation with society and about social morality, as well as The Ugly One by Marius von Mayenburg (2007, Stefan Jaracz Theatre in Łódź, the first staging in Poland) – a bitter-sweet tale about the state of our minds, which are subjected to the imperative of physical attractiveness, and at the same time a deep analysis of our problems with identity.
The year 2008 saw two more premieres for Wiśniewski. The first one was an excellent dramatic breakdown of power: Maria Stuart by Friedrich Schiller at the Wilam Horzyca Theatre in Toruń – a show which turned out to be a thoroughly modern political drama. As Tomasz Mościcki wrote:
By stepping away from the traditions (let’s admit it: long abandoned, as this drama has simply not been shown in Poland for a long time) so radically, Wiśniewski presented something resembling an impassively ticking clock, or rather revealed the werk of the political machine – a machine which minces human characters and lives. Toruń’s Maria Stuart, which is so far from the common perception of this pre-romantic tragedy, is in fact a deeply Shakespearean performance. [Dziennik-Kultura, 2008, no. 33]
The other premiere was Sweet Bird of Youth by Tenesse Williams, presented on the Gdańsk stage.
Wiśniewski admits that in theatre he is most interested in people and their psychological composition. He creates actor-based shows and is open to partner work. During the rehearsals, he often applies improvisation, which, as he claims, helps to reach deep, hidden layers of psyche. In many of Wiśniewski’s works it were the excellently led actors who shined, often revealing the complex and ambiguous meanderings of the human psyche, with its grandiosity and defects, inhibitions and delusions. His shows often feature people subjected to social pressure, dealing with their own corporeality, sexuality, and identity. Wiśniewski says:
I am generally interested in the situation of a man, which I describe for myself as the ‘bathroom’ situation. I am not so much interested in the ‘living room.’ I would like to show people in circumstances in which they don’t want to be seen. Only then is it possible to see a real piece of a man’s ‘hardship.’ And this ‘hardship’ intrigues me the most. Even in my regular life, when I meet people who are settled down and immaculate, I feel like exposing them, in order to be able to see something really human [www.artpapier.com, 15.06.2008]
In 2009, Grzegorz Wiśniewski showed an adaptation of the Oscar-winning The Damned, which was the first Polish theatre staging of one of the major works in the history of cinema. The director complemented Luchino Visconti’s screenplay with excerpts from Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, thus creating a touching and acclaimed story about the mechanisms of power. This show brought Wiśniewski the prestigious Konrad Swinarski Prize for best director. The jury rewarded him for consistent and individualistic creative pursuits, and for shunning from seasonal trends.
His masterful directing of psychological and low-key scenes, which the critics often emphasise, was confirmed in, for instance, his interpretation of Shakespeare’s Richard III. He received another award for this performance – for best Polish theatre show at the Shakespeare Festival. In 2012, Wiśniewski created an adaptation of the famous novel by Alexandre Dumas, La Reine Margot, starring Danuta Stenka, Marcin Hycnar, and Wiktoria Gorodecka, on the stage of Warsaw’s National Theatre. ‘We weren’t able to transfer this work to theatre accurately, for instance due to the large number of characters’, the authors of the show explained. Therefore, they changed Dumas’s typically sensational adventure narrative – with duels, spades, races, conspiracies, and ruses – into a low-key, intimate story about family relations. This realisation earned its authors Warsaw Felix Awards.
In 2014, Wiśniewski returned to Marius von Mayenburg’s writing and, together with the Łódź Film School students, he staged The Stone. As the critics wrote, the director brought out powerful heavy-hitters with this show. Dziennik Łódzki wrote:
Grzegorz Wiśniewski’s theatre is not based on a patchwork of emotions, temporary ‘revelations’ and the director’s dubious associations, but on raw intellectual work. Cold, thought-out, and complete – in the spirit of, say, Kazimierz Dejmek: craft rather than ‘mysticism’ and ‘shamanism,’ and yet it contains so many blazing (and directed) emotions, so much theatre ‘meat.’
The following year he staed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, based on a text by Edward Albee. In 2016 Wiśniewski directed yet another time The Stone by Marius von Mayenburg, this time though at the Współczesny Theatre in Warszawa. Elżbieta Baniewicz wrote in her review:
At the Współczesny Theatre Wiśniewski has prepared a slightly different, more dense version of the play which he could have achieved thanks to the excellent actors and the stage designer Barbara Hanicka. (…) They have created a disciplined performance, with minimalist acting and paying attention to psychological motivations of the characters. This is the kind of theatre where fireworks are crazy ideas are replaced by concentration and reflection. (Teatralny.pl, 30.03.2016)
The next interpretation of Mayenburg’s text was staged soon after in Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Kraków. This time Wiśniewski chose The Plastics, the latest play by the acclaimed author in which he takes a look at a German middle-class family. According to the director, Mayenburg punctures the empty, warmly embraces the weak and rejected, but also exposes the rotten, fake and mendacious. As the description of the performance says:
He also takes a stance on contemporary art and artists. He isn’t afraid of criticising and mocking it, at the same time looking for what’s important, valuable and fragile. The Plastics holds a mirror — an effective and engaging one — up to our world. It’s a mirror one doesn’t want to look into yet it’s impossible to stop.
The Plastics premiered on 8th December 2016. The performance opened the 9th edition of the International Divine Comedy Theatre Festival.
- 2001 – Fredro Award for best show of the season 2000/2001 for The Slaughterhouse by Sławomir Mrożek at the Edmund Wierciński Contemporary Theatre in Wrocław, 1st Jury Prize at the 4th National Festival of the Art of Directing Interpretations in Katowice for the direction of Platonov by Anton Chekhov at the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Kraków.
- 2003 – theatre award from the marshal of the Pomorze province, awarded on the International Theatre Day for the 2002 show The Seagull by Anton Chekhov at the Wybrzeże Theatre in Gdańsk; Stanisław Bieniasz Medal at the 3rd Festival of Contemporary Dramatic Art ‘Constructed Reality’ in Zabrze for the best show of the performance – The Shape of Things by Neil LaBute at the Zugmunt Hübner Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw
- 2005 – Kurtyna Award in the Verdict of the Young at the 4th Premiere Festival in Bydgoszcz – for directing the show Plasticine by Vassily Sigarev at the Hieronim Konieczka Polski Theatre in Bydgoszcz
- 2006 – Audience Award at the 8th National Festival of the Art of Directing Interpretations in Katowice – for directing the show Plasticine by Vassily Sigarev at the Hieronim Konieczka Polski Theatre in Bydgoszcz
- 2008 – Golden Mask – Łódź critics’ prize for directing the show The Ugly One by Marius von Mayeburg at the Stefan Jaracz Theatre in Łódź
- 2009 – Special distinction for directing Maria Stuart at the Wilam Horzyca Theatre in Toruń granted at the 4th National Contest of the theatrical adaptation of a classic of European literature; Golden Mask – Łódź critics’ prize for the best director in the season of 2008/09 for the play People Annihilation or my Liver is Sick at the Stefan Jaracz Theatre in Łódź
- 2010 – Konrad Swinarski Award for the best director in the season of 2009/2010 for the play Twilight of the Gods at the Wybrzeże Theatre in Gdańsk; The Pomeranian Region Marshall Award for the best performance of the year 2009 for the play Twilight of the Gods at the Wybrzeże Theatre in Gdańsk
- 2011 – Golden Mask – Łódź critics’ prize for directing and for the best performance for the play Eve of Retirement at the Stefan Jaracz Theatre in Łódź
- 2012 – Golden Mask – Łódź critics’ prize for the stage design for the play Richard III at the Stefan Jaracz Theatre in Łódź; The Golden Yorick Award for the best Polish staging of William Shakespeare's play for the play Richard III of the Stefan Jaracz Theatre in Łódź
- 2013 – Warsaw Felix for directing La Reine Margot at the National Theatre in Warsaw
Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, June 2008, updated: AL, July 2015, transl. AM, July 2016, ND, November 2016.