Monika Strzępka is a charismatic theatre director and author of several stage hits which have become an important voice challenging the status quo. Along with the playwright Paweł Demirski, she makes up the most popular duo in Polish theatre.
She made her debut in 2004 at the Polish Theatre in Bydgoszcz staging a text by young playwright Anna Bednarska Z twarzą przy ścianie/With One’s Face Against the Wall. It was a portrait of two young couples, icons of pop culture, which were lost in the modern world, and who sought various ways to keep their minds off their fears.
A year later, Monika Strzępka worked at Wybrzeże Theatre in Gdańsk, where she directed Szeks Show presents: Yorick, czyli wyznania błazna/ Szeks Show Presents: Yorick, Or Confessions of the Jester. The performance was based on the script written specifically for Kszysztof Gordon by Andrzej Żurowski, and consisted of selected texts by Shakespeare. In this production Strzępka followed theatrical convention of stand-up comedy.
This monodrama that can be classified under the cabaret genre, however it can also be read as a sincere, often trivial and iconoclastic, but precious confession of tired of his role, and jaded jester.
– wrote Agata Kirol ( Gazeta Wyborcza - Tri-City 2005, No. 171).
In her further productions the director returned to contemporary drama depicting crippled, sterile, interpersonal relationships and a degraded world. In 2005, she staged Adam Rapp’s play Honor Samuraja /Honour of the Samurai at the Theatre in Jelenia Góra, a tragicomedy about a toxic family from the suburbs of Chicago, who lives in a world of alcohol, drugs, and prostitution, television and computer games. A year later, at the Polish Stage in Czech Cieszyn, Strzępka directed Prezydentki/ (sometimes translated as First Ladies or Holy Mothers) by Werner Schwab – a story of three desperate, lonely women, who have nothing left but dreams which they discuss in crude and vulgar language.
On subsequent productions, began Monika Strzępka collaborating with Paweł Demirski. Together they staged Dziady. Ekshumacja /Forefathers’ Eve. Exhumation at the Polish Theatre in Wrocław (2007).
I believe that modernising the classics is about supplementing it with our historical knowledge, which obviously the author of the text lacked.
– said Demirski ( Gazeta Wyborcza - Opole 2008, No. 91).
And in this manner the playwright attempted to “exhume” Adam Mickiewicz. In his script, he kept some of the characters from the poet’s drama, such as Konrad, the Priest, Ms. Rollinson. He also referred to some scenes echoing All Souls’ Day, the Great Improvisation, the Senator's ball. Demirski heavily saturated his text with allusions to contemporary events and to those of the recent past.
Poles are not willing to acknowledge a lot of things, and they do not cope with the past so well. This is political performance. However, these days, there are events in Poland that make this text sound even more powerful. History does us a favour. (Gazeta Wyborcza - Wrocław 2007, No. 11).
– declared Strzępka.
The show was an attempt to show our national sins, and national memory.
These confessions do not constitute a testimony of Polish martyrdom, on the contrary, they account for Polish vices. Contemporary exhumation of Forefathers’ Eve is not about digging them out of the ground, but just pulling them from under the carpet, where for decades all uncomfortable things have been swept. But the stench is as vile. The performance deflates Poland its alleged status of the victim. And it refers to all - young and old, left and right, black and red. It leaves the audience in fetid milieu of mutual blame and hatred ("Gazeta Wyborcza" 2007, No. 15).
– noted Joanna Derkaczew.
However, most reviewers wrote that Forefathers’ Eve drowned in the convention of cabaret and Demirski’s text demonstrated flat short-sightedness.
Another realisation of the theatrical duo that inflamed Polish wounds and attempted to raise national consciousness was Był sobie Polak, Polak, Polak i diabeł, czyli w heroicznych walkach narodu polskiego wszystkie sztachety zostały zużyte/ There Was a Pole, Pole, Pole and the Devil, or in the Heroic Battles of Polish Nation All Rails Have Been Used staged at the Dramatic Theatre in Wałbrzych (2007). In this political burlesque of national values, myths, complexes and weaknesses, the authors showed a grotesque and streaked with a bitterly truthful image of Polish society.
The following production Śmierć podatnika/ Death of the Taxpayer, staged at the Polish Theatre in Wrocław (2007), took consumer society as its target. The performance, following the convention of farce, depicted a neo-liberal society living in a banana republic. The next collaborative project of Strzępka and Demirski was Diamenty to węgiel, który wziął się do roboty/Diamonds Are Carbon, Which Went to Work (2008, Jerzy Szaniawski’s Theatre in Wałbrzych), a modern variation on Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, in which the character of the uncle was shown as a passive victim of economic transformation, and a person excluded from the new, wild, capitalist world.
Diamonds is an important and amusing spectacle. Strzępka and Demirski are not looking for solutions, they do not defend anyone. They just make it clear that we have little to discuss with the capitalist machine; either we adjust to its modes, we listen to its instructions of what to eat, how to dress and at what time to go to bed, or we end up in the junkyard of society ( Gazeta Wyborcza - Wrocław 2008, No. 127).
– wrote Katarzyna Kamińska after the premiere .
At the Jan Kochanowski’s Theatre in Opole the couple staged Opera gospodarcza dla ładnych pań I zamożnych panów /Economic Opera for Nice Ladies and Wealthy Lords inspired by John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (2008). Demirski and Strzępka, employing the formula of cabaret and leftist, engaged and provocative theatre typical of them, this time dealt with charity, which is profitable mainly to philanthropists, for it helps them to gain power and money. In following play Sztuka dla dziecka/Art for Children (2009, Norwid’s Theatre in Jelenia Góra), the couple, using language full of gags and jokes, made an attempt to analyze the memory of the war and the Holocaust.
The duo’s next play, Niech żyje wojna!!! / Long Live the War!!!, created in the Dramatyczny Theatre in Wałbrzych in 2009, was inspired by the novel Four Tank Men and a Dog. ‘We are not settling accounts, nor do we attempt to impose our own version of events. We are only trying to reclaim what is left unsaid and rejected by history’, said the artists just before the premiere of the play, and Joanna Wichowska commented on it on dwutygodnik.com:
The performance Long Live the War!!! begins at a point which Four Tank Men and a Dog never reached. Moscow, 3rd August, 1944, Prime Minister Mikołajczyk visits Stalin (during the Warsaw Uprising). A moment in history which Poles cannot be indifferent to. Even if they don’t know who Mikołajczyk or Rymkiewicz are. And what is this historical politics is all about. Because, being a Pole, you still have to choose between war series from the Communist times and the ‘rebel’ album by Lao Che, between Janek Kos and Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, between Lviv and Vilnius, and the Recovered Territories, between the murdered intelligentsia, and your auntie from the village, between your own memories and those of others, between yours and someone else’s minute of silence.
In 2010, the duo presented the performance Był sobie Andrzej Andrzej Andrzej i Andrzej / There Was Andrzej Andrzej Andrzej and Andrzej dedicated to the legends of Polish culture. The directors described it in the following way:
A proverb says that in matters of taste, there can be no disputes. It is precisely tastes that we want to talk about and what follows about Polish culture. We want to confront the past with the present, myths about Polish culture with proposals by contemporary artists. To find out what good taste actually means. How it is shaped. Is it that we don’t argue about taste because we are a pluralistic society, or perhaps because we know good taste is only one and there is nothing to discuss? There Was Andrzej... is a play about the legends of Polish culture, about Polish theatre, about the narratives created by artists to describe Polish society, and finally an attempt to answer the question about the relationship between the artist and the viewer.
In the famous Tęczowa trybuna 2012 / Rainbow Tribune 2012 Strzępka took up the topic of sexual minorities – homosexuals fighting for the right to have their own section at the National Stadium. Rainbow... is not, however, a comment on a gay initiative, as noted by Magda Piekarska from Gazeta Wyborcza.
We’re all homosexuals, says one of the characters. And this is precisely the message of the play. Sexual orientation doesn’t matter – the point is that all citizens are treated by the authorities in the same way as the ‘rainbow people’ in the performance. The artists give Poles a tough diagnosis, with no mercy. This can’t work out, Strzępka and Demirski seem to say. Even more: in this country, nothing can work out.
Rainbow Tribune 2012 was released a year before the 2012 UEFA European Championship and sparked a heated debate among critics and audiences. Like O dobru / On Goodness in which the authors commented on the condition of contemporary theatre and its role in public life.
In her Wrocław play Courtney Love, Strzępka combined Nirvana’s spectacular career with the realities of Polish show business of the nineties. As we read on the website of the Polish Theatre, this is a musical tale of conspiracy, restrictions and the banality of possible career paths. Courtney Love – a faithful companion to Nirvana’s success, who is at the same time accused of being responsible for the break-up of the band – is a figure that is easily influenced by the negative effects of the capitalist reality. The employee is treated as a burden or a client.
This is perhaps the saddest play by Strzępka and Demirski. The feeling of disappointment, of being part of a rotting mechanism is transmitted to the audience, almost causing depression and a feeling of exhaustion and helplessness.
– wrote Anka Herbut on dwutygodnik.com.
The performance was successfully presented at the Open'er festival in Gdynia. Subsequent plays directed by Monika Strzępka include: Firma / The Company looking at the world of business; Bierzcie i jedzcie / Take It and Eat It about the obsession with healthy eating and dietary myths; and Klątwa. Odcinki z czasów beznadziei / Curse, Episodes From the Time of Helplessness – the first political theatre series in Poland. Nie-boska komedia. Wszystko powiem Bogu! / Un-Divine Comedy. I Will Tell God Everything!, which premiered in the Stary Teatr in Kraków in December 2014, was loved by critics and is now considered the duo’s best play, receiving a standing ovation at the Warsaw Theatre Meetings.
- 2006 - Award for First Ladies by Werner Schwab at the 6th Theatre Festival of Moravia and Silesia in Cieszyn;
- 2007 - Award for the best text and most expressive statement on contemporary Poland for authors of the performance There was a Pole, Pole, Pole and the Devil at the 6th Premiere Festival in Bydgoszcz; Audience Award at the 37th Theatre Meetings in Jelenia Góra
- 2008 - Marshal of Lower Silesia Award on the occasion of the International Day of Theatre for the best performance of 2007 - for the play There was a Pole, Pole, Pole and the Devil (together with Paweł Demirski); Award for directing in Theatre at the 8th National Festival of Contemporary Drama, Reality of Performance in Zabrze.
- 2010 - XLV Small Theatre Survey KONTRAPUNKT - Marshal Award for the Long live the war !!!; Award for directing There was a Andrzej Andrzej Andrzej and Andrzej at X National Festival of Contemporary Drama Reality of Performance in Zabrze; Main Award and Press Award for Long live the war !!! at 5th International Festival of Polish Contemporary Plays R @ port of Gdynia; Grand Prize for There was Andrzej Andrzej Andrzej and Andrzej at 3rd International Theatre Festival in Kraków; Award for directing There was a Andrzej Andrzej Andrzej and Andrzej at IX Premiere Festival in Bydgoszcz
- 2011 – Grand Prix for Rainbow Tribune 2012 at X Premiere Festival in Bydgoszcz; Grand Prize for the best show Rainbow Tribune 2012 at IV International Theatre Festival in Kraków; Paszport Polityki for the year 2010 in theater category; Award for directing There was a Andrzej Andrzej Andrzej and Andrzej and Rainbow tribune 2012 at Competition of Staging Polish Contemporary Drama
- 2012 - Marshal of Lower Silesia Award in the category of the most interesting theatrical event in 2011 for Rainbow Tribune 2012; Wdecha Award for the year 2011 in the category Event of the Year; Audience Award for the Labouring women from hospital of St. Sophia at The Festival of Directing in Katowice;
- 2013 - Grand Prize for directing In the name of Jakub S at XV Festival of Directing.
Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, December 2007; update: November 2009. Update: May 2012 - LS. Update: February 2013 - db. Update: March 2015 - AL, transl. GS. 02.10.2014