'We Are Leaving' is quite a surprising comeback for Warlikowski. Those expecting another 'grand' spectacle and a skilfully created dramatic mosaic to decipher may be surprised. Instead of a meaning-heavy narrative, he created a story about a small, narrow life with the semblance of movement.
Warlikowski said that after his meticulously constructed The French, an adaptation of Proust’s opus magnum, he felt misunderstood by the audience. Perhaps this sense of alienation resulted in his decision, made three years after the premiere of The French, to show Hanoch Levin’s The Suitcase Packers, instead of another classic of European literature, Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann. The local context, emphasised in pre-premiere statements and connected to deep disappointment and helplessness arising from the current situation in Poland and Europe, seems to give way in the play to an ahistorical reflection on the search for a better place, the urge to move, leaving, and passing away.
The adaptation of Levin’s The Suitcase Packers, prepared by Warlikowski himself and playwright Piotr Gruszczyński in collaboration with Adam Radecki, plays with the reception and expectations of the Nowy Teatr, which can be seen both in the development of the text and director’s decisions. In Warlikowski’s latest show, one does not see the acting that we expect from his amazing cast. In We Are Leaving, the stage is like a waiting room or a strange vestibule in which each of the actors has only five minutes to share their misfortune with the audience. Warlikowski’s play resembles a procession of absurd characters enclosed in their microcosms, rather than a showcase of spectacular acting – which brings intriguing results in the context of Nowy Teatr’s renowned actors and its outstanding guest actors and actresses. The whole show is a series of brilliant portrayals, out of which it would be difficult to choose the brightest points.
The performance starts with the constipation of Szabtaj Szuster (Zygmunt Malanowicz). Locked in the toilet, he mumbles that he is ‘heavy and deceived’. It is his funeral that opens a tragicomic series. Afterwards, the scatological elements and those related to the resisting body will appear like an exotic memento mori. Henia Gelertner (Ewa Dałkowska) shouts that she wants to vomit: ‘That’s all I'm asking for!’. Zigi's grandmother (Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieślak) suffers from lung disease but escapes from the nursing home where her neurotic son has placed her. Amacja (Bartosz Gelner) dies after surgery for a brain tumour, and his fiancée, a vlogger, arrives straight from the United States for his funeral. Munia (Wojciech Kalarus) dies sitting at the table, as his wife (Dorota Kolak) says, ‘in the middle of the soup’. Levin’s text (with quotes from his other works and works of other authors) does not depict transience as a lyrical, melancholic figure, rather, it shows it as something extremely ordinary and physiological. It shows a shrinking community in which each subsequent ceremony evokes fewer emotions: at some point, Cypora (Maja Ostaszewska) exclaims ‘Oh no, another funeral!’. The compulsion to meet and say goodbye in this crumbling community becomes unbearable.
At the same time, everyone wants to go somewhere. Words such as the titular ‘we are leaving’ are said countless times in the performance. The movement here takes place along many trajectories: death, a return from emigration, or a burning desire to go to a supposedly better world (in this case, Switzerland, where Dani, played by Jacek Poniedziałek, wants to go). There are plenty of reasons to leave: for love, or to open a business, but they all have a common ground – the hope for changing one’s life. All this, however, seems to be only a semblance of movement – as in Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s stage design, where eight pairs of doors (like eight funerals) allow the actors to leave on one side and return on the other. The world here is cramped and stuffy. There is an atmosphere of discouragement with fleeting flashes of joy. The space is often occupied by cabin luggage, belongings packed into small suitcases which fit into the storage lockers of cheap airlines. This is a symbol of our times, the commonness of travel and the distortion of the idea of it. This is also what this play is for me: everyone is shifting, moving around, but at the same time not getting anywhere. And marking activity and change today is fairly easy. There is a popular party game, ‘musical chairs’, in which the number of chairs is always smaller than the number of players. Players who fail to sit on a chair when the signal is given are out of the game. We Are Leaving is a bit like this game, in which the dramatic rhythm is determined by successive funerals, each less and less experienced. Nobody wins here though. It is even hard to say what is at stake in the show. Improving one’s life seems to be a hazy, unfulfilled fantasy, and death projects itself as the only possible change. It is also difficult to resist the impression that – contrary to characters’ imagination – life is not ‘elsewhere’, it takes place here and now, but it is shallow, claustrophobic and entangled in physiology.
Warlikowski consistently treats theatre as a space for personal confrontation: with the text, its author, and with History – but this time the latter can be also written with a small ‘h’. What interests the director is the tension between the great narrative and the intimacy of individual drama. However, in We Are Leaving, Warlikowski paradoxically turns towards the weak and vanishing and that is the strength of this show. I do not see here an artistic compromise that could bring Warlikowski back to his audience – rather, an attempt to relieve the medium itself, that could, due to the choice of text, become a place of communal, inclusive experience in which literature is no longer a dominant figure.
The irony and the play of high and low tones allow us to rediscover Krzysztof Warlikowski’s theatre. In We Are Leaving, the grotesque is soothing and refreshing – and although it is a very sad comedy (Levin noted this in the subtitle), it also brings a strange kind of warmth. At the end of the play, the whole cast, dancing away, goes to applause with ice cream on sticks. There is something about this winking gesture, the perverse ‘And yet we stay!’. It is as if Warlikowski found a shadow of hope in a sense of disappointment and bitterness that overwhelms him. He found it in being in a community, in a theatrical family, as he says about his cast.
Compiled by Marcelina Obarska, translated by Maria Markiewicz, August 2019