Vibrant Voices: Polish Theatre’s Journey to the Early 21st Century
A nation's culture is usually signified by one or two dominant art disciplines that help define national identity. In Poland, theatre has taken the role of becoming the national conscience, compass and seismograph, all in one. Historical tectonic shifts in the country have been disseminated and filtered through as well as transcended by our theatre, which has traditionally functioned as a platform for national debates and cultural polemics.
Theatre's secret language
Poland lost its political and cultural independence from the end of the 18th century until 1918. 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 from censorship. Then, after the brief 20-year inter-war period of independence, Poland found itself a part of the Soviet Bloc in the aftermath of the Second World War. During the early Soviet era, theatre served the new regime as a propaganda tool for communist ideas and the aesthetics of Social Realism.
Yet Polish theatre managed to flourish even in the hardest times, during all cultural campaigns carried out by the authorities, who imposed strict censorship on culture. The artists, through a highly developed vocabulary of symbols and allusions, successfully avoided censorship; audiences could easily understand the criticism of the existing regime. Theatre offered a moment of unspoken community. The stage still served as a place of national debate, quite highly theatrical debate. Its participants had to publicly praise the official system, yet everybody understood the unspoken code of communication by which subversive messages were being discussed.
History and political necessity boosted the artistic development of Polish theatre, leading to the creation of a separate language of undertones, conveyed by the theatrical form. Polish theatre developed highly 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: the language of a play could send one message, while the stage design or the sound might 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.
Paradoxical as it may seem today, the new political system was also instrumental in developing Polish theatre on the level of management and finances. By implementing the nationalisation of Polish theatre through a structure of government subsidies, the Communist regime enabled artists to focus on artistic experimentation rather than on creating a commercially viable final product. This era gave artists the opportunity of working in relative comfort, without the pressures of satisfying a market economy, and gave rise to such directing talents as Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor, who both reached world prominence. They created their own unique yet universal vocabularies and philosophically complex theatre, enthusiastically received and widely commented on in other countries.
After 1989, when Poland gained access to a free world and lost the obvious targets of rebellion, we have embraced democracy with all its economic consequences, including the impact of a neo-liberal free market on the realm of culture. For a moment, the risk seemed real of Polish theatre becoming mainly a supplier of entertainment, but a new generation of playwrights and directors took Polish stagecraft in new and unexpected directions.
Krystian Lupa: still surprising
The 1990s generation is, in many respects, the 'heir' of Krystian Lupa, the Grand Master of present-day Polish theatre. For years Lupa functioned in the periphery, away from cultural centers, creating uniquely personal psychodramas. His direction was focused on human nature and its many impenetrable and unpredictable layers; his interests manifested themselves in very intimate, personal work with his actors. Even today, his work surprises and transforms our perception of what is possible in theatre. Lupa's contemporary creations are real-time 'environments' – his Andy Warholesque Factory 2 fantasy lasts about 8 hours, yet the space/time environment he creates for us does not seem to last that long; it is as if he has surpassed time and space for his actors and audiences alike.
Lupa's recent works, mostly based on the writings of his favourite author Thomas Bernhard, such as Woodcutters realized by the Polski Theatre in Wrocław (2014) and Heroes Square staged at the National Theatre in Vilnius, Lithuania (2015), show the turn of his interest towards the observation of functioning (or rather non-functioning) of his protagonists in the gradually disintegrating society. The Artists draws a gloomy vision of the twilight of our European civilization and its values.
Warlikowski and Jarzyna: beyond taboo
Lupa's most notable students are Krzysztof Warlikowski and Grzegorz Jarzyna. These two directors were the first theatre-makers to diagnose the consequences of the post-1989 social transformation. They turned their attention to other, less politicised phenomena, like social pathologies – the new, less obvious enemies. Warlikowski and Jarzyna brought fresh energy to Warsaw main stages when together they took over Teatr Rozmaitości, later renamed TR Warszawa. They sought unprecedented diversity and showed no fear of appearing immature. They searched out and violated social taboos that had never been spoken about before.
Warlikowski's early works, especially Taming of the Shrew (1997) and Cleansed (2002), and Jarzyna's Celebration (2001) and Psychosis 4:48 (2002), spoke openly about gender, sexuality, family traumas, racial discrimination, mental illness and suicide, all of which were taboo subjects in Polish culture and public debate. In the hands of these two directors, Polish theatre was no longer concerned with national identity alone. Instead, now the theatre served individual expression and private, intimate emotions. Under Warlikowski and Jarzyna, the focus was turned to individual beings and their corporeality, sexual orientation and possible transgressions. Nowadays, in a finally free country and an open society, we see these topics as natural and obvious. Krzysztof Warlikowski has, however, also developed interest in key topics and values constituting modern, tolerant society. He mercilessly calls everyone to account for the war, the Shoah (Holocaust), asking the most important, often quite controversial yet obvious questions about the meaning of sacrifice and responsibility for the violence. Recent years have seen his important, emblematic works such as the acclaimed (A)pollonia (2009) or The French (2015).
Kleczewska and Klata: against power and mediocrity
Another wave of acclaim brought to the fore directors Maja Kleczewska and Jan Klata, contemporaries of Jarzyna and Warlikowski. Both were also Lupa's students; both are acknowledged as belonging to the new post-1989 generation of enfants terribles of the Polish stage. Kleczewska's work has focused on abuses of power in intimate spaces as well as in the public sphere; she radically re-interpreted texts of Shakespeare (Macbeth, 2004 and Tempest, 2012, both at the Jan Kochanowski Theatre in Opole) or Jelinek (Babylon, 2010 and Winter Journey, 2013, both at the Teatr Polski in Bydgoszcz). Her imagery shocks and disturbs with associations and references to contemporary events, as in Jelinek's Babylon where she intersects her the Second World War pieces with scenes from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Klata's rendition of Przybyszewska's drama Danton's Case (2008 at Teatr Polski in Wrocław) sends the cohorts of Robespierre to exact the price of the French Revolution with power chain saws, all to the sound track of Children of the Revolution. He has dealt a much-needed ironic death blow to patriotic sagas and national cultural monuments. Klata's style is very light and quick, full of 'sound and fury'; the classics he stages are almost always accompanied by a score of rock or punk music covers. His plays offer scenes of borderline hilarity, even silliness, yet he, the epitome of immaturity, is deadly serious in his message of challenging the existing order and undermining the current of stolid, unthinking patriotism that continues to surface in contemporary Poland.
Strzępka and Garbaczewski: the uncompromising
There is another young generation that has already made its mark in Polish theatre. Plays by writer Paweł Demirski and director Monika Strzępka, produced at the Dramatyczny Theatre in the postindustrial ruins in the former mining city of Walbrzych, contest the language and values of capitalism, liberalism and politics as applied to arts and culture. Their campy There Was Andrzej, Andrzej and Andrzej (2010) is an unparalleled attack on the older generations monopolizing access to culture and to the means of artistic production in Poland.
The artistic team of director Krzysztof Garbaczewski and writer Marcin Cecko, who already have several highly regarded productions under their belts, deconstruct and debunk icons of popular culture (Death Star, 2010) as well as the classics. In The Odyssey (2010 at the Jan Kochanowski Theatre in Opole) their youthful re-examination of the Odyssey myth comes from the only point of view they can claim – that of the young and rebelllious yet powerless Telemachus, son of Odysseus. Garbaczewski's recent work seems to focus on formal experiments. The artist appears to be unsatisfied with the currently available theatre language and still looking for new means of expression, deconstructing all the obvious, predictable theatrical tools. His latest works are difficult to comprehend in the narrative aspect, but visually and sensually appealing to the youngest audiences. The young artist is undeniably very consequent in his attempts to apply the latest communication tools, such as new technologies, the world of VR and computer games.
Górnicka and Rychcik: vote against the majority
A similar uncompromising attitude can be found in projects by Marta Górnicka, whose Chorus of Women project (2010 – 2015) is a theatrical manifesto on the role of women in Polish society and the fight for their right to self-determination. Górnicka incorporates performers of all ages and backgrounds into her chorus, including women otherwise uninvolved in theater, to make sure that a broad range of Polish women's voices (and, as of her 2013 production, also men's) are heard.
Another representative of this generation sharing in a similar aesthetic is Radosław Rychcik, the director of In the Solitude of Cotton Fields (2009, Stefan Żeromski Theatre in Kielce), a play-cum-punk concert, which toured in over a dozen countries last year. Rychcik, Lupa's fundamentally rebellious disciple, adamantly tries to create his own personal vocabulary on stage; he has his own classics to quote, appropriate and reinterpret: Flaubert, Brecht, Koltes and Barthes. He, like Klata, personally 'curates' musical choices for his soundtracks. Nonetheless, his controversial, but highly praised interpretation of the national romantic classics, Forefathers' Eve (Nowy Theatre in Poznań, 2014), touches the contemporary problems: racism, globalization and social inequality. Scenes of martyrdom of the nineteenth century Polish revolutionaries, oppressed by the Russian Tsar, are replaced by pictures of contemporary racial conflicts in the United States.
Women enter the stage: disarming the system
The picture of the Polish theatre emerging from this essay has been perpetuated continuously since 1998, so far with no sign of imminent change. Until recently, it has seemed that the only works that are presented at international theatre festivals and attract the attention of critics are those of Lupa, Warlikowski, Jarzyna, Klata, Kleczewska, Rychcik, Garbaczewski and Górnicka – especially the first three. What is important, the above list of artists, widely discussed in international circles, include only two women. In Poland, as in many other countries, it is much more difficult for the female theatre directors to make their way to the top, achieve success and appreciation.
However, since early 2015, a'creative offensive' of the youngest generation of theatre directors, artists often below 25 years of age and, in the vast majority, women, can be observed. One example is an interesting debut of Magda Szpecht, who in her theatre works asks critical questions about the basis for the functioning of the existing system: who is the actor, and who is the audience? What the institution of theatre is (or should be) like and what is its function? Her Dolphin Who Loved Me (Kolektyw One, Poznań 2015) and Schubert: Romantic Composition for Twelve Performers and String Quartet (Jerzy Szaniawski Drama Theatre in Wałbrzych, 2016) examine the limits of representation of the medium such as theatre, and the meaning of our anthropocentric beliefs. The protagonist of the first piece is a dolphin with its emotions, while the topic of the other one is music and selected motives from the biography of the romantic composer Franz Schubert. During the performance, professional actors, seniors (students of the Sudecki University of the Third Age) and the whole audience inspire each other to creative activities, responding to the music, even though the string quartet is for some time locked in a soundproof booth, equally sharing and exchanging roles of performers and viewers.
Ewelina's Crying, a brilliant piece directed by Anna Karasińska, film screenwriter so far not associated with theatre, was a sensation on the classic, hallowed stage of the TR Warszawa. Another of her performances, staged at the Polski Theatre in Poznań (Second Performance, 2016), confirms the original, subversive nature of her work.
As the artist herself says, she wants to "use art as a method of releasing from control. Not only our own, but every control exercised by systems, senses, definitions and narration." Both works challenge our expectations of what should happen in the theatre during the performance, make us aware of how often we operate hackneyed clichés concerning theatre ritual and the roles of audiences, actors, development of the plot, conventionality and impassable reality. Therefore, in Ewelina's Crying Karasińska plays a game of deception with the audience: "I entertain them, keeping their minds preoccupied with something else than I actually mean. My performance has a wavy structure – all the time I keep the audience in an ambivalent state of amusement and anxiety."
Another example of the new, creative energy in the theatre is the duo of Katarzyna Kalwat and Marta Sokołowska, who – like Anna Karasińska – received a small grant from the TR Warszawa to stage their performance Holzwege (TR Warszawa, 2016) about the life and work of the little-known avant-garde composer Tomek Sikorski. The artists play a game between fact and fiction, introducing the 'witness' of the protagonist's life, renowned composer Zygmunt Krauze, who performs Sikorski's pieces live and calmly comments truth and fiction on the stage, because in real life he was a close friend of the tragically deceased Tomek Sikorski.
The new generation: they tell the world their stories, while still learning important things about the world. The audacity in reaching for texts, topics and targets that have been so far sanctified or taboo, is only paralleled by the audacity and a broad spectrum of form and esthetic approaches. From the high production values of Jarzyna's elegant spectacles, Warlikowski's monumental designs, or Lupa's theatre fantasies, to the new pop-poor theatre of stripped, exposed, demystified realities of Demirski and Strzępka's or Garbaczewski and Cecko's productions, to Rychcik's and Gornicka' minimalistic, abstract sets, to the group of young artists operating in a kind of 'projectariat', keeping pace with global trends and feeling a part of them – who definitely don't want to limit their activity to dramatic theatres only. An important issue is the very process of creation, shaping works based on the theme – be it installation, audio or video, not necessarily performance in the classical sense – which makes theatre close to the performing arts and their logic. Polish theatre has eagerly embraced plurality and unprecedented diversity of style and form.
In conclusion, the scene is more vibrant and thriving than ever. By carving out a space of freedom that encourages exploration and experiment, the theatre is becoming, once again, one of the key factors shaping life in Poland. In a country positioned between East and West, in a cultural environment rapidly developing against the backdrop of a complicated history, Polish theatre continues to create new language for speaking about the contemporary world. Poland understands itself through its theatre, and seeing Polish theatre is one of the best ways to understand Poland.
Joanna Klass, July 2016