Close To Reality
food for thought in Poland Polish documentary theatre has been mainly influenced by the verbatim method. Yet, the inspiration does not come from Great Britain (although Pawel Demirski participated in the Royal Court Theatre Writers’ Programme) but from the productions of the Moscow Teatr.doc. Teatr.doc presented their performances at the “Saison russe” showcase in 2003 at Teatr Wybrzeże that was organized by the former artistic director Maciej Nowak and the dramaturge Krzysztof Kopka. This small festival brought about an extensive discussion of documentary theatre and theatre journalism. A direct follow up of the “Saison russe” was the 2004 cycle of small-scale productions Prompt City Theatre (Szybki Teatr Miejski) with Paweł Demirski as the main organiser. A group of theatre practitioners (a playwright, a director, a cameraman, and a journalist) chose a topic related to a particular social group (people performing illegal abortions, neo-Nazis, the homeless, wives of soldiers fighting in Iraq, Ukrainian women emigrants). The productions were based on the gathered material, and presented as site-specific performances in public spaces. By leaving the theatre building the theatre makers wanted to emphasise the documentary character of all projects. The Diary of the Homeless Decade (Pamiętnik z dekady bezdomności) by Anna Łojewska, directed by Romuald Wiczy-Pokojsky, took place in a refuge centre for the homeless, and the actual homeless people, who lived in the centre, participated as actors in the performances.
Rainbow Terraces 2012
photo Natalia Kabanow
Looking for so far untouched territories and controversial topics is typical of Paweł Demirsky who has been cooperating for the last couple of years with the director Monika Strzępka. All of his new plays react to current events; very often he uses newspaper articles, quotations from political speeches, and critical texts. The protagonists are always real people, but Demirsky puts his significant thumbprint on the performances. His style is characterized by grotesqueness and paradoxical situations, unhinged from reality. In his production Once Upon A Time There Was Andrzej, Andrzej, Andrzej, and Andrzej (Był sobie Andrzej Andrzej Andrzej i Andrzej) that was presented in Teatr im. Szaniawskiego in Wałbrzych, many leading personalities of Polish culture performed, i.e. the filmmakers Andrzej Wajda, Kazimierz Kutz (a current senator in the Polish parliament), and an excellent Polish actress Krystyna Janda. (She owns a private theatre that is propagated in Polish media, and praised by politicians as an example that theatres with a state subsidy should follow).
The theatre-makers ask what has happened to their national culture after 1989. How is it possible that the artists of the legendary generation instead of analysing “new reality” focus on filming stories distant from the present, alien to the lives of contemporary Poles? The operetta Mother-to-be of St. Sofia Hospital (Położnice Szpitala św. Zofii), which Demirski and Strzępka presented in Teatr Rozrywki in Chorzow, is set in a maternity hospital where their child was born. The topic, again “communicated” by the media, was the project “Give birth humanely”. Its aim was to improve the conditions and psychological well-being of the expectant mothers and their children. However, it caused an absurd competition among the hospitals in having the highest number of natural births. In Rainbow Terraces 2012 (Tęczowa Trybuna 2012), which premiered in the spring of 2012 in Teatr Polski in Wrocław, the protagonists are the mayor of Wrocław Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltzova and the director Krzysztof Warlikowsky. The production deals with the initiative fighting for the rights of gays during the EURO 2012 football matches to have their own terrace at the newly built national stadium. The show begins with a short film composed of speeches by various politicians, shots of the official openings of new highways that were being built for several years, interspersed with images of Polish greyness and dirt. At the end of the production the actors perform their own version of a magical ritual where they try to curse current leading politicians and all dim-witted civil servants. This scene begins in a playful way, but ends seriously and quite cruelly.
Artur Pałyga’s plays are also concerned with current issues, and are written in a journalistic style. Pałyga does not write realistic dramas. His protagonists are lifted out of the everyday to a broader context. The script of V(F)ICD-10 Transformation, directed by Paweł Łysak in Teatr Polski in Bydgoszcz, is based on authentic situations and dialogues that the author gathered in work therapy workshops. Łysak personally conducted the interviews with the legally incapable people. The stories of the mentally or psychologically handicapped served him as an opportunity to show Poland after the change of regime.
The protagonists of Chevau-légers (Szwoleżerze), presented by Jan Klata also in Teatr Polski in Bydhošt, are speedway racers and their partners who were interviewed by the playwright directly at the racecourse pits. The risky sport, in which the racers are constantly in the immediate closeness of death or becoming crippled, serves as a pretext for Pałyga and Klata for telling a story about the Polish national character: about the tendency towards needless risk and pathetic, practically useless and absurd gestures. In this sense the title of the play refers to “Szwoleżerze”, light cavalry troops that became famous in the Napoleon Wars for fighting at Somosierra Pass. They managed to conquer the pass after very heavy fighting and personal courage, but their actual victory was useless because Napoleon had already decided to withdraw from that area.
Pałyga’s drama Battle of Nangar Khel deals with Polish soldiers in the Afghan mission who were accused of shelling one of the local villages, and later sued for war crimes. The production in Teatr Polski in Bielsko-Biała, directed by Łukasz Witt-Michałowski, had its premiere a few weeks before the sentence was passed. The court freed the soldiers, whose unit is stationed in Bielsko-Biała, because of the lack of evidence. Pałyga presented the whole affair as a computer combat game, and thus managed not only to remind the audience of the actual tragic case, but also to explore the myth of war as a manly adventure and fulfilment of their patriotic duty.
forget everything History has recently become one of the key subjects of public debates, and the interest has been transferred also to theatre. One of the reasons was the number of publicly active personalities who were accused of collaboration with the communist secret service. Professor Jan Tomasz Gross, who comes from Poland but lectures in the United States, published a book The Neighbours that provoked a national discussion. Gross deals with Polish anti-Semitism, and the participation of the Poles in the persecution of Jews during and after the war. His other books also deal with similar topics, and have always provoked protests and heated debates. The complicated Polish – Jewish relationship, and Gross’s documents about the murders in Jedwabne, where the Poles chased the local Jews to a barn and burnt them alive, form the core of the play Our Class by Tadeusz Słobodzianek. The play takes place at school in a Polish-Jewish class but we follow the lives of the protagonists until their death, i.e. until the 21st century. Although it is a literary construct, the protagonists have their real-life models. Słobodzianek carefully studies the documents and articles about the Jedwabne crimes.
Production III Furies by Sylwie Chutnik, Magda Fertacz and Małgorazata Sikorska-Miszczuk is also a mixture of literary fiction and documents. The play was presented in Teatr im. Modrzejewskiej in Legnici, and directed by Marcin Libera. The playwrights use the memoirs of Stefan Dąbski, who was the executor of the death warrants during the war over the leaders of Armia Krajowa, who are even today surrounded by patriotic myth. Dąbski was ordered to shoot not only the accused Polish soldiers but also Polish citizens accused of collaboration with Germans. The ruthlessness of the methods and the crimes so far presented as patriotic duty has been taboo until recently. The documents and real historical topics both in Our Class and III Furies enable us to overcome tendentious views of historical events but also to draw attention to bothersome historical deeds that have been marginalized so far. It has been shown that the Second World War included many aspects that do not fit into the overall picture drawn by history books, which were based on the scheme of evil Germans and noble and brave Poles fighting against the enemy.
In the last couple of years there have also appeared productions dealing with the Communist era. Teatr Ósmiego Dnia, a legendary Polish theatre group, which was prosecuted and censored in the Communist regime, based their production Files on the materials of the secret police that were following their activities. We learn about the subversive activities of the theatre, and the measures taken by the state organs to document and stop their activities. Yet, the production has an ironic conclusion. The simple form of Files, where the actors are just sitting on their tables, and reading documents about themselves, gives the impression that the entire police machinery of the totalitarian state served only to follow this small underground theatre group. Another irony is the lesson that such history is not worth coming back to; it is not necessary to get excited much about the content of the secret files that the secret police had on everyone suspected from anti-state activity but also on every secret collaborator. The result being a situation where both the aggrieved and the wrongdoers are presented in the enormous archives in a very similar way.
General by Jarosław Jakubowski (presented by Marek Kalita and Aleksandra Popławska in Teatr IMKA) is an attempt at coming to terms with the personality of General Wojciech Jaruzelski. The General declared a state of emergency in the early 1980‘s and is responsible for the crimes that were then committed, but on the other hand, a few years later he contributed to the fall of the Communist regime by agreeing with holding free elections. In Jakubowski’s play he is an elderly man who in the seclusion of his home remembers his past decisions, and is trying to calm the pangs of his conscience. The main character is presented as a puppet-like comical figure that does not seem very dangerous until we realize that the real-life model is the hated dictator who used to have absolute power in Poland. The grotesqueness works in an almost evil way.
Małgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk in Popiełuszko (premiere June 9 2012 in Teatr Polski, Bydhošt, directed by Paweł Łysak) reconstructs the circumstance of the death of the legendary priest Jerzy Popiełuszko who was very active in the opposition, and held masses for Poland, during which thousands of believers gathered in the church to listen to his sermons on the necessity of freedom. By his radical activities he became the enemy of the Communist leaders but he also had conflicts with the leaders of the Church that in their fight against the state preferred more peaceful means. They were worried that the open conflict with the governing oligarchy might make the Church structures outlawed. The play is actually a very courageous critique of the Polish Church and their aura of untouchability and immunity from persecution, which is based on their former involvement in the fight against the Communist regime.
A less-known real-life hero is the subject of Foreign Bodies (Ciała obce) by Julie Holewińska (Teatr Wybrzeże, directed by Kuba Kowalski). The play is based on the report The Ilegal Life of Ewa H. (Podziemne życie Ewy H.) by Jacek Hugo-Bader, dedicated to Mark Hołuszc, the leader of the opposition and an activist of underground „Solidarity” in the Mazowsze region. After the change of the regime Mark decided to change his sex and became a woman, Ewa Hołuszkova. This unusual situation in the production makes the accepted understanding of freedom problematic.
theatre might have an influence Documentary theatre dealing with controversial topics usually gets a lot of attention in the media, very often exceeding only cultural context and academic commentary. However, it remains questionable what such productions are able to achieve. Is it more than just a description of reality, or, in better cases, to point to a mechanism by which social and political reality functions?
Direct theatrical intervention characterizes Michał Kmiecik’s play Who killed Alona Ivanovna (Kto zabił Alonę Iwanowną) staged in Teatr Dramatyczny in Warsaw. Kmiecik, a young playwright and a director, used Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment to deal with the circumstances of the death of Jolanta Brzeska, a Warsaw activist fighting for tenant rights, whose dead body was found in a forest near Warsaw. The circumstances of her death have never been made clear although there is a rumour that her murder was ordered by a particular developer. The production also mentions the closure of “Baru Prasowego” – a popular snack bar in Warsaw where local students barricaded themselves inside in order to protect the bar with cheap food. The city representatives finally decided not to close the bar. Unexpectedly, also for the performers, a young girl stepped on the stage from the audience, and read a report on the ongoing process of the unclear circumstances of the death of Brzeska, and the immunity of the rich capitalists. In this performance the theatre mixed with real activity attempting a social change. Kmiecik’s production did not contribute to the change but to a certain extent highlighted all the related topics. What is the greatest advantage of productions based on facts? First and foremost, it proofs that theatre is not an abstract area detached from reality. Moreover, it can deal with any socially important topic. If reality needs change theatre is a tool with which reality might be critically assessed. It can try to make us imagine an alternative. Theatre can draw particular topics and events from the shadows, make them visible and present in a public discussion.
english version of the article from Svět a divadlo magazine, issue 5, volume 2012
translated by Hana Pavelková