A one-stop shop for Polish theatre

Wed, Jan 7, 2009, 00:00

Cracow's inaugural Divine Comedy festival engaged with questions of what makes Polish theatre and what informs Polish society, and it has proven an immediate success - equal parts careful introspection and flagrant promotion, writes Peter Crawley

ON A BRISK night in Cracow recently, following the monumental concluding performance of the city's new Divine Comedy International Theatre Festival, the 13 members of its international jury had little time to rest.

Instead, when the epic Factory 2, directed by renowned theatre-maker Krystian Lupa, finally came down at midnight, the festival judges spent the next three hours rigorously deliberating over the 11 performances in competition as part of Poland's first national theatre showcase. Having assessed the direction, design, performances and ideas of every show, they returned a verdict at about 3am, continuing their discussions at the bar until 6am. A few judges, whose stamina ought to have been tapped and used to power the national grid, opted out of the celebrations slightly earlier in order to take the following morning's tour to Auschwitz. The Divine Comedy, an intensive, week-long festival exhibiting the best of Polish theatre together with a handful of international productions, was not all fun and games.

WITH A PROGRAMME assembled by 28 Polish critics, each of whom nominated outstanding works from the previous year's theatre, the Divine Comedy presented itself as a competition, but it's real investigation was more probing, its agenda more canny. Between rejigged versions of historical dramas, arch state-of-the-nation satires and subtle experiments in self-reflection, its programme engaged either overtly or implicitly with the questions of what makes Polish theatre and what informs Polish society. The jury - composed almost entirely of international theatre festival directors - could also use the opportunity as a one-stop shopping point for Polish productions. Many did. Up to nine shows featured in the festival are now negotiating international transfers, at festivals from LA to Seoul. Among a growing number of domestic showcases in eastern Europe, propelling their nations' theatre onto the world stage, the Divine Comedy has proven an immediate success; equal parts careful introspection and flagrant promotion.

For Bartosz Szydlowski, the energetic and engagingly impulsive director of the festival, the agenda was more philosophical, its title a clear signal of a more vaulting ambition. "The Divine Comedy," Szydlowski says of Dante's masterpiece, "was one of the most complete visions in the history of European culture and civilisation. It was a clear metaphor of the spiritual journey through the landscape of the interior world - full of drama in hell, full of expectation in purgatory and full of promise in paradise. It was also the expression of a very ambitious idea to come back to a spiritual discussion. The spirituality of culture is very important. We cannot neglect it."

That might sound like a rather grandiose platform on which to found a theatre festival. Dante's epic provided a summary of the political, scientific and philosophical thought of the time - something that is hard to sum up on stage, even in eight hours. "I was not trying to define Polish theatre," Szydlowski insists, although he was pleased with a programme that could appear both reverent and iconoclastic, in which a young director such as Michal Zadara could tackle a 16th-century classic, while Krystian Lupa, invariably referred to as a master, investigated the trash and tragedy of the pop art movement.

"After the selection was made, we realised that most of [the productions] are in some ways still immersed in the past, still fighting with some kind of demons in one way or another," says Szydlowski. "This is most fascinating in our culture." That certainly seems true of The Danton Case, an adaptation of a 1929 Polish drama about the French Revolution, directed by Jan Klata - the enfant terrible of the Polish stage who was also credited with "samples and mental scratching". In other hands this theatrical remix might have become a leadenly political reworking, following Poland's recent elections in which the ultra-conservative ruling coalition was voted out of office. But Klata was more interested in the place of revolution in pop culture, its catch cries as likely to come from the chorus of a T Rex or Tracy Chapman song as the speeches of Robespierre.

IF THAT SHOW commented on Poland discretely, another show took a significantly less delicate approach. The scabrous satire There was This Pole, This Pole, This Pole and the Devil, by Pawel Demirski, attempted to squeeze as many facets of recent Polish history as possible into the space of 90 chaotic minutes. Its title is a play on a standard jingoistic joke - proving that every nation has its version of the Paddy Irishman routine - and its contents required just as much explanation. On a graveyard doubling as a football pitch (a nod to Poland's co-hosting of Euro 2012), a number of body bags begin to bicker, ultimately disgorging a corpse to represent every national complex: the communist oppressor, the sexually sordid church dignitary, an indomitable old woman who survived the second World War, a pale haunted girl who did not, a materialistic bride who has absconded from another play (Stanislaw Wyspianski's 1901 classic, The Wedding, to be precise) and a football hooligan bristling with resentment. "If every Pole wanted to see a play about themselves, there'd be 38 million plays," offers one character, suggesting that Demirski's self-described "political tabloid", could be the beginning of a staggeringly lengthy series.

Seating its audience on the stage of the Bagatela Theatre, though, that production was one of several that sought to close down the gap between spectator and performer. The young director Michal Zadara also placed his audience on the grand stage of the Narodowy Stary Teatr, an 18th-century institution and one of the oldest theatres in the country, for his staging of a 16th-century piece, The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys. This drama is so familiar in Poland - schoolchildren learn its speeches by rote - that it was almost regarded as theatrically inert. However, Zadara, educated in Germany and the US, appraised the Polish classic with a fresh eye, piercing through the Renaissance poetry of Jan Kochanowski with stabs of electronic noise, replacing the Chorus with a single, writhing Cassandra and making us regard the piece as a new work.

For theatre about theatre, however, little compared to the hall of mirrors created by Factory 2. Ostensibly about Andy Warhol's court of trashy muses and needy hangers-on, the production was roundly understood to be a reflection of Krystian Lupa and his relationship with his long-term ensemble at the Stary Teatr. To give you an idea of what a commanding figure Lupa - a large irascible figure in his mid-60s - is in Polish theatre, he was allowed to develop and rehearse the piece for almost a year and a half. To give you an idea of his idiosyncratic persona, he attended the festival performance in his usual seat at the back of the auditorium, chuckled heavily in the early moments, began to mutter darkly after a few more minutes and exited the theatre noisily within the first quarter of an hour.

This was rather disappointing, as there are more outlandish and enjoyable reports of Lupa's running commentaries, such as his penchant for beating a drum during the performance or barking instructions at his performers mid-show.

If that suggests that Lupa is very much part of the performance, his onstage alter ego seals the deal. Warhol, who manages to be at the centre of his social circle while remaining madly aloof from it, is both voyeur and exploiter. We get to know his acolytes, who decant their dreams and obsessions at length: a fragile Edie Sedgwick, a hilariously garrulous Brigid Berlin, the tough and tragic Candy Darling, and so on.

Blending performance, video, improvisation, allusion and copious but subtle self-reference, Lupa's production probed not just the manufacture of contemporary art and the aleatory possibilities of the theatre, but plumbed the relationship between the creator and the artwork. Between astonishing sequences and admittedly torpid stretches the effect was oddly cumulative, tracing the borders between manipulation and mutual dependence. It was, expectedly, voted the best production of the festival; an uncontroversial decision contested only by one Krystian Lupa.

ONE OF THE international judges, director of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival, Loughlin Deegan, acknowledged the effectiveness of such a festival at exploring and promoting a nation's theatre culture. "I think it was enormously successful as a showcase," he told me. "And as a result, I think a lot of the work will travel." The most cheering example of this came with a hurried and completely last-minute addition to the programme. Having heard some buzz about a student production of Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities, Szydlowski arranged for a noon performance ("lethal for theatre") to be staged immediately after opening night and convinced the judges to attend.

The result is that the production is now destined for New York's Under the Radar Festival in January.

For Deegan, who this year initiated ReViewed, a much smaller-scale Irish showcase with the assistance of Culture Ireland and the Irish Theatre Institute, the flexibility and shrewdness of the Divine Comedy seemed difficult to emulate: without a repertory system or culture of full-time ensembles it's next to impossible to revive a large-scale show from the Abbey or the Gate, for example. "But," he adds, "there's a lot to learn about the type of work that should be on an international platform and the type of work that is of interest on an international festival circuit."

Given that one show that caught Deegan's eye, Wyspianski's The Wedding (directed by Anna Augustynowicz), is as intrinsic to the Polish repertoire as Synge's The Playboy of the Western World is to Ireland's, Szydlowski's festival appeared more discerning than ingratiating, alert to the structure of a showcase but acutely sensitive to what it put on display. "It was a gesture to the whole theatre family," Szydlowski said of the diversity of his programme. "This was a festival of respect, I would call it." The further successes of that programme on the word stage ought to bear out such sentiments, an acknowledgement that Polish theatre, like all national art, engages with the world by first engaging with itself.