Culture Shock: Awestruck by Krystian Lupa, a grand master of theatre

Polish director is not so much respected as revered

Krystian Lupa: when people speak of him the words they most frequently reach for are “the Master”, occasionally “the Grand Master” and sometimes, more simply, “the Father”

Krystian Lupa: when people speak of him the words they most frequently reach for are “the Master”, occasionally “the Grand Master” and sometimes, more simply, “the Father”

 

In any other circumstance this would be considered a scandal. But when one man interrupted a theatre performance in Cracow the other week – about two hours into a five-hour run – halting the action, addressing the actors, making changes and returning to the beginning of a scene, it sent slow shivers of delight through the auditorium. Spectators craned their heads to see the disrupter, if that’s what you could call him, sitting high in the gantries. He was, in fact, the production’s director, designer, adapter (how long have you got?). In the awestruck whispers that rippled through the auditorium, making reality seem somehow less real than the stage, you could make out his name: “Lupa!”

Now in his early 70s, the Polish director Krystian Lupa is not so much respected as revered. When people speak of him the words they most frequently reach for are “the Master”, occasionally “the Grand Master” and sometimes, more simply, “the Father”. He works with a full-time ensemble, having recently departed Cracow’s Stary Teatr for Teatr Polski, in Wroclaw, develops his ideas over staggeringly long periods of time (resulting in often staggeringly long productions) and asks his collaborators to dig deep into themselves, sometimes worryingly deep, and to expose that search for his art.

His new work, Woodcutters Holzfällen, adapted from Thomas Bernhard’s 1984 novel, took several awards at the Boska Komedia festival this month, including Best Production, Best Director and Best Actor, for Piotr Skiba as Thomas, the narrator and impassively sardonic watcher at a Viennese dinner party – held in the wake of a young writer’s suicide – attended by bitter, exploitative and toxically self-absorbed artists. It was hard not to see it as a sustained self-critique of the way artists function, from the fire of youth to the deadening succour of establishment.

Lupa’s intervention during the performance was actually to make a subtle adjustment, correcting a problem with Skiba’s microphone, but when, some time later, one of the play’s characters, an actor and windbag from the “national theatre”, referred to his own troubled performance that night – “The audience cried, ‘Louder, louder’, on a number of occasions” – it all began to seem like an elaborate, self-reflexive gag. It wasn’t. Instead it was a staggering display of confidence; an artist unafraid to assert his presence, a performance that could bear and even benefit from intrusion, and an audience so transfixed by the experience that no one batted an eyelid when one sequence played out across all 16 minutes of Ravel’s capillary-tightening Bolero, which was then played a second time. At half speed.

Boska Komedia, or the Divine Comedy, is now in its seventh year. The biggest theatre festival in Poland – a country that is not short of theatre festivals – it is curated by Bartosz Szydlowski and fed into by a panel of critics.

Partitioned during the 18th century, threatened with extinction during the second World War, and stifled by the ideological conformity of communism in its aftermath, Poland made theatre its political lockbox – like Ireland, there was a national theatre when technically there wasn’t a nation – and this public and sometimes secret forum carried the identity of its people through successive waves of repressive control. To resist censorship it smuggled its meanings into metaphors, carefully codifying its content for an audience on high alert. It exploited lavish Soviet subsidy to push at the boundaries of its form – something that was hard to police – and became innovative by stealth and necessity.

Much of the theatre in competition at the Divine Comedy festival was concerned with the act of overthrowing: the figure of the father looms large over Polish theatre and Polish culture. The generation after Lupa, many of whom are former students and apprentices now in competition with him, are commonly referred to as “the father killers”. The frustration among that generation that Lupa is still winning the major prizes seems as much a metaphor for Poland’s endlessly deferred uprising, where the attempt is more valiant than the outcome.

Take a young turk like Radek Rychcik, who staged Forefather’s Eve, a foundation text of Romantic Poland by Adam Mickiewicz, here performed by a lysergic gallery of Americanised icons (a couple of Marilyn Monroes, Heath Ledger’s Joker, the cheerleader from Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit video). Or another show, Towianskiites: Kings of Clouds, which gathered together several renowned Polish artists (including Mickiewicz) in a trashy re-envisioning to remonstrate with their overbearing influence, a burdensome inheritance perhaps no longer fit for purpose.

It’s there, maybe, that an Irish audience can identify most; steeped in its own culture of Oedipal overthrow from Christy Mahon’s various attempts to Stuart Carolan’s retread in Defender of the Faith. “Are you coming to be killed a third time?” asks Christy. No matter how many times we try to escape him, father always seems to know best.

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