Children of the revolution
Polish theatre is coming of age and it's coming here. PETER CRAWLEYlooks at the county's strong tradition of revolutionary theatre and what Irish audiences can expect at the Dublin Theatre Festival's Polish showcase
EXILED, HOMESICK and writing dramas he knew he would never see produced, a Polish poet and playwright once tried to see the future. Polish theatre, he foretold, would stretch its boundaries to encompass several art forms. It would be a mainstream entertainment, popular among all classes. It would draw deep from national history for its emotional power and its sense of ritual. But it would also be cutting edge in form, using the most modern technologies and daring techniques at its disposal.
Such were the wildly optimistic musings of Adam Mickiewicz, delivered in France in 1843, following another defeated Polish uprising. And though his words defined the theatre of a nation that had at that point literally disappeared from the map – carved up between Russia, Prussia and Austria – today, his prophecy seems to have been uncannily accurate.
“Theatre is our national forte in the arts,” says Pawel Potoroczyn, director of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw. “It is the medium through which we can express ourselves in the finest way.”
For centuries, it was almost the only medium for national expression. Partitioned during the 18th century; threatened with extinction during the second World War; and stifled by the ideological conformity of communism, Poland made theatre its political lockbox – there was a National Theatre when technically there wasn’t a nation. 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 and became innovative by stealth and necessity.
Grotowski and Kantor brought that alternative spirit to the world’s attention, but both were products of a theatre that, at some level, had always been revolutionary.
With the arrival of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival’s long-gestating, large-scale and possibly overdue showcase of Polish work, Polski Teatr, Irish audiences have a chance to witness some of the finest theatre in the world today. Created by two generations of theatre makers, it is work still seeped in the intellectual rigour and creative intensity of Poland’s vibrant theatre culture, if no longer carrying the same political burden.
At the centre of the festival’s Polish season is the man at the centre of contemporary Polish theatre: Krystian Lupa. When people speak of Lupa, the 67-year-old director who specialises in explorations of charismatic figures and their followers (Nietsche, Schleef and Warhol have all been subjects), the words they most requently reach for are, “Master”, occasionally “Grand Master” and sometimes “Father”.
The director works with a fulltime ensemble at Kraków’s Stary Teatr, developing ideas over staggeringly long periods to create shows that are often staggeringly long. His outstanding, ferocious and probing Factory 2, developed over 14 months, is seven-and-a-half hours long. Based on the demanding, near sociopathic figure of Andy Warhol and his entranced, exploited acolytes, any resemblance to Lupa and his ensemble is entirely intentional.
The other directors featured in Teatr Polski belong to a younger generation known as the “father killers”. Lupa is their father. Grzegorz Jarzyna of TR Warszawa, who brought his luminescent Festento the Abbey six years ago, returns with T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T., another film adaptation, this time of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 cult classic of subversion and seduction, Teorema.
Jan Klata, meanwhile, brings The Danton Case, his anarchic version of Stanislawa Przybyszewska’s early 20th century meditation on the French Revolution – which he “remixes” with punk rock, chainsaws and an investigation into the place of revolution in pop culture.
“He is the master,” Potoroczyn says of Lupa, who taught both Jarzyna and Klata in Kraków’s Ludwik Solski State Theatre School. “I think there’s a whole generation of Polish theatre directors, who are, in a way, sons of Krystian Lupa. And those sons are very much willing to kill their father.” It’s an Oedipal impulse that Lupa himself commands, frequently instructing his students: “Spoil”, “Don’t be satisfied” and “Don’t expect to know, just invest in the work process the totality of your life experience”.
“They realise themselves in opposition to Krystian,” Potoroczyn continues. “They’re so profoundly influenced by his masterly skills and his intellectual magnitude, that they absolutely have to refer to him whether they neglect him, negate him or try to push him away.”
According to Loughlin Deegan, artistic director of the Dublin Theatre Festival, the Polish programme was developed partly in response to the changing face of Irish audiences in recent years, something that has escaped the broad acknowledgement and reflection of various arts organisations. “An international festival based in Dublin needs to react to the significant demographic changes that are happening in the city,” says Deegan, who has been planning the showcase for three years.
“I do believe that arts organisations have not taken the demographic changes seriously enough and have not responded to them in creative and interesting ways,” he says. “And they have a responsibility to do so.” (One of the aims of a programme of films, concerts and discussions entitled Lost in Translation, is to probe that responsibility further.)
An obvious question is whether the arrival of an expansive Polish season to a city no longer so attractive to economic migrants might be a case of too much, too late.
Currently, measure of the Polish community in Ireland is anecdotal, but the Embassy of Poland in Dublin estimates it is still 150,000 strong. It is also here to stay: an educated and skilled labour force, heavily interested in culture and keen to contribute to it.
D-Light Studios, founded by photographer Agata Stoinska; Monika Sapielak and Ian Oliver’s Centre for Creative Practices; and Anna Wolf’s Polish Theatre Ireland – which debuted with Radoslaw Paczocha’s A Scent of Chocolateat The Focus Theatre this week – all point to a community establishing permanent and creative roots, while huge Polish audiences for recent visits by Tonka Babic and the company Teatr Wiczy, signal an appetite for Polish programming.
Deegan says the festival’s box office has seen heavy traffic from Poles in Ireland, but its appeal is intended to be more broadly intercultural. “This is work of the highest international standard that I’m programming for everyone in Dublin, and everyone who visits Dublin during the festival.”
Nikola Sekowska, information officer at the Polish Embassy, says the difference an Irish context would bring to these three Polish productions would be that that here you might actually get to see them. “In Poland, it’s just impossible to get tickets,” she says.
Few countries have ever understood so keenly that the theatre must always be urgent and responsive, bold and accountable, with the audience on its mind and revolution in its soul.
Five to see at the Dublin Theatre Festival
The Rehearsal, Playing The Dane
The commendably divisive Pan Pan Theatre Company, Ireland’s renowned alternative theatre makers, premiere a new work at the festival, in which three actors audition for the role of Hamlet and the audience decide who gets to be (or not to be) the main part.
The Relish of Language
A festival within the festival, the Gate Theatre here explores the connections between Beckett, Pinter and Mamet across four productions (which might be measured out in silences, pauses and beats). Not all the work chosen inspires – do we really need another Endgame? – but the new blood of directors Aoife Spillane Hinks, Tom Creed and Wayne Jordan, who join Gate stalwart Alan Stanford, certain does.
It triumphed on the West End. It flopped on Broadway. Your investment in Lucy Prebble’s multi-award winning and undoubtedly energetic musical treatment of the infamous corporate scandal may fall as well as rise.
Rough Magic returns to the Festival with Hilary Fannin’s new version of Racine’s Phaedra, with an original score by Ellen Cranitch, and placing its dark desires squarely within contemporary Ireland. Lynne Parker’s production has been generating buzz for some time.
B for Baby
It may not contain Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw or any topical allusions to financial scandals, but the Abbey’s other new play at this year’s festival, written by Carmel Winters and directed by Mikel Murfi, has far more mystery.
All we know about this two-hander, set in a care home, is that Louis Lovett and Michele Moran’s characters make up their world as they go along. Isn’t that what new writing is all about?