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(Theatre) Classics and Politics in Contemporary Poland’s Theatre

The 48th Opole Theatre Confrontations ended at the end of May, featuring the last year’s most important stagings of classical works in Polish and European drama and literature. Stanisław Wyspiański’s Wyzwolenie (Liberation), directed by Jan Klata from the Wybrzeże Theatre in Gdańsk and Władysław Reymont’s Chłopi (Peasants) directed by Remigiusz Brzyk from the Ludowy Theatre in Kraków won the (main) Wojciech Bogusławski award. It seems fitting that the award named by the eminent theatre artist who thought the theatre maker was above all a citizen (and thus theatre must always be political) went to two productions involved in current public debates.

Wyspiański’s text deals with Polish national myths, and Klata built on that to diagnose the state of Poland in 2023, after eight years of the far-right government. Klata imagined Poland’s society as half-dead figures pushed to destruction by Geniusz (Grzegorz Gzyl), which could be read as Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the Law and Justice party (PiS). The production recalled various victims of the party’s rule, including Piotr Szczęsny who committed an act of self-immolation to protest the PiS government. There were also women who died after the government-controlled Polish Constitutional Tribunal found that abortion on embryopathological grounds is unconstitutional in 2020. Klata’s Wyzwolenie premiered one day before the 15th of October 2023 elections that ended the rule of Kaczyński’s party.

Brzyk’s Chłopi revisited Noble-winning Reymont’s novel focusing on the text’s community from a perspective of women. The production which premiered on 21st of October 2023 needs to be read in a context of the wider public debate on representation and marginalization of and violence against women voices from Poland’s villages. The debate was also facilitated by the highly acclaimed Joanna Kuciel-Frydryszak’s Chłopki. Opowieść o naszych babkach (Women Peasants. A tale of our grandmothers) and by Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela’s movie adaptation of the Reymont’s novel. The society in Brzyk’s production was conflicted and yet centred around the Catholic Church. Within this, women negotiated their agencies, looking for a place in the novel that marginalized their voice. This was best manifested by Anna Pijanowska playing Komornica – in old Poland a woman without own home, living at other people’s homes – who was the narrator in Brzyk’s adaptation.

photo:Natalia Kabanow

Using classical texts as a stage for political discussion has a strong tradition in Polish theatre that for a long time was subjected to censorship. However – even though the censorship is now gone – classical texts remain the platform for theatre makers in Poland to discuss urgent political matters. What is the reason? Theatre is a place where change can be re-imagined, pre-rehearsed, and re-performed, while at the same time being rooted in the past and presence; a place where the “real” and the “imagined” meet, interrogating each other. British scholar Helen Nicholson says that in theatre imaginations of artists and audiences combine to bridge the gap between reality and fiction, allowing people to imagine “that which was previously unimagined or unimaginable,” challenging existing patterns of ideas and of making sense, and thus evoking social change (Nicholson 47–51).

This is even more so because this political imagining happens in the context of classical texts, rooted in tradition, which are well known and have strong frameworks for reading. Tradition, as Margherita Laera argues, is underpinned by repetition of social and cultural meaning-makings which facilitate a sense of belonging and a sense of community. In re-reading of classical texts through the frameworks of contemporary politics, in imagining the political change through these classical texts, the artists intervene in the processes that shape community. This is why such stagings are so attractive and potent. This is well exemplified through some of the important works in the last decade, starting, as it befits any writing on Polish theatre from Dziady (Forefather’s Eve) by Adam Mickiewicz.

Dariusz Kosiński in his Teatra polskie. Historie points out that Dziady is a bastion of Polish theatre: “I do not know whether there is any other European theatrical culture, which identity is so much defined and marked by a single work” (117). He argues that the play contains mechanisms that mobilize “the performative creation of community” (122). Written in the nineteenth century Dziady glorifies the suffering of Poles in the nineteenth century, presenting it as one-of-kind. The main character, Gustaw-Konrad, is a model Romantic hero and an icon of Polish patriotic arts.

Historically and contemporarily, Dziady in theatre and film have been often interpreted alongside Poland’s politics and histories. Most famous examples include Kazimierz Dejmek’s 1967 staging at the National Theatre in Warszawa. It was censored by communist government, which resulted in student protests and campus occupations in the whole country. In July 1989 – a month after Poland’s so-called first free elections – a film adaptation of Dziady premiered. Directed by Tadeusz Konwicki – this was his last film – Lawa. Opowieść o „Dziadach” Adama Mickiewicza (Lava. The Tale about Adam Mickiewicz’s “Dziady”) explored the play alongside histories of Poland’s fights for independence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This trope continued in contemporary stagings. The point of departure for Radosław Rychcik’s 2014 staging prepared for the Nowy Theatre in Poznań was also the historical and cultural timeline of Dziady. However, Rychcik put the play’s timeline and themes into a global context. Initially it seemed that the focus was on pop culture and on 31 October as the date of both Dziady celebration and Halloween. This was because the well-known characters from Mickiewicz’s play in Rychcik’s staging seemed dressed up for a Halloween party. Guślarz (Shaman) (Tomasz Nosiński) appeared as the Joker. The Maiden (Gabriela Frycz) looked like Marilyn Monroe. Konrad-Gustaw (Mariusz Zaniewski) was Jim Morrison. The stage reminded of a basketball hall from High School Musical; there was even a Coca-Cola machine. Yet, very soon one realized that the colourful characters and the stage masked the tragedies that happened onstage and in silence. While Guślarz-Joker summoned the spirits, and the audience was involved in the who-is-who guessing game, the all-white basketball team hanged the hotel boy, played by Black Anthony Juste, on the basketball hoop. The historical and cultural timeline of Rychcik’s Dziady moved to the timeline of global oppression and suffering, asking about relationship between “native” and “foreign” in contemporary Poland.

Oscar Sadowski, Nastazja Domaradzka, and Maja Kleczewska re-read Dziady through the protests against the that abortion of malformed foetuses being found unconstitutional, (practically banning abortion in Poland). The directors also put these protests in the broader contexts of political crises. Sadowski directed a happening on 31 October 2020 – so the traditional night of Dziady celebration - at Adam Mickiewicz Street in Warszawa’s, across of Jarosław Kaczyński’s home. The production – performed by some top Warszawa-based actors – staged rituals of sending Kaczyński away. It was mirroring the parts of the play in which Guślarz (Shaman) sends away the ghosts who haunt the villagers, indirectly stating that Kaczyński’s presence haunted Poland. Nastazja Domaradzka staged multilingual Dziady in London’s Almeida Theatre in May 2021, casting female actor Edyta Budnik as Gustaw-Konrad and seeing Dziady through the global protests of marginalized communities (including Polish women). The imagining Gustaw-Konrad as a woman was repeated later that year by Maja Kleczewska in her staging for the Juliusz Słowacki’s theatre. She also looked at Dziady through intersectional lens, pondering on the position of women, migrants, and people with disabilities in contemporary Poland.

Of course, Dziady are not the only classical texts for the political debates in Poland. Stanisław Wyspiański and William Shakespeare are other authors whose works are well known and have been often staged through the framework of contemporary politics. Anna Augustynowicz’s Burza (The Tempest) at the Współczesny Theatre in Szczecin (2016), and Croatian Olivier Frljić (director) and Agnieszka Jakimiak, Joanna Wichowska, and Goran Injac’s (dramaturgs) take on Stanisław Wyspiański’s Klątwa (The Curse) at the Powszechny Theatre in Warszawa (2017) are good examples.

Anna Augustynowicz’s Burza in translation by Stanisław Barańczak was one of three finalists for the 2016 Golden Yorick prize for the best Polish staging of a play by Shakespeare in a given theatre season. Augustynowicz’s Burza asked questions about individual, social and political responses to vulnerability, in particular, an aged, disabled, and abandoned body, strongly contextualized in the socio-political contexts of the Współczesny Theatre, Szczecin, Poland, and Europe. The Theatre Współczesny – due to lack of funding and decisions by the management of the National Museum who shares the building with the theatre – is inaccessible for anyone with any mobility issue. The city of Szczecin has been repeatedly criticized for its engagement with people with disabilities and elderly. In 2014, parents and carers of children with disabilities occupied Polish Parliament. At a similar time, European conscience and solidarity faced questions raised by arrival of refugees. Augustynowicz brought all these contexts in her Burza, juxtaposing them with Christianity – crucial to the nationalistic discourses on Poland – and the love it promotes. From Caliban (Arkadiusz Buszko) on a wheelchair, through Islam-connoting clothes and life jackets of the fairies, to the ageing and failing body of Prospero (Bogusław Kierc), the characters were trapped on an island that did not want them. Augustynowicz’s staging sought for new ways of understanding and narrating otherness and vulnerability.

The topic of love, hate, Christianity in Poland was also at the centre of Frljić’s take on Wyspiański’s Klątwa. The 1899 play-text is about a girl seduced by a priest. For Frljić the story became a pretext to interrogate Poland’s relationship with Catholic Church asking about violences the religion of love facilitates and conceals in Polish society. The production made its point through personal monologues delivered by actors’ and telling stories connected to religion and violence and through stylized sequences that used religious symbols and icons to perform the violence of the Church and its consequences such as sexual violence, racism, and oppression of women. Klątwa evoked many emotions. It got high critical appraise, standing ovations, and also caused daily protests of Catholic organizations outside of the theatre and the building had to be protected by antiterrorist brigade. The work also opened broader public discussion about the function that theatre has in the society. Theatre is always political. Even if it claims it is not, it does not mean it has no political roots or consequences.

The production discussed here bring this political quality to the fore and put in in a dialogue with classical texts, their aesthetics, and traditions they created. All of them were highly critically appraised and won awards, suggesting that this open political debate does not compromise artistic quality, in fact they are in dialogue. Another festival that celebrates classical texts is just around the corner. The 28th edition of the International Gdańsk Shakespeare Festival will happen in July and August, featuring shows from Peru, Ukraine, Romania, UK, Italy, Poland, and Croatia. From the programme I can already see Macbeth from the Koszalin’s Bałtycki Theatre, which examines politics of human relationships with nature. Much debate is to come.

Works Cited

Kosiński, Dariusz. Teatra polskie. Historie. Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, 2010.

Laera, Margherita. “Return, Rewrite, Repeat: The Theatricality of Adaptation.” Theatre and Adaptation: Return, Rewrite, Repeat, edited by Margherita Laera, Methuen, 2014, pp. 1–17.

Nicholson, Helen. Theatre and Education. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.