Lecture in Sophia during the Congress of Międzynarodowe Stowarzyszenie Krytyków Teatralnych (Associ... More (16th April 2008).
Tomasz Miłkowski, Poland
Violence? Nothing special.
1. Though violence in the modern theatre seems to be such a current concept, it has been longer around than we might think. In fact, it is only at first sight: we can observe an enormous explosion of violence in the life, in the media, in the cinema, in the literature and in the theatre too. To be honest, violence has become a new form of entertainment that took the world by the storm, has been enourmosly successful and is watched by avid viewers. But is this a new form of the social and cultural life? I'm not sure.
Indeed violence is the very old part of the human being experience and the old part of the theatre experience. We can risk a statement that violence and watching violence dates back to the times of the ancient tragedy presenting so many brutal heroes of the myths and so many cruel gods that we can't be shame today… The roots of modern brutality and violence are deeply connected with the times of the gladiators, who slaughtered each other on arena, and the mimes, who performed the cruel scenes in Roma with regular blood and death. Thus the detailed scenes presenting the death and human suffering have always attracted the audience from the very beginning of human being history. Maybe violence is one of the most important element of human identity?
On the other hand we have had to notice very strong and very popular wave of reality shows in TV. Many people around the world were obsessed with reality shows. The dangerous fixation that people have with reality television influences thinking and searching of the theatre artists. They compete with violence depicted by television shows. What is the reason of this shocking trend? Why violence has become so popular? Who knows? Maybe like as in ancient Greece it was fame and admiration that made people enthusiastic about sport, so in our times it is even notoriety or even shame that made people enthusiastic about violence. Even wrong fame is better than anonymous, gray life.
2. Despite this remark, Polish theatre today is searching a new way for itself to attract the new young audience. It is “to be or not be” for the contemporary theater and maybe that is the reason why directors try to have a romantic affair with the violence. Though the theatre doesn't want to be only an observer but a winner in the competition for the best prophet of the future – electronic media, movies or may be the theatre.
At the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries in Poland, and in Europe as well, there was a high wave of the new brutalizers writing with Mark Ravenhill “Shopping and Fucking” and Sarah Cane “Psychosis.4.48”, “Cleansed” and so on. The young directors, connected with Teatr Rozmaitości in Warsaw (Grzegorz Jarzyna, Krzysztof Warlikowski and others) tried to present the new generation conflicts in the inhuman world of the rat race. The biggest success of this searching was a spectacle of “Celebration” by Jarzyna that offered a deep insight into inhuman relations in the family – the young director changed his artistic way that meandered from exploring and exposing the evil to the human struggle with the evil. “Psychosis. 4.48” by Sarah Kane directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna is one of the best production too at the beginning of the 21st century in Poland, very impressive, wise and deep, “The Cleansed” by Warlikowski is successful too. But it is quite possible that the various form of the violence in these controversial shows are only a way to discover the human condition up to date.
These spectacles were co-produced with theatres in Germany; Rozmaitosci very often produced together with theatres from abroad, practising international exchange and common artistic penetration.
There is not sharp division between off-theatre and traditional theatre – for instance the most interesting performance of the brutalist wave was produced by middle-class Teatr Powszechny in Warsaw – that was “Presidents” by Werner Schwab; by the way the actress from this spectacle was awarded with an annual award of the Polish section IACT.
3. Young directors very often used Shakespearian and other classic plays to show cruelty of our times, for example a few mises en scene of „Macbeth”, among young directors we found „Macbeth” by Andrzej Wajda, Oscar winner, our veteran of the romantic theatre. By the way, these productions of “Macbeth” have presented various interpretations but in the center, there always was violence in many costumes and masks. It is also worth mentioning that you could meet in the world of these productions the witches who are for instance drag queens or Iraqi terrorists or mafia pistols, or members of folk enssamble act. I have been so far under impression that I suggested in my review to present witches in Macbeths as a group of televison sociologists, so called ‘talking heads’, who know everything and predict the political future espacial results of elections. Unfortunetly my proposal hasen’t be taken up. Not yet.
Coming to the point – Shakespearian and classic productions, among them the absolutely bloody „Fedra” in The National Theatre in Warsaw, give a chance to expose extraordinary cruel performances. “Fedra” in the National Theatre seems to be very characteristic for the process of ups and downs, rise and fall of violence in Polish theatre. “Fedra”, one of the best famous Greek tales. The heroine is not as harsh as Antigone, not as cruel as Medea, not as beautiful as Helen. Her dramatic fortunes have been depicted many times by the biggest tragics and writers, long time ago and recently. This is a story of a woman who loves her stepson, a younger man. It is one of the well known wandering literary motifs that give possibility to discover the human nature. Not only female. This show in The National Theatre in Warsaw is constructed with fragments of many plays about Fedra from Euripides to modern writers. It was very interesting point of the beginning of this mises en scene but it turned to be flop in my mind. To be honest, this performance divides the audience and critics too. For ones it was very important manifestation of feminist point of view, for second it was only a parade of bizarre ideas, completly disconnected, where the blood and naked bodies are the main values. In this circumstances you might quest: Does the theatre need plays?
It isn’t a peculiar question in times when directors expect anything from literature. One of the most famous Polish critics and theatrical researcher, Józef Kelera, has written in his last book (entitled “The theatre without underpants”): “In professional crictics’ Decalogue, the First Commmandment is: Don’t fornicate with the text that is written for the theatre”.
But this show, I mean “Fedra” again in that fundamental sense has negated the essential rules of dramatic theatre, didn’t wait for the answer long time. Another young director Anna Augustynowicz has presented the splendid spectacle “Measure for Measure” by Shakespeare – quite different from the „black” mises en scene series. Shakespeare’s play was presented very clearly and perfectly, actors were sitting among viewers and acting very seriously and closely with the audience. The actors were representatives of the audience, like a chorus in the ancient theatre. They expressed feelings and thoughts in words, in emotional mimic and imagination. Kleczewska, the director of “Fedra” has destructed the imagination. She distrusted the audience’ s imagination and wanted to show them everything. Augustynowicz, the director of “Measure for Measure” trusts the audience and wins. Her actors give a stunning performance. Her modest, small spectacle is a wonderful, big theatre. First night of “Measure for Measure” directed by Augustynowicz was – in my point of view – the begining of the end of the brutality wave in the modern Polish theatre.
4. It is necessary to say a few words about new Polish plays of this brutalist wave. Among many of them, you can find new semi-tragic and semi-comic heroes: assassins, suicides. fugitives, strangers. They don't want to be polite children.
“Helver Night” by Ingmar Vilqist, for instance, shows how the evil appears, how normal life of a family becames a field of hard struggle and the beginning of fascism
Another play entitled “Made in Poland” by Przemysław Wojcieszek depicts the aggressive social and emotional relation between young unemployment worker and his family, neighbors and others.
“Most suicides are committed on Sunday” by Anna Burzyńska, shows Polish yuppies; bored and tired, that would like to die.
“Toxins” by Krzysztof Bizio, about the generation gap, shows misunderstanding between young and old men;
“Łucja and her children” by Marek Pruchniewski, tragedy about a contemporary Medea, young mother from the village killing her children (by the way the play was based on of the real facts).
Diagnoses of young play writers were not positive; the world is in danger, full of the tragedy, violence, blood and rape. They symbolized the situation of the new post communist lost generation. Too young to participate in the Solidarity revolution, too old to be satisfied today. Do they have any hope? It is one of the most important question of our theatre.
5. After the theatrical demonstration, as you might name the first night of “Measure for measure”, one could see many events that confirm this metamorphose. It was the beginning of a new period – period of searching for the fundamental values in the new post-communistic time.
It is very interesting that one of the very important signs of the new epoch is the production of “Faust” by Goethe in Nowy Theatre in Poznań directed by the famous director, Janusz Wiśniewski. He combines a way of Faust with the Way of the Cross, and that is a reason why he treats the cycle of pictures by Goya, The Black Pictures from the Deaf's House, as his aesthetic source. So the action is conducted here in a specific rhythm: from time to time, it stops to present a short fragment of the play, a beautiful poetic warning or an important reflection and then it becomes like a flee market, where a monster crowd is waiting for the Witches' Sabbath or coming to the inn.
Wiśniewski says that "Faust" is for him "a founding act of the human solidarity". So from a mixture of hate, blasphemy, struggle for survival, hideous life we can see a birth of love. And this is what the Master of the Altars, the magus of the theatre (and Janusz Wiśniewski with him) would like to save.
He is now a very serious artist in contrast to his playful beginnings. Although in this spectacle you can find the remains of his previous youthful strength, the lyric tone and open thinking about human being who resigns so easily from the solitary life dominates here. Therefore a very impressive scene, showing the pages of Bible turned by the wind, is connective to the Great Absent.
This is a performance that is growing – you come back to it, you think of it, you have it imprinted in your memory. It lasts only 80 minutes, but you can talk for hours about it. You are delighted by the technique of making it in each detail: every actor plays without any fault, every actor moves on his own trajectory, every actor has a specific own gesture. Wiśniewski controls these heterogeneous elements of the performance, he controls the rhythm too and he makes it into one coherent mixture. The rhythm is stressed by the psychedelic music of Jerzy Satanowski. Despite this high aesthetic level of the performance, its excellence is not so called the art for the art sake. In contrast, “Faust" by Wiśniewski is close to the ground, the falsity of everyday life, the chaos and in these elements he sees a chance of a contemporary human being who dreams about a better life. Surely, it means something else for the religious and something else for the non-religious. But who is the Master of the Altars if he is not a priest?
The artist aims high. And his brave actors who are not afraid of any task. He always says that he learns more and more from the actors who are not afraid to risk: "The most impressive actors are those who know how to risk, always restless. I'm a happy man. I met actors that love the risk – in Poznań, in Germany, in Warsaw. It depends on the discipline and the humility for the art".
And this is the motto of his theatre.
Actually Wiśniewski prepares a new very interesting project which he has named “Ark” – it is the project of building of an international, modern Ark, Bible’s Noah’ Ark which gives a chance to survive the dangers of the flood. In this project, 8 theatres from Europe participate, among them Cameri Theatre form Tel Aviv, theatres from Germany, Italy etc. They are going to search the modern survival. The Ark is a symbol of all time but today – it is clear – the Ark is especially need. Brother Priesniakov from Russia writes the play about Biblical flood, a young director from Israel, Yael Ronen prepares a show “Plonter” (in English “Tangle”, something close to Gordian Knot) that presents the contemporary flood of violence in the extreme Jewish-Arab conflict; Piotr Cieplak, a director from Warsaw, produces the show by Izaak Singer “Tales for Children” in The National Theatre, in that the huge transatlantic liner imagines contemporary Ark; and even so Hollywood star Robert Redford says in interview in my weekly, that he takes cover at his Ohia’s farm like in the Ark…
It must be significant, it isn't only an accident. The flood of violence must be stopped even if a Big Brother is watching and he is sitting on your coach.