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Janusz Wiśniewski or How to find a language of communication

W gruzińskim magazynie teatralnym „Aphosaros” ukazał się szkic Tomasza Miłkowskiego „Janusz Wiśniewski or How to find a language of communication”:

Janusz Wiśniewski (born 1949), Polish director presents in his theatre a new type of acting – this kind of performance relies, to the greatest possible extent, on teamwork: it requires discipline, perfect harmony and abhorrs improvisation. The artist draws on the tradition of total theatre which is characterised by an ideal equillibrium between movement, gesture and music. This is also intentionally reduced acting, using emblems and readily recognizable signs rather than psychology, in short – acting of the mask.

He started out as an assistant director at Warsaw’s Teatr Ateneum, while still studying Polish philology at the university and fine arts on his own (he had never attended the Academy of Fine Arts, although he gained recognition as a draftsman, graphic designer and later stage designer). Soon he left for Poznań, where he was invited to produce Juliusz Słowacki’s Balladyna, one of the best-known dramas of Polish Romanticism. This is where his auteur theatre was born. He did, occasionally, work in the capital (Mannequins at Teatr Wielki), but his auteur productions, which brought him international acclaim, were put on in Poznań: Panopticum à la Madame Tussaud, The End of Europe, A Prayer of a Sick Man before a Night. Wiśniewski developed a new type of acting style – all the characters in this theatre move in a unique way, all their gestures bear a peculiar stamp, an odd slowness. In a manner of speaking, Wiśniewski’s art alludes to mechanical theatres. The singular rhythmicality of movement sometimes puts one in mind of mechanical toys, while the fact that the characters are divided into groups, in which they make their entrances and exits, contributes to the effect of the circularity of time – juxtaposing permanence and inconstancy. This is in keeping with the essence of Wiśniewski’s productions, as they depict the eternal rhythm of life and death, the passage of time, which always stays the same: the world is a revue theatre, the only thing that changes is the cast.

Wiśniewski’s productions divided the critics – some accused him of imitating Tadeusz Kantor, but it is impossible to ignore the enthusiasm with which his productions were received in Europe. The old grudges had remained, however. The changing fortunes – after the successes at international festivals – brought him back to Warsaw.

An attempt to establish a permanent auteur theatre here fell through, despite an excellent prelude, the production Illumination after The Story of a Horse by Leo Tolstoy. The show lasted only fifty minutes; it ran at an increasing pace, with the tempo of particular sequences varying. Wiśniewski was able to evoke in the blink of an eye the atmosphere of joyful youth or feeble old age, the mystical times of birth and death. And, again, he dazzled the world – the production was awarded in Edinbourgh, but in Warsaw his Zespół company put to the stage only one more play, Life Is a Miracle, inspired by The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz. Despite artistic success, Zespół did not manage to find its own venue or obtain the funds to keep operating – Wiśniewski had to disband his troupe. He left for Germany, where he had already made a successful career as a director.

After many years Wiśniewski returned to his home, Teatr Nowy in Poznań, which he ran from 2003 (to 2011), directing from time to time.

He does not run an auteur theatre like Zespół, but… It is hard to resist the impression that it still exists, for every time Wiśniewski brings into life his world of imagination we find ourselves in the familiar space of a metaphysical cabaret. This is what happened when he put on Shakespeare’s King Richard the Third, hotly applauded by the public, less so by the critics, although the production won a Yorick award for the best staging of Shakespeare in the season. Then came The Goat’s Opera and, finally, Faust according to Goethe, which opened a new triptich, comprising also The Tempest, based on Shakespeare, and Noa’s Ark: The New End of Europe.

Wiśniewski’s Poznań Faust was no repetition of its German version – the previous show, produced on a large stage, was replaced by a small metaphysical cabaret in a completely different setting. Everything began with a space. For, especially for this production, Wiśniewski created a new stage, Stage Three, at Teatr Nowy in Poznań. In a relatively small structure on a rectangular plan, akin to the now fashionable black boxes, a little theatre hall was built. The field of action is flanked by two walls; agaist the other two, several rows of seats were put in for the spectators to sit next to each other. The auditorium seats about 120 people, but about 150 get in, squeezed into every nook and cranny.

This space differs from Wiśniewski’s favourite picture frame stage; above all, it lacks a proscenium arch and there is no clear boundary between the stage and the auditorium. The old elements include some twinkling fair-style lights, lending the place a ludic or Christmas atmosphere. Several rickety chairs and then a table, like in the Last Supper. In the corner, intersecting with the stage ‘horizon’, a huge pillar – the upright post of the cross on which Jesus will hang. A theatre entrepreneur, an announcer, who this time goes by the name of the Master of the Altars, representing both the poet and author of the production, has also remained.

The cast features a number of odd characters who do not appear in Goethe, all very “Wiśniewski” in appearance: the obligatory Giant Woman (here called Mme Switzerland), played by a man, the twins (like in Tadeusz Kantor’s plays), Homunculus I and Homunculus II, Baucis and Filemon, Waiters, Veronica….

Of course, there is Faust, there is Mephistopheles, there is Margaret and Martha. There would be no Faust without them. But there are no angels, no rulers, no Theatre Director. As I said, he is replaced by the Master of the Altars (a bit of theatre director, a bit of Kantor – incidentally, conscious allusions to Kantor abound). He is the one who brings into being the theatre of recollections, shines a light on ghosts and nightmares, pulls the strings. Not always successfully, for old lovers have greyed or become set in their vices and obsessions. Enter Faust: a huge bulky man, “a fat slob”, to use Wiśniewski’s phrase, physically repulsive, almost a monster. Yet the Master of the Altars has great hopes for him: it is he who, reborn from a (giant) pupa, will be offered a chance of salvation. Although, in the end, he and Margaret end up in plastic bags, like crash victims or garbage, hope manifests itself in the glow of their transient happiness. Only love sets you free, Wiśniewski does not say anything new here, leading Faust and all of us through the stations of the Lord’s Passion, retracing the way of Christ and the Cross.

After Faust, Wiśniewski struck a second chord, but the production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest had the power to surprise. There was not much left of Shakespeare, an aura or rather a framework. We are on a paradise island of the shipwrecked, of which we are reminded by cooing pigeons, locked in four giant cages which are suspended on four sides of the stage. Their unsettling cooing enters into a timely or untimely dialogue with the situations on stage, adding to the psychedelic music by Jerzy Satanowski some unplanned tones. Sometimes a brief flutter of the wings is heard, because the cages, despite their size, do not offer the birds much freedom of movement. The characters of Shakespeare’s The Tempest are not the only people to land in this paradise, on this fortunate isle; they are accompanied by personages familiar from Wiśniewski’s theatre: spectres with suitcases, carts, worn out coats, the memory of Kantor and the metaphysical cabaret. These apparitions are the first to populate the island-stage, flanked by the auditorium (several rows of seats have been placed on the stage, creating a space akin to that of an amphitheatre).

How does the second confrontation with Evil end? Does Prospero break his magic wand of the world’s conductor? Not in this production, for at the end a triumphant Caliban enters the stage, Evil Incarnate, kitschy like in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, wearing Nicholas Cage’s snake suit. The evil rides in a stylish car, guarded by masked gangsters (animal masks on their faces), then makes scrambled eggs which he seasons with the body of a vanquished Poet. So this battle, against tackiness, kitsch and violence, is lost too.

Under these circumstances the Ark had to have appeared, when the waters of the deluge had swollen so much. With actors from seven countries Wiśniewski builds Noah’s Ark: The New End of Europe, a dazzling piece, as though running against the chosen theme – for the artist warns about the consequence of the disintegration of values, the dusk of old Europe, which is spiritually failing today and self-centred, oblivious to an approaching deluge.

Janusz Wiśniewski returned with this production to his acclaimed The End of Europe, from a quarter of a century ago, correcting that script with the benefit of hindsight and adding new impulses brought by working with actors from several countries. It is no accident that Noah’s Ark appears in the title: it comes unexpectedly from other cultures, other experiences, but above all from the inside. In rhythmical scenes depicting longing, violence, dying, suffering, chasing appearences, revolt and stupor, whose counterpoint is a pile of suitcases, a potent symbol of extinction, someone surprisingly alien appears, someone who does not belong to the tradition of European suffering – a whirling Hindu, whose presence brings to mind an amusement park or the world of illusion. He will sing in Sanskrit the final song of salvation. Regardless of the lines of Robert Frost’s poem, so often quoted in the play, sounding like a memento: No memory of having starred/Atones for later disregard/Or keeps the end from being hard.

Janusz Wiśniewski’s dark productions which drew on masterpieces of European literature, especially the most recent ones, Faust and The Tempest, did not indicate such a reassuring ending. The artist, however, was able to find the light in differences, in what sets apart and divides, what promises a creative dialogue. In the times of animosities, tensions, religious dispute, culture clashes, military struggles, theatre brings a message of brotherhood. Naive is it may seem, this is how new Europe and the New World are being born. For the thing is not to put out particular outbursts of violence and hatred but to find a language of communication.

Tomasz Miłkowski

Tomasz Miłkowski (Poland), PhD, journalist, theatre and literary critic, editor of several journals. Author of more than a dozen books. President of the Polish Section AICT/IACT since 2000, Honorary Vicepresident IATC/AICT. Editor in Chief of the online quarterly Yorick since 2004. Sectretary SD RP.

Realized as part of the scholarship of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage

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