Polish theatrical productions streamed online during the pandemic


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2007: Macbeth, based on Shakespeare, dir. Grzegorz Jarzyna, TR Warszawa, 2005 (2007)

In the last couple of months under lockdown, with all theatre performances and festivals cancelled for an unknown period, theatres still succeeded in strongly compensating their loyal audiences using digital technologies to stream live or recordings of a number of emblematic European productions (along with a number of good, very good and not that good performances of different periods by various companies). Of a wide range of options, spectators from across the world could watch such textbook examples as Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children (1957), Peter Brook‘s The Mahabharata (1985) or Robert Wilson’s Hamletmaschine (1986) and both legendary productions by the renowned theatre directors of the last decades and the recent premieres of leading groups and actors. Following this high-class theatres’ unexpected mushrooming, impossible in the normal course of theatrical processes, Polish directors such as Grzegorz Jarzyna (b. 1968), Krzysztof Warlikowski (b. 1962), Jan Klata (b. 1973), Maja Kleczewska (b. 1973), and Michał Zadara (р. 1976) that have been shaping the profile of Polish theatre since 1989, carved out once again a magnificent niche of their own. I am going to broach here several productions that have left their mark on the European theatre scene when staged a decade or so ago, which I had the chance of watching at the time, and that have now, when streamed over the internet, reasserted their exceptional creativity and impactive power.

The Polish online theatre marathon began with Krzysztof Warlikowski’s (A)pollonia, which has become a post-modern classic, streamed by the 2020 edition of the popular OITF The Theatre Times. This 2009 coproduction of Nowy Teatr, Wrocław; Comédie de Genève centre dramatique, Festival d’Avignon, Narodowy Stary Teatr, Krakow, Wiener Festwochen and several prestigious theatre institutions has run for almost a decade now at the most prestigious European stages and festivals.

Following the 1989 political change, Polish theatre witnessed a development in several main directions with one of the most distinctive of them being that of multimedia mega productions combining screenings, creative lighting design, live music and live presence of actors, in the vein of the aesthetic of performativity. Warlikowski’s (A)pollonia is not only one of the boldest and convincing displays of this line, but it has also established itself as its unquestioned emblem. Based on works by Aeschylus, Euripides, Hanna Krall, John Maxwell Coetzee and Goethe, the action is set within a vast space with an orchestra and a formidable jazz singer in the centre, who occasionally join the almost four-hour performance. It explores with incredible precision and impactive power the problem of human selflessness in the context of responsibility for oneself and the others. Starting from particular self-sacrifice in WWII of a young Polish woman, who rescues a Jewish girl (who later turns to be ungrateful and willing to forget her past), which leads to her death and that of her children and nearest and dearest, the performance goes through various situations and examples of self-sacrifice in the Trojan War. 

The streamed recording of the production was especially relevant, recognisable these days, in the complicated situation of the lockdown and fears of the other, taking us back to timeless, rooted in man archetypal mindsets, and significant moral causes. Undoubtedly, an important reason for the preserved quality and impactive vibrancy of the performance was not only the professional recording, but also its very aesthetic, based on creatively blending together drama and film, live actors’ presence and screened episodes, made as immediate recordings of the onstage developments along with inserted ‘lines’.

Of the plenitude of Polish productions streamed on various platforms, I would specifically single out Jan Klata’s The Danton Case, one of the best productions by this salient and at the same time uneven director, an emblematic representative of Poland’s political theatre nowadays. The streaming of the 2008 production of Polski Theatre, Wrocław, adapted from the play of the same name by Stanisława Przybyszewska maybe missed something of the overall suggestion of an unbearably noisy and confused world of insurgence and chaos crushing the highest revolutionary ideals; still, the director’s warning against a failure of attempts at social reforms due to replacing them with striving for power and new supremacies retained the acuteness of the live performance. The streaming of Jan Klata’s The Danton Case confirmed once again that along with his bold and ingenious 2003 debut with the unexpectedly up-to-date stage interpretation of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, placing the comedy in the concrete realities of the 1970s socialist Poland, remains his best production, or at least I think so.

A categorical stroke of luck on the very strong Polish online bill undoubtedly was the streaming of Grzegorz Jarzyna’s 2007: Macbeth. Premiered on 19 May 2005, with the company of TR Warszawa at an abandoned factory in Poland’s capital. Jarzyna made in 2006 a TV adaptation of the production, as the obsolete building was to be demolished. It was this adaptation of 2007: Macbeth that was streamed, succeeding in keeping the exceptional energy of the performance achieved by the director through the unexpected discovery of the deeply irrational motives of otherwise seemingly tidy and diligent soldier Macbeth for his actions, but increasing its impact. A masterly combination of close-ups of Macbeth’s face in critical moments of the performance and cinematographically authentic scenes of violence and panoramic views of the unusual spaces of the abandoned factory in these same moments, as a dilapidated, losing its normal contours and functions world, unexpectedly harshly displayed soldier Macbeth’spersonal deformation against a backdrop of a never-ending war.

2007: Macbeth based on Shakespeare, dir. Grzegorz Jarzyna, TR Warszawa, 2005 (2007)

Both now and in 2005, Jarzyna’s production features prominently in the wide range of interpretations of the Bard’s play. As a whole, the rational mercenariness of the murders Macbeth plans in order to satisfy his extreme ambitiousness is underscored in his character, a rationality that in the end bursts under the pressure of the committed atrocities. Jarzyna sees Macbethcompletely differently, as an archetypal image of a criminal, an initially warped personality of a murderer, whose subconscious, repressed in the normal everyday life thirst for killing his fellow human beings, is dangerously legitimated by the war. His Macbethbehaves deeply irrationally; his are actions of an abnormal personality that receive some possible rational explanations in the spectators’ minds alone.

The streaming of the emblematic productions on the bill of contemporary Polish theatre under consideration here reminded once again the main reason why this theatre plays such an important role on Europe’s theatrical map, i.e. its unflagging passion to try and gain an insight into the essence of man and the world, regardless of what is conventional and long-established.

Polish theatrical productions streamed online during the pandemic

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