This article is from 2008.
Anna Millar takes a trip to Warsaw and discovers how Poland’s theatre-makers are responding to the country’s chaotic past and burgeoning cultural confidence
Sitting in a picturesque café in the heart of Warsaw – Poland’s capital and largest city – it’s easy to forget the turbulent history that has shaped this country’s place in the world today.
The city has long had a reputation as a vibrant playground for the creative arts, having spawned Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski and composer and virtuoso pianist Frédéric Chopin among others. But even these famous offspring have been overshadowed by the social and political battles that have defined Poland as a nation.
At once a pawn and reluctant player in war, Warsaw was largely destroyed during the first half of the 20th century. Almost 80 per cent of the city had to be rebuilt from the ground up after its complete devastation during World War II. Today, Poland hits the headlines for another reason, immigration, whether it be the Poles’ mass exodus since the former Communist country acceded to the European Union, or their apparent current inclination to pack their bags and head back home. It is these very themes of identity, displacement and war (on a global or personal scale) that define the Polish works coming to this year’s Fringe.
For Tomasz Kubikowski, deputy director of the National Theatre of Poland, the country’s response to its history through the medium of theatre was inevitable: ‘It was like everything was put into the cultural refrigerator for half a century and then burst back to life,’ he says. ‘Even today, Poland is a country of fragmentations: different religions, alphabets, politics . . . cities devastated and people displaced. Theatre has found its place in reformed society and people respond to that.’
With a strong tradition of performances addressing social and political issues at its heart, Polish theatre has long provided an outlet for encouraging and effecting social change. Even prior to World War II the country boasted numerous small independent companies. Now, says Kubikowski, theatre-makers are building on what has been learned from the country’s turbulent past and responding to the current climate. ‘You rise from what has gone before and you grow stronger from it. In the face of censorship and adversity, Polish theatre created its own very unique voice and came out of a war, a depression and then a time of rediscovery.’
The last decade has seen Poland putting its theatre and arts stamp firmly on the global map, a phenomenon recognised in the sheer volume of Polish work arriving at this year’s Fringe. Helmed by Edinburgh-based Universal Arts and the Polish Cultural Institute in London, this year’s programme features a handful of very different shows, the highlight of which is undoubtedly Teatr Provisorium’s Bite the Dust. The acclaimed company follows up its award-winning Ferdydurke with an adaptation of Tadeusz Rosewicz’s controversial World War II drama, about the (anti)heroics of the Polish army resistance. Written by Tadeusz Rozewicz and directed by Janusz Oprynski, the piece is a stark and deeply moving exploration of the brutality of war, as seen through the eyes of an ordinary individual. ‘Because of Poland’s history, there is this myth of the army being pure and beautiful: that’s not so,’ says Oprynski. ‘Of course, what has happened has been brutal, but equally we have lied to ourselves and allowed ourselves to be lied to.’
As the piece is focused on the ambiguous morality of a Polish soldier, Oprynski was keen that the play’s setting reflect the current contemporary climate. ‘There are many tools to describe the world,’ he says. ‘As artists we have an obligation to undermine any obviousness. Poles are very used to being the victim; this was an attempt to show that there is more to the story than that. I oppose a theatre that does not have something to say. That should be the essence of theatre. If Poland can do that one thing today, then it is doing something very important.’
Elsewhere in the programme, contemporary themes of immigration and displacement capture the stark realities of the life of Polish migrants. In Emigrants, for instance, a site specific piece set in a camper van, two young men struggle to find their place in the world as a New Year dawns.
But it’s the sheer diversity of the Polish fare at this year’s Fringe that is striking. Marlene Dietrich is re-imagined through the medium of puppetry in Broken Nails, which explores femininity and the power of stardom through the character of a young servant girl apprentice. Kompania Doomsday explores the imaginary relationship between a trapped beast and his master in the imaginative puppetry piece Baldanders. The monotony, challenges and inevitable trials of the journey from birth to death are explored by Polish puppetry trio, K3 Theatre in Etcetera, while legendary Polish leading mime artist Krosny stars in the highly enjoyable comedy without words, Mime For Laughs!
‘The joy of where Polish theatre is right now is that it is not afraid to have a voice,’ says Oprynski. In Poland we do it for those that have been left behind, and those that have gone, and now maybe for those who come back. We show their strength, their struggles and their hope: you can’t find a more universal message than that.’
Bite the Dust, Universal Arts Theatre, 220 0143, 3-25 Aug (not 13), 5pm, £12-£14 (£9-£11). Previews 1 & 2 Aug, £5; Emigrants, Rocket@Demarco, Roxy Art House, 0871 750 0077, 11–17 Aug, 1pm, 3pm, 5pm & 7pm, £12–£15 (£10); Baldanders, 3–25 Aug (not 6, 13, 20), 7.50pm, £10–£11 (£8–£9). Previews 1 & 2 Aug, £5; Etcetera, 3–25 Aug (not 13), 1.10pm, £10–£12 (£8–£10). Previews 1 & 2 Aug, £5; Broken Nails, 3–24 Aug (not 10), 5.35pm, £10–£12 (£8–£10). Previews 1 & 2 Aug, £5; Mime For Laughs!, 3–25 Aug (not 13, 22), 9.20pm, £9–£11 (£7–£9). Previews 1 & 2 Aug, £5. All Hill Street Theatre, 226 6522 unless otherwise mentioned.