TR Warszawa's 2008: Macbeth relocates the Scottish Play to Iraq

This article is from 2012

TR Warszawa's 2008: Macbeth relocates the Scottish Play to Iraq

Photo: Stefan Okołowicz

Artistic director Grzegorz Jarzyna brings the production to Edinburgh International Festival 2012

TR Warszawa are taking over the vast Lowland Hall with their spectacular, multi-media adaptation of Macbeth. Artistic director Grzegorz Jarzyna tells Yasmin Sulaiman how Polish involvement in the Iraq War inspired his nightmare vision

Grzegorz Jarzyna is something of a wunderkind in Polish theatre. Since being appointed artistic director at TR Warszawa – the acclaimed theatre company based in Poland’s capital city – in 1998, aged just 30, he’s become known for his genre-pushing, inspirational takes on seminal plays. Now, four years after he wowed Edinburgh International Festival audiences and critics with 4.48 Psychosis and The Dybbuk, he’s back in town with an explosive – sometimes, literally – adaptation of Macbeth.

Jarzyna admits to being slightly trepidatious about taking a production of the Scottish Play to Edinburgh. ‘It could be a clash because it’s like you’re taking the wood to the forest. But I’m not so afraid.’ He has little reason to be: despite a mixed critical reception, audiences have been delighted by Jarzyna’s take on Shakespeare’s classic, which was first performed in 2005 (the Edinburgh production will be the version shown in New York in 2008). Inspired by the Iraq War, it transposes the action to the Middle East, highlighting its contemporary parallels in a multimedia production that fuses theatre with video effects, music by Golden Globe-nominated composer Abel Korzeniowski and dramatic pyrotechnics.

‘I am fascinated by Shakespeare and this play but I didn’t want to touch it because I didn’t know how to do it in a contemporary way,’ he says. ‘Who is Macbeth? That was my main question, who is Macbeth today? And then the Middle East conflict happened. There are a lot of similarities, and I thought this was a powerful play, an antique play but still the subject is going on. I think that there’s something in this play that describes our genotype – I don’t know how to say it in English, but the genetics of our humanisation – the characteristics of our behaviour that is still in our genes. We can’t change it.’

In addition to its place on the International Festival bill, 2008: Macbeth is part of the World Shakespeare Festival (which is itself part of the Cultural Olympiad) and Polska Arts Edinburgh 2012. This umbrella festival features a host of Polish artists performing across the Fringe, EIF, the Edinburgh Art Festival and the Jazz Festival. In fact, Jarzyna’s show is one of three Polish productions of Macbeth: the others are Teatr Biuro Podrozy’s Macbeth: Who is that Bloodied Man?, a hit at the Fringe in 2007, and another by Song of the Goat Theatre, which emphasises Shakespeare’s musicality.

It’s not necessarily a coincidence. For Jarzyna, there’s something about the militarism in Macbeth that speaks to Poland’s new self-image in the wake of the Iraq War, for which they contributed troops to the Coalition Forces between 2003 and 2008.

‘I think that Poland, it was very shocking that we went to war,’ he says. ‘We always saw ourselves as a victim of the Second World War, and now we were sending our troops abroad to fight. I think that was a very big shock for people, that suddenly we started to fight. We immediately observed the strong weapons we produced and how much money we got from it, and how our economy rose because of the war. At that time, politicians were crazy about the war. Everyone was talking about the economy and how it’s great for Poland, how we’ll make strong relations with America and England. Everyone was talking about the money.

‘But in the main headlines, you didn’t have any information about how we were invading a different culture. I found a picture of the American army in a mosque and that made me think this war is going too far.’

When it opened in Poland, Jarzyna’s Macbeth was provocatively set in an old munitions factory owned by Bumar, a Polish company who sold $400m worth of arms to Iraq between 2003 and 2007. In New York in 2008, it was set in the open air, alongside a backdrop of Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan skyline. In Edinburgh, 2008: Macbeth will be staged at the Lowland Hall at the Royal Highland Centre in Ingliston, which is being repurposed into a huge theatrical space.

Audiences, who can access the venue through a special bus-link from George Street, should expect major changes to the familiar play: the three witches, for instance, are replaced by just one eerie woman. But Jarzyna, who’s also directed acclaimed adaptations of Medea and Dracula (titled Nosferatu), isn’t denigrating tradition in these adaptations – he’s celebrating it.

‘I believe in tradition,’ he says, ‘I believe so much in tradition, and it’s fascinating in theatre that subjects written about many centuries ago come back. Always in my work, when I’m working with an antique play, I’m taking problems that have been seen before and translating them in a contemporary way.’

Jarzyna sees himself as part of a strong tradition of Polish theatre too, following on from influential theatre-makers like Jerzy Grotowski and Krystian Lupa, whom he describes as ‘kind of my master’. He explains: ‘If there was no Grotowski or Lupa, it would be not so easy for me to make theatre in Poland. When I was born, the theatre was already very strong in Poland. It was a way to express yourself. Always in Poland, theatre has been the agora to communicate with the people.’

And though the Iraq War may have faded from global headlines, the message he’s trying to communicate in 2008: Macbeth remains starkly relevant. ‘The problem is still the same,’ says Jarzyna. ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s war in Yugoslavia or Libya or Chechnya. It doesn’t make a difference because it’s always about power. The show is universal.’

2008: Macbeth, Lowland Hall, Royal Highland Centre, 473 2000, 11–13, 16–18 Aug, 7.30pm, 15 Aug, 2pm, £30–£35.

2008: Macbeth

2008: Macbeth

  • 4 stars

Set in a contemporary and brutal Middle Eastern conflict, TR Warszawa's 2008: Macbeth is unflinching in its depiction of the machine of violence that, once set in motion, works faster and ever more efficiently. With spectacular pyrotechnics, immersive video effects and an extraordinary, layered soundscape that plays…

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