Polish taboos
Łatwe rzeczy

Theater letter from Kraków: The Boska Komedia festival features a contentious and defiant theater scene

Death threats, withdrawal of funding, interventions by the PiS party: the Polish theater is fighting against political resistance - and is fuller the less it allows itself to be silenced. A report from the Boska Komedia festival in Kraków.

By Christian Holtzhauer

Last month I had the great pleasure of presenting several prizes as a jury member at the Polish theater festival "Boska Komedia" in Kraków. The panel, consisting exclusively of international theater practitioners:innen, was able to select a winning one from the performances of the main section "Inferno". production and a series of awards for outstanding artistic achievements.

Even if I was only able to survey a little more than a third of the entire festival program, it can be said that theater in Poland is alive and kicking. It is argumentative and argumentative, it takes a stand and it doesn't mince words. All those questions and discourses that are currently also preoccupying German-language theater and which, according to some self-appointed experts, are to blame for the allegedly desolate situation of theater in Germany (keyword: "declining audience"), are currently also determining theater work in our neighboring country: representation , fair access and equality, uncovering and preventing abuse of power, to name just a few keywords.

None of the works that I could see wanted to "please", none was purely intended to entertain the audience. Only one of the productions shown in the competition was based on a text that was dramatic in a broader sense, the others were premieres, prose adaptations and piece developments. No question : Theater in Poland is clearly directed theatre.

The "Boska Komedia" festival, founded by Bartosz Szydłowski in 2008 and directed to this day, which owes its name to Dante's "Divine Comedy", makes it its task to offer an annual overview of what is currently popular in the Polish (urban) theater landscape is.

In the main section "Inferno", the competition section of the festival, nine productions competed for the Grand Prix and nine other prizes in 2022, and the award jury, known as "the Last Judgment", was free to decide on the award criteria for the first time Six of the performances shown in the competition were selected by a jury made up of seasoned theater critics and students from among the productions that were newly created in Poland in the past season. The other three productions were nominated by festival director Bartosz Szydłowski.

The motto of the 2022 edition of Boska Komedia was “polskie tabu”, “Polish taboos”. invited works with clear thematic statements.

They told about the prejudices against homosexuals and people with HIV/AIDS, as in Michał Telega's production "ANIOŁY w AMERYCE, CZYLI DEMONY w POLSCE" ("Angels in America, Demons in Poland"). They drew lines of connection between historical and current racism, as black director Wiktor Bagiński experiences firsthand and works on in "Narodzin wrogości". They addressed the treatment of refugees, traditional gender images or the (dwindling) influence of the Catholic Church. They told of the failure of great social utopias and of the struggle for the sovereignty of interpreting the past, which the ruling party PiS ("Law and Justice") is waging.

Unpredictable distribution of funds

That resonates with the audience. The performances are full, and not only during the festival. Certainly, the Polish theater makers, with whom I was able to exchange ideas during my stay in Kraków, also report on the hesitant return of the audience after the Corona pandemic and on the challenges associated with the galloping inflation and in particular the high energy prices . In the same breath, however, many colleagues pointed out that their houses are fuller the more clearly they position themselves against the old and new "Polish taboos".

Politicians, especially the state government in Warsaw and their partisans in the regional parliaments, are taking revenge on the theaters in their own way. Of course there is no censorship. Unpopular artists and theater directors only have to expect that financial support will be reduced, promises not kept, contracts not renewed and artistic works publicly discredited. The often short-term and unpredictable distribution of subsidies also makes it difficult to plan reliably. Since the liberal-conservative party determines city politics in many of Poland's large cities, municipally owned theaters often have greater freedom than state institutions, to which Warsaw's central government has direct access.

Although Russia's war against Ukraine could have little impact on the works shown in the festival program - most of which had been created before the war began - it was a recurring theme throughout the festival and provided the backdrop against which nearly every production could be read and had to.

More than 8 million Ukrainians have fled via Poland since the war began, ProAsyl estimates . Around 1.5 million registered refugees are currently still in Poland - in addition to the million people from Ukraine who lived and worked in Poland before the war. The major cities of the country are the main points of contact. In Kraków, which is just over a two-hour drive from the Ukrainian border, the number of newly arrived Ukrainians is estimated at around 200,000 – roughly a quarter of the city’s total population.

The admission of the refugees went smoothly and was characterized by a great willingness to help. The Polish theaters have also adapted to the new situation and are offering numerous performances with Ukrainian surtitles. Ukrainian actors, musicians and dancers collaborate in Polish productions. And shortly before the start of the festival, three Ukrainian guest performances were added to the programme.

Contradictions of immigration policy

The competition itself featured "NaXUJ. RZECZ o PREZYDENCIE ZELENSKIM" ("NaXUJ. A play about President Zelenskyj") by Ziemowit Szczerek (text) and Piotr Sieklucki (director), one of the possibly first plays about Volodymyr Zelenskyj. Attempting to tell the story of an actor waking up one morning to find himself the president of a country at war as an overly anarchic grotesque could easily have gone wrong. However, the team and the ensemble of the small theater Nowy Proxima in Kraków's trendy Kazimierz district, which has been expanded to include Ukrainian guests, managed to show the absurdity of the situation in which the main character suddenly finds himself without ignoring the brutal reality of the war.

The great willingness to help Ukrainians seeking protection may come as a surprise, given that the governing party won the last elections precisely because of its rejection of European refugee policy. The conflict over people, mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan, who are being held in degrading conditions on the border between Poland and Belarus, has also still not been resolved. In the oppressive documentary performance "Odpowiedzialność" ("Responsibility"), which unfortunately was not shown in the competition, director Michał Zadara and his ensemble conduct a theatrical investigation of evidence.

If there is one subject in Poland that should only be approached with the greatest sensitivity, then it is probably Karol Józef Wojtyła, the "Polish Pope" John Paul II. In this respect it is not surprising that the production "ŚMIERĆ JANA PAWŁA II" ("The Death of John Paul II") by Jakub Skrzywanek, which opened the Boska Komedia 2022 competition section, is one of the most (and often controversially) discussed productions at the festival and – according to reports from Polish colleagues – in all Poland counts. In the run-up to the production, Skrzywanek and the director of the producing Polski Theater in Poznán had received death threats. Apparently, the announcement that they wanted to deal with John Paul II already had memories of Oliver Frljić's Warsaw production "Klątwa" ("The Curse”) from 2017.

But with the premiere, resistance to the project turned to applause. Because director Skrzywanek, who was involved in Frljić's production as an assistant director in 2017, cleverly ensnared potential critics of his project: fans and despisers: inside of the Polish Pope can find themselves in this work equally, since it is neither about the conservative interpretation of faith nor about the political stance of the Pope who died in 2005, but also about the topics of death and care work, one's own susceptibility to seduction, the commercialization of the church and faith and, last but not least, euthanasia.

With a love of detail, Skrzywanek and his ensemble recreate the last hours in the life of John Paul II. They show how the terminally ill man is fed and washed and how, although he is already more dead than alive, he must play his part to the last breath. The almost silent game action is interrupted by short video sequences. In these videos, people of different ages and genders share what the Pope meant to them and how they received the news of his death. Some of these interview partners are reminiscing, while others are now visibly embarrassed by their former crush.

Selfies with the Pope in state

After death has occurred, an equally agonizingly slow scene describes how the corpse is prepared for laying out. And suddenly, the body is ready to be laid out, the setting and mood change: a choir of priests enters the auditorium and begins to sing. The players on stage break the fourth wall and invite the audience to take the stage and pay their last respects to the late pope. Photography is expressly permitted, but please do not stand too long to avoid traffic jams. And please don't forget the stand set up in the foyer, where memorabilia of the recently deceased can be purchased.

In fact, the Kraków audience starts hesitantly and giggling uncertainly at first, then moves more and more naturally. Of course, photos will be taken of the Pope in state, played by the admirably stoic Michał Kaleta. And the crowds at the stand in the foyer, where you can buy bags, plates and pictures with motifs from the production, are big.
It was important to him, Jakub Skrzywanek later told me, to create a space in the theater in which everyone can feel invited, regardless of how they feel about the pope and the church – in the case of this specific production. In some performances of the play in Poznań, it would happen that particularly religious people would kneel down on the stage in front of the corpse / actor and cross themselves.

If the production "ŚMIERĆ JANA PAWŁA II" had provoked a scandal in the run-up to its premiere, which was then resolved in approval, another much-discussed performance only produced the scandal afterwards, with significantly more dramatic consequences for the theater where it was created : At Kraków's Juliusz Słowacki Theater Maja Kleczewska brought the Polish classic par excellence to the stage with "Dziady" ("Ancestor Celebration" or "Funeral Celebration") by Adam Mickiewicz. "Dziady" is considered one of the most important texts in Polish literature, more of a dramatic poem than a play, an appeal to a Polish national feeling from a time when the state of Poland had disappeared from the map.

"Dziady" is also a key text of Polish theater. In January 1968 in Warsaw, a production of the play, which describes the transformation of the title hero Konrad from a romantic procrastinator to a convinced patriot and resistance fighter against the Russian tsar, was canceled because of "anti-Soviet tendencies". banned by the communist rulers. As a result, there were violent protests, especially among students, against this act of censorship.

Morality guard of the PiS party

This historical charge is still attached to the piece today. Against the background of the war in Ukraine, the play can again be read as an epic of resistance against a Russian ruler – but of course also against any other form of rule. Apparently, representatives of the regional government of the Małopolska Voivodeship felt so offended by the production created in autumn 2021 that they publicly campaigned against it.

At first glance, the performance actually seems quite dignified. Maja Kleczewska has translated the powerfully eloquent, but lacking in action, text into opulent, almost operatic tableaus. The stage designer Katarzyna Borkowska created a space for her that cleverly connects the overloaded auditorium of the Słowacki Theater with the almost empty stage and allows for fantastic lighting effects. The main character Konrad is cast by a woman, the phenomenal Dominika Bednarczyk, and even the prisoners in a dungeon scene (unlike Mickiewicz) are women, which of course allows for the interpretation that women are the oppressed of our day.

On closer inspection, further digs that the PiS party's moral guardians called into action cannot be overlooked: hooligans waving Polish flags and beating up Jews and gays, a priest who assaults the female protagonist, a scene that can be interpreted as abuse of minors - and that in front of an impressive replica of the famous altar by Veit Stoss in Kraków's Marienkirche.

Stop for funds already committed

The staging was rubbish, a government official posted on Twitter, and some church officials agreed - all without having seen the performance themselves. The local government tried to get rid of the director Krzysztof Głuchowski, but without success, because the theater is owned by the city. However, the planned conversion of the theater into a state theatre, which would have meant a different financial security, was stopped and funds that had already been promised were not paid out. This is how you exert pressure without saying bans. In the meantime, things have calmed down around "Dziady". The performance is a great success, all performances are sold out. But whether the director's contract will be extended or who could succeed him in a year and a half is completely open.

Ultimately, however, it was neither the scandal-ridden and much-discussed performances about the death of John Paul II and "Dziady" nor the Warsaw production "Imagine" by Krystian Lupa, which was expected to be a highlight, that found the undivided approval of the award jury. In fact, the development of the play "Łatwe rzeczy" ("Simple Things") by Anna Karasińska, created at the small Stefan Jaracz Theater in Olsztyn in north-eastern Poland, left the deepest and most lasting impression on us.

The director developed the play together with the actresses Irena Telesz-Burczyk (since 1975 a member of the Olsztyn Theater ensemble) and Milena Gauer. They talk about themselves, their job, the theatre, their wishes, longings and disappointments. On the one hand, their stories are very personal, and yet they reflect the unwritten customs and laws of the theater business, which in turn only repeats the unwritten customs and laws of society: When is a woman considered beautiful? What is expected of women? What are women trusted? And what do you or woman trust yourself (to)?

Resistant potential

"Łatwe rzeczy" is a small, quiet and uncomplicated production - and it draws great strength from the reduction of the means. At the beginning of the play, when one of the two actresses describes her appearance, she can only be seen in outline, so that the audience: are confronted with their own expectations on the inside. When the light goes on, the stage is almost empty. Every gesture, no matter how small, made by the two women seems all the bigger. And despite the time gap of almost 50 years, the overcoming is still palpable, that it cost Irena Telesz-Burczyk when she acted out her first nude scene in the mid 1970s. The fact that there is actually a nude scene at the end of the performance is as logical as it is surprising.

How simply and at the same time effectively "Łatwe rzeczy" was able to tell of the resistant potential of mutual support, of solidarity and empathy, of cross-generational exchange between women and between theater colleagues was really impressive.

Original and fake

And yet: every festival needs a hit, a production with suppression that everyone is talking about in advance, that everyone wants to see. At Boska Komedia 2022, this hit was the work "Rohtko" by Łukasz Twarkowski, an international co-production between the Dailes Theater in Riga and the theater in Silesian Opole. You read that correctly: "Rohtko". Although the American painter Mark Rothko, who was born in what is now Latvia, is actually the starting point and subject of the almost four-hour performance, the transposed letter in the title says it all: How easy are we to be fooled? What is the difference between original and fake?

"Rohtko" is a play, a live film, a video installation and, last but not least, a sophisticated choreography by actors, cameras, stage technicians and stage design. The venue is a Chinese restaurant in New York, including a kitchen and the associated folklore - neon -Neon signs, red lamps and an aquarium. Every now and then a (probably underpaid) driver from the delivery service Wolt strays lost through the stage set, while the parallel scenes are negotiated over images worth several million. Authenticity in the age of NFTs and blockchains.

Various motifs and storylines are artfully and perfectly coordinated: there is the painter Mark Rothko and his wife, suffering from his depression, but also his contempt for the art market, where his works fetch top prices to this day. There is the real case of a forgery of a Rothko painting by a casual Chinese painter. There is the depiction of an art market that is beyond human measure, and there is the story of Eastern European migrants trying to gain a foothold in America.

Finally, the hype surrounding digital art and cryptocurrencies also plays a role. Apparently inspired by reading Byung-Chul Han's book "Shanzai", the evening joyfully and sensually overwhelmingly juggles a series of tricky questions: What if a fake image is able to give the buyer a similar intense experience as an original? Is it still a fake? Who determines the value of a work of art? And what does authenticity still mean in the age of NFTs and blockchains?

The game scenes are transmitted almost exclusively from cameras to huge screens located above the stage set. Sometimes the scenery, which is constantly being moved and rearranged, allows glimpses of the action, creating interesting contrasts with the canvas images. The use of camera technology and the spelled out stage design are reminiscent of Frank Castorf and Bert Neumann , the cool and reduced style of acting of Krystian Lupa, whom Twarkowski assisted in earlier productions.

And yet the evening goes beyond these (possible) role models in its consistency, coolness and coherence. The precision with which the live game and camera image are matched is amazing. A choreography of its own is created between the camera teams, performers and the stage craftsmen who are constantly rebuilding the stage set, and the powerful images and the effectively used music develop a pull over the duration of the performance that I couldn’t resist.

I am sure that this production will be shown at the major international theater festivals in the years to come. The Onassis Center in Athens will start in May this year .

Uncomfortable times

In order to understand the urgency and the seriousness of the concerns of many of the works shown in the festival, it is helpful to know more about the Polish context. Not every performance was therefore fully accessible to me. I was impressed by the vehemence and passion with which many of the performances that I was able to see in Kraków took a stand on the conflicts, questions and struggles of the present. There is no need to worry about the vitality of this theater.

Incidentally, the day after the award ceremony, the city of Kraków announced that it would cut the subsidy for the upcoming festival edition by 25 percent. Festival director Bartosz Szydłowski is angry and at the same time calms down: Yes, the announced cut is annoying, but in the end the city always supported the festival, even if nobody on the part of politicians is clear about what such behavior means for the planning of a big one and complex festivals mean. On the other hand, he has no great hopes for the government in Warsaw and its party comrades in the regional parliaments. The times for the theater in Poland will remain uncomfortable. However, it is not to be expected that Polish theater makers will be impressed by this.