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Polish Theatre Now - Fear and Loathing in Warsaw, Lublin and Edinburgh

On the edge of a run-down Warsaw housing estate beside the railway,
things appear to be kicking off. A small huddle of people are waiting
to go inside the headquarters of radical theatre troupe,
Komuna//Warszawa to see Future Tales (Sierakowski), a fantastical
science-fiction critique of Slawomir Sierakowski, a leftist Polish
intellectual idolised by some for his ideological radicalism, lampooned
by others for seemingly becoming part of a new establishment.

As they wait, a bare-chested man marches briskly out of one of the
still residential blocks, and appears to make it his business to barge
through the group rather than navigate his way around them. Instead of
assorted excuse me's and apologies, an argument ensues, which, with
neither party prepared to leave it, threatens to turn physical. Only
when the bare-chested resident gas vented his spleen on the person he
barged into with what turns out to be the harshest swear-words in
Polish before storming off do things die down.

Strangers queueing for Komuna //Warszawa could be forgiven for
mistaking such a mini-spectacle for a set-up. As it is, such argy-bargy
is a perfect example of the contradictions between cutting-edge art and
the people on its doorstep who sometimes resent such intrusions. As
Komuna//Warszawa prepare to bring Future Tales (Sierakowski) to
Edinburgh's Summerhall venue as part of Polska Arts, a wide-ranging
showcase of work in all art-forms brought to Edinburgh by the
Warsaw-based Adam Mickiewicz Institute, it is clear what a wide-ranging
theatrical scene the company are part of.

Alongside Komuna//Warszawa, there will be visits from Teatr Biuro
Podrozy, who scored a hit in Edinburgh almost two decades ago with
their politically-charged open-air spectacle, Carmen Funebre. As well
as a special Amnesty International benefit performance of that show,
the company will also perform Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man, as
well as a brand new show, the science-fiction based Planet Lem, taken
from the work of Stanislaw Lem. Lem's novel, Solaris, was made into a
feature film by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, and has since been adapted
again for the big screen by Steven Soderbergh.

The Bank of Scotland Herald Angel winning Song of the Goat Theatre will
also return to Edinburgh as part of Polska Arts, as will too the
Lublin-based NeTTheatre, who picked up an award last year for their
take on Turandot, in a co-production with Grupa Coincidential. This
year, NeTTheatre will bring director Pawel Passini's newly-devised
Puppet: The Book of Splendour, which draws inspiration from Tadeusz
Kantor, the Polish theatre legend whose Cricot 2 company was brought to
Edinburgh in the early 1970s by Richard Demarco. With Demarco's
extensive archive soon to be housed at Summerhall, it is significant
that much of Polska Arts is housed in the same venue, now in its second
year of operation.

Beyond Kantor and the companies mentioned, a new generation of Polish
theatre makers will also be in residence. These include productions of
three very different works by artists still in their twenties. Wojtek
Ziemilski's Small Narration is based on the author and performer's
discovery that his loved and respected late grand-father was a
collaborator with the communist secret police. We Are Chechens! finds
director Marcin Brzowski and the Lodz Film School working with young
people to explore the full human consequences of living in a war zone.
Possibly most ambitious of all, 24 H finds young performer Waclaw
Miklaszewski play twenty-four different characters over a real-time
experience that runs from 6am to 6am the following day.

“All of the characters live in the same apartment block,” says
Miklaszewski, “so even if they don't know each other, they are
connected somehow.”

If this sounds like another Polish auteur, film-maker Krzysztof
Kieslowski, whose Dekalog was similarly based around the residents of a
block of flats, it's coincidence. Miklaszewski's epic, which he will
perform twice at Summerhall, sounds even more draining.

“I have done it before,” he says, “so I know what to expect. I am in
training now, so audiences too should prepare.”

For We Are Chechens!, Brzowski and the students of Lodz Film School are
looking to real events in an attempt to define recent history for
themselves in what sounds like what in this country would-be viewed as
a large-scale piece of issue-based youth or community theatre.

In contrast Wojtek Ziemilski's Small Narration is something of a family
affair. Ziemilski's mother was an actor in Cricot 2, and he originally
had no desire whatsoever to do theatre. Eventually, however, he
couldn't avoid it.

“Once I discovered this story, I had to find the right way to tell it,”
he says. “That turned out to be theatre, which surprised me, but what I
found was that theatre doesn't have to be done in a particular way, and
can be anything you want it to be.”

Theatre has always played a crucial part in Polish life. An enlightened
post World War Two public funding system enabled the art-form to
thrive, both in a traditional institutional way, and through an
avant-garde that gave rise to Kantor. As is often the way, the
censorship that was in place in the eastern bloc actually gave rise to
a more visual-based form, loaded with metaphor. Those that were
explicit in their criticisms of the government, such as Theatre of the
Eighth Day, who were forged in the ferment of 1968, were forced into
exile.

Today, Theatre of the Eighth Day are regarded as icons, while, beyond
Kantor, the elder statesmen are Kristian Lupa, who has brought several
productions to Edinburgh International Festival, and Grzegorz Jarzyna.
Jarzyna's production of Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis was part of EIF's
2008 programme, while this year he brings a radical take on Shakespeare
in 2008: Macbeth.

In different ways, both NeTTheatre and Komuna//Warszawa continue Polish
theatre's disparate legacy beyond Jarzyna. Komuna//Warszawa were
founded as an anarchist collective by designer Grzegorz Laszuk, whose
productions fuse music, text and visual elements to make playfully
provocative dramatic collages usually based around real figures.
Watching Future Tales (Sierakowski) in the company's space, it actually
looks more akin to a satirical punk revue than a linear piece of
theatre.

If Komuna//Warszawa are looking to imaginary futures in their work,
then NeTTTheatre are fascinated with Polish theatre's past, even as
they attempt to push it forward. By openly referencing Kantor in
Puppet: The Book of Splendour, Passini and his company are
acknowledging their influences even as they define their own roughshod
style. As with Komuna//Warszawa, music plays a crucial part, with
Passini playing keyboards from among the audience. Both Kantor and
Lupa, who Passini names as the most important Polish theatre director
alive, made similar interventions with their work while it was in
progress.

Joanna Klass, one of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute's officers, and an
oracle of Polish theatre history, sums up her country's relationship
with theatre when she calls it Poland's “national sport.”

As he prepares for 24 H,  Mikaszewski's sums up his commitment to an
already gruelling show in even simpler terms.

“As I get older, I want to see what happens to my characters as they
get older,” he says. “I want to do this show for the rest of my life.”

  We Are Chechens!, Summerhall, Aug 3 and 5-9, 7.15pm, Aug 8-9, 5.15pm;
Puppet: The Book of Splendour, Aug 3-13, 9pm; Small Narration,
Summerhall, Aug 3-4, 19, 21-23, 7.15pm; Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied
Man? 10.30pm,  Old College Quad, Aug 2-13; Carmen Funebre, Old College
Quad, Aug 14, 10.30pm; Future Tales (Sierakowski), Summerhall, Aug
15-26, 8.45pm; Planet Lem, Aug 16-26, 9pm; 24 H, Summerhall, Aug 22/23
and 25/26, 6am;
www.culture.pl/edinburgh

The Herald, August 9th 2012
ends

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