Polish Taboos

2 December 2022

Kraków once again stages a theatre of important questions, although not necessarily ready answers.

Jacek Wakar
Theatre critic, journalist, columnist, former director of cultural promotion at the “Dwójka” Polish Radio and head of cultural sections of “Dziennik Polska-Europa-Świat” and “Przekrój”. Curator of the University of Seeing Through Theatre at the Utopia House in Kraków; jury member at many theatre festivals in Poland and abroad and the Warsaw Literary Premiere awards. Co-host of the Nowy Tygodnik Kulturalny. Regular contributor to the “Teatr”, “Kraków i Świat” monthlies and “Presto”magazine, and author of a blog.

This time last year, Poland’s most important theatre festival tried to find a light piercing through the darkness and to push the thoughts of a global catastrophe into the shadows. Today, it punctures Polish taboos, looking for new perspectives in talking about old issues – Catholicism and the cult of John Paul II, Polish-Jewish relations, welcoming and expelling refugees, and the collapse of a common utopia.

Polish hell

This year’s festival is held under the banner “Polish Taboos”, serving as a common denominator of many performances. Death of John Paul II, directed by Jakub Skrzywanek from the Polski Theatre in Poznań, is a reconstruction of the Polish pope’s final moments. Back then, seventeen years ago, the declining health of Karol Wojtyła was on TV stations all over the globe like some kind of soap opera, and when he finally passed away, we flocked to the street pursuing the illusion of a rebuilt community. The fantasy flashed briefly before disappearing without a trace. Today, the young director casts away any nostalgia and faces up to Wojtyła’s agony. Not as the shepherd of souls or steadfast patriarch but simply an old man, wheezing to catch his breath, struggling to swallow, yet surrounded by hierarchs with Stanisław Dziwisz in the lead hoping to squeeze in any last business. When it is all over, the body of the Holy Father undergoes various necessary treatments. Finally we can say goodbye and buy appropriate memorabilia in the foyer. Then we realise that the trick lies not in a theatrical provocation and a cunning imitation of death, but in our own way of thinking. Stripped of shallow theories, easy accusations and ideological manifestos, Skrzywanek’s play smashes the taboo of Polish Catholicism and says goodbye once and for all to its current vision.

Death of John Paul II, dir. Jakub Skrzywanek (Polski Theatre in Poznań)
photo by Magda Hueckel

Marcin Wierzchowski’s Alte Hajm/Old House from the Nowy Theatre in Poznań pokes a stick into an anthill. The fates of two families, one Polish and one Jewish, intertwine in a single house. The atmosphere seems calm to begin with, but there will be thunders and skeletons in closets. The mood recalls Wojtek Smarzowski’s second The Wedding, although the conclusions are even more keen. The performance discards any potential barriers between the stage and the audience. The Stranger by the Polski Theatre in Poznań takes a similar approach. The young director Katarzyna Minkowska presents a close reading of Maria Kuncewiczowa’s classic novel and asks penetrating questions about the protagonist’s status today. She is played by Alona Szostak, a Russian actress resident in Poland, giving the story an even deeper meaning.

Anna Augustynowicz has long shown that she cannot be accused of treating her subjects casually. The Flight is a rare attempt to face up to the myth of the Smoleńsk disaster, but – once again – without examining it directly but by transforming the tragedy into a sphere of national phantasmagoria. The spectacle, prepared by the Współczesny Theatre in Szczecin, will have a special resonance in Kraków since it is an adaptation of the extraordinary poem by the Cracovian author Zenon Fajfer. We are looking forward to Krystian Lupa’s return to Divine Comedy; in his widely-discussed Imagine, co-produced by the Powszechny Theatre in Łódź and the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw, he asks “What have we fucked up?” and reckons up to the failed dream of a hipster revolution, censuring himself and his generation. He also confirms that no other theatre artist in Poland takes such a wide and deep approach, even though sometimes he can be hard to keep up with.

Finally, let’s talk about Forefathers’ Eve directed by Maja Kleczewska from the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Kraków. One of the most important Polish spectacles in recent years, it has been entered into the Inferno competition. It’s worth viewing without too much emotion to experience far more than just a political commentary on political conflict. That’s right – a painful piercing of Polish taboos and irritation as we wallow in messianic delusions. You will also feel the uncompromising anti-Russian sentiment of this adaptation of Mickiewicz’s masterpiece. Jan Peszek as Novosiltsev presents an incredible portrait of pure hatred for people and of love for dancing, dancing on the bones of the dead…

Here comes youth!

This year’s Divine Comedy features just one competition: Inferno. As well as spectacles by acclaimed masters chosen by a team of six experts, the international jury will watch three low-key performances by young artist selected by Bartosz Szydłowski, the festival’s artistic director. They include Angels in America or Demons in Poland from Kraków’s Barakah – not the acclaimed drama by Tony Kushner but a thoroughly personal account of the artists’ coming of age in Poland, their experience of coming out and paying a high price for it. In Nowy Proxima Theatre’s NaXuj, Piotr Sieklucki paints a portrait of a contemporary superhero, the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, breaking up the seriousness with a few laughs. Finally, Anna Karasińska’s Easy Things, prepared at the Stefan Jaracz Theatre in Olsztyn, features the acclaimed Irena Telesz-Burczyk and Milena Gauer. At times amusing, at times moving, but mainly breaking down taboos, this time those concerning theatre.

Angels in America or Demons in Poland, dir. Michał Telega (Barakah Theatre in Kraków)
fot. Magda Woch

Ukraine without pathos

Two years ago, the festival moved online due to the pandemic, although all performances were streamed live. A year ago we breathed more easily, thinking that the worst was now behind us. We couldn’t have been more wrong… The war in Ukraine totally changed our perspective, and the festival responds with a meeting of cultural organisers involved with relief work and two spectacles (5.00 UA and Life in the Time of War) prepared by artists who have fled invaded territories. Last year’s edition encouraged us to explore the theme of violence in theatre circles, resulting in the project Taboo of Violence. We held internal discussions and workshops throughout the year, and the project will make a mark of this year’s festival. The review has always been proud of showcasing diverse performances – something which continues to be one of Polish theatre’s greatest strengths. The AST National Academy of Theatre Arts is a partner of this year’s festival, so we will see diploma spectacles and etudes prepared at the school by Maria Gutowska, Wiktor Bagiński and Piotr Froń. A highlight will be the performance Commune – a Polish/Dutch project by Maria Magdalena Kozłowska produced by Frascati Producties in Amsterdam. Fuelled by an anarchic energy, the spectacle draws inspiration from women’s protests, the revolutionary power of classical music and operatic voices. It’s highly likely that the successful staging of Commune at the Santarcangelo festival in Italy will be followed by an equally warm response in Kraków.

Bartosz Szydłowski’s Fear and Misery 2022 is the director’s most personal and unexpectedly lyrical production to date, exploring the need to change, taking oneself to account and running out of apt narratives to describe the world around us. The artist takes a look deep within himself, examines his artistic roots and symbolically cuts the branch he is perched on to expose theatrical fashions and methods. His aim is to build a new, genuine community and to reveal a potential for renewal. It is an important, singular expression in Polish theatre.

The festival also takes a trip to Opole for Łukasz Twarkowski’s Rohtko, prepared in collaboration by the Jan Kochanowski Theatre in Opole and the Dailes teātris in Riga. The large-scale, state-of-the-art spectacle, played out on several timelines (sometimes referred to as a ballet of screens), has been a massive hit in Riga. It will be shown in Opole for the first time since its premiere in April – simply unmissable, especially since we don’t know when (or if!) it will return. The production’s momentum is impossible to replicate on Polish stages, featuring a captivating narrative playing with the concepts of truth and lies in art, a terrific script by Anka Herbut and a phenomenal multicultural cast. Rohtko is a new term in theatre, currently accepting invitations to more festivals. It’s a theatre of extremes, so find out for yourselves what it means.

The Divine Comedy Festival has shown time and again that it offers an accurate diagnosis of our times. It acts like a barometer indicating the weather and direction of Polish theatre. It takes up the challenge once again as the festival explores Polish taboos, even as they like to offer resistance. It will be the perfect time to see if the sun still rises from the gloom – at least in theatre.

The Article was published in the 3/2022 issue of "Kraków Culture" quarterly.



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