From Serebrennikov to Nekrošius

As curators of this year’s Theatre Confrontations, we will not divulge any secrets if we say that the Festival’s programme is not exactly what we bargained for when we embarked on the task at hand.   Yet, there is hardly a festival in the world that ticks off the organisers’ wish list in its entirety. For instance, was it really within our capacity to foresee that the June premiere of Krystian Lupa’s latest play would be re-scheduled for October? And that the postponement would in effect hinder our plan to invite him to Lublin? Being familiar with the creative praxis of this outstanding artist we perhaps should have known better, but nevertheless we believed that it all would come to fruition. We failed this year, but we may yet succeed next year. 

Most importantly, however, we failed to foresee something that we still hope will positively surprise the Festival audiences. After all, the programme of the 2019 Theatre Confrontations is more packed than we expected: 11 days and 14 shows, excluding an assortment of accompanying events. We are certain that this year quantity does not trump quality. It is substance over hype.

There is no mission statement this year, though. Festival leitmotifs sometimes tend to be deceptive or even impede the reception of the arts. Instead we would like each audience member to be at liberty to freely enjoy the conversation that each of the on-stage performances will be engaged in. We truly believe that the exchange will be lively, as we are to experience shows that constitute serious statements about reality, that do not shy away from tackling challenging themes and, as the platitude goes, make one think. And, which is of primary importance, remain premium quality theatre.

As luck would have it, and this is yet another thing we were in no position at all to anticipate, this year’s Theatre Confrontations Festival coincides with the final week of the parliamentary election campaign in Poland. Some of the performances will most probably sound timely, which does not mean, however, that there will be any canvassing on the part of the artists involved. Based on the text by Magda Drab and directed by Piotr Cieplak (The Modjeska Theatre in Legnica), Liberations – a play involved in an unusual dialogue with Wyspiański’s classic drama, will not breach the campaign silence, although it speaks loud and clear about the Poles and Poland of today. 

The Festival’s programme includes also a performance created in response to topical issues galvanizing the public opinion and stoking the fire of social dissensus at present. Namely, Paweł Passini’s #chybanieja. Based on Artur Pałyga’s text and commissioned by the John Paul II Centre – organiser of the New Epiphanies Festival in Warsaw, it is produced jointly by the Maska Theatre in Rzeszów and the Centre for Culture in Lublin. Well ahead of its opening night, #chybanieja did indeed make waves, as the municipality of Rzeszów attempted to prevent its premiere. The authorities were disturbed by the supposed insult to religious feelings, which has recently evolved into a whip of censorship akin to the communist-era accusation of anti-socialist content that used to be lashed out at works of art. Eventually, backstage dealings were assuaged after a series of protests in defence of the elementary freedom of artistic expression. The freedom itself ought to be endorsed out loud, as the case of #chybanieja does not seem to be an exception. 

Silence, an open-air performance that will be staged at the beginning of the Theatre Confrontations refers to the first Festival, opened by presentations in Zamkowy Square (e.g. The Ark by the Theatre of the Eighth Day) that were not only visually stunning but imparted a hard-hitting social message as well. This time around it is no different. The new street performance by the Travel Agency Theatre is a sequel to – and a somewhat reverse of – their legendary Carmen Funebre, directed by Paweł Szkotak and staged years ago in Lublin. Carmen is a contemporary of the war in Bosnia, while Silence is informed by the civil war in Syria. If Carmen treats of migration and the impossibility of fleeing warfare and conflagration, then Silence touches upon the futility of endurance in the times of the Apocalypse. The tone of the new performance seems poles apart from their classic although the theatre company demonstrably quotes images from the past. It seems now that all hope has since disappeared, because every image – based around certain values (love, family, tradition, security, home, art) – is immediately wiped out and nipped in the bud. Carmen, with all its horror of the world on fire, its literal sense of violence, and its theme of persecution, still left a ray of light in the darkness, and we felt that no matter what, life would rise from the ashes and people would try again. Throughout Silence nobody believes it anymore. Szkotak notices only the futility of trying to save a place where life has always been present, as if he understood that whatever we do, any existence will eventually cease to exist.

Such hopelessness and downright pessimism surely do ring quite a few bells. Committed art, at least in its most straightforward incarnation, will not dominate the Festival, though. This year’s programme will feature performances that reach within other layers of sensitivity, such as My Stay’s Almost Over, Yet I Am Still Single, the last season’s sold-out show directed by Cezary Tomaszewski and produced by the Małopolska Garden of the Arts in Kraków. Its qualifying subtitle A Sanatorium Operetta may be somewhat perplexing, but anybody already familiar with Cezary Tomaszewski’s penchant for the surreal (the 2018 Theatre Confrontations’ audiences were treated to a modicum of his style as viewers of Komuna // Warszawa’s Cezary Goes to War) will immediately figure out that it is not all about a simple form of satire. But song and music play a lofty role here. And it is no coincidence that My Stay’s Almost Over, Yet I Am Still Single is indebted to Christoph Marthaler’s productions. 

We hope that the adaptation of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s short story The Maidens of Wilko, directed by Agnieszka Glińska at the Helena Modrzejewska National Stary Theatre in Kraków, will positively surprise the Lublin public. The performance makes an out-of-the-ordinary interpretation of the beautiful narrative, confronting at the same time Andrzej Wajda’s memorable film. This is indeed a very, as it were, “feminine” vision of Iwaszkiewicz’s prose, supplemented with new elements and, most primarily, brilliantly directed and acted. Actresses Dorota Segda, Anna Radwan, Ewa Kaim, Paulina Puślednik and Natalia Chmielewska create living, breathing on-stage portraits of the title protagonists. 

We also go into raptures over this year’s programme due to the presence of critically acclaimed international shows. A performance by Kirill Serebrennikov, an outstanding Russian film and theatre director, will be staged in Poland for the first time. Unfortunately, the artist will not make an appearance in Lublin because, as it is widely known, after being released from house arrest, he was, under court order, forbidden to leave Moscow. Serebrennikov was accused of embezzlement of state subsidies granted to support his art projects, but in fact he fell victim to persecution for his critical stance as an artist and a citizen. The 2019 Theatre Confrontations will see the performance of A Town Nearby, a play directed by Serebrennikov, written by Lithuanian dramaturge Marius Ivaskevicius, and staged by the Latvian National Theatre. 

The creative output of Kirill Serebrennikov will be the focus of the first days of the Festival, but the finale will belong to Eimuntas Nekrošius. When last November we heard the news of his unexpected death, we found it necessary for the 2019 Theatre Confrontations to commemorate the memory of the director whose extraordinary imagination imprinted such a mark on the contemporary European theatre. Highly lauded in Poland, Nekrošius’ performances were shown at festivals all over the country, including Lublin. In what transpired to be his final years, he made the National Theatre in Warsaw his home, where he staged The Forefathers’ Eve by Adam Mickiewicz and The Marriage by Witold Gombrowicz, and had King Lear in the pipeline. At this stage, however, we can only recall his work, which the presentation of Zinc (Zn) – originally staged at the State Youth Theatre in Vilnius, will provide us with an opportunity to do in Lublin. Based on Svetlana Alexievich’s books Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War and Chernobyl Prayer / Voices from Chernobyl, the performance will be accompanied by a specially curated exhibition dedicated to the director as well as a Q and A with members of his regular cast and screenings of his other stage adaptations. 

This year’s international strand of the Theatre Confrontations will focus exclusively on Eastern Europe. Perhaps in Lublin the gaze in that specific direction remains organic, but there are reasons aplenty for becoming intrigued by what is happening on the theatre circuits of our closer and further neighbours. It is noteworthy that two smaller international performances invited to Lublin have been prepared by representatives of the younger generation, in a way successors to Nekrošius and Serebrennikov. The new feminist Lithuanian theatre will be represented by Trans, Trans, Trance, directed by Kamilė Gudmonaite. We expect Holocaust Cabaret, a performance purposefully colliding the musical aesthetics with the account of the controversial John Demianiuk trial, to be one of the highlights of the Festival. 

As part of our “Young Confrontations” cycle, we will show three projects directed by up-and-coming artists. Ewa Rucińska, Maciej Gorczyński and Krzysztof Popiołek are graduates of the Faculty of Drama Directing of the Academy of Theatre Studies in Kraków who made their debut between 2013 and 2017. They obviously do not constitute any ideationally cohesive triumvirate or a new generation wave, but what unites them all is that they frequently work in a niche between off-theatre and repertory theatre, moving fluidly between these two circuits. Daily, their performances either function on the other, i.e. alternative, circuit – which, apart from off-theatre, includes puppet theatre, or are ephemeral one-offs. The trump card of the three invited artists is their search for the new theatre idiom, their juxtaposition of contrasting stage conventions within one production, and their re-examination of the literary canon. Let us all see what is taking place in their performances when they are complemented by actors’ monologues. Let us all see for ourselves why they are supplemented by dance, turned into a movement-driven piece (Worczyński’s Woyzeck / Mały Theatre in Tychy), coupled with a hip hop beat and rap flow (Rucińska’s Polish Nursery Rhymes or Ceremonies / Witold Gombrowicz Municipal Theatre in Gdynia), and impacted by unspeakable images, emotions, and experiences. (Popiołek’s Population Density / Kana Theatre in Szczecin).           

We are glad that the Theatre Confrontations Festival will provide Janusz Opryński with a platform for the opening night of his latest project. Everything Flows, a play inspired by Vasily Grossman’s prose and a postscript to The Point Zero: The Kindly Ones to boot (the previous premiere of the Provisorium Theatre), marks yet another descent into the very pit of humanity in the times of trial. 

Last but not least: it is our intention for the Festival to serve as a showcase of the Lublin theatre scene. For that reason, we have invited the Juliusz Osterwa Theatre and Twelfth Night – one of the most engrossing Shakespearean adaptations of the last year’s theatre season in Poland, enthusiastically received at the 2019 Gdańsk Shakespeare Festival (standing ovation!). Director Łukasz Kos has proposed his version of an extreme and simultaneously rip-roaringly hilarious game of theatricality, according to which the on-stage world is governed by the gender-bending cross-dressing rule: actresses play male roles, while actors portray females (any breach of these provisions stems from a deeper internal logic of the play itself). Following in the footsteps of Elizabethan theatre, this simple if effective directorial gesture adds novel, unexpected meanings to the twists and layers of the Shakespearean narrative. As a result, the protagonists’ quest for love and contentment resembles figures of a courtly dance performed at a masked ball, where we cannot be certain who we are dancing with, who is really who, and who is merely looking the part while acting out the gender role.   

This concludes our curatorial proposals. Let them now confront each other and audiences alike.

Łukasz Drewniak, Wojciech Majcherek, Agnieszka Lubomira Piotrowska

Translated by: Bartosz Wójcik