Sunday 21 October 2012

Pocztówki z Warszawa – Teatr

[with many thanks to Wojtek Ziemilski, for both the conversation, and for checking and correcting my recollections of it]

Everything that follows is essentially a direct product of Northern Stage at St. Stephens, of the Polish programme at Summerhall in Edinburgh this year. Of Chris Thorpe’s collaboration with Mala Zadora and also Third Angel. Ultimately it’s a product of me going to Leeds University, and Wojtek Ziemilski once moving to Portugal, and both of us giving a big fuck about theatre.

In short, it’s a perfect example of the way that an ecology can function at its very best. And it reaffirms my commitment to embeddedness – of getting to know people properly. Because, at lunchtime last Sunday in Warsaw, you unexpectedly find yourself getting a top-to-tail breakdown of the problems currently facing Polish theatre, the Warsaw theatre ecology, and an unexpected detour into the imminent closure of a gallery of contemporary art, which in turn is going to impact on TR Warszawa.

What follows is, in the first instance, just me writing up as quickly as possible as much as I can remember of what Wojtek just explained [mostly written that afternoon in bus to Lublin, then finished in Berlin, yesterday].

WZ is a contemporary Polish theatremaker. I was introduced to him in the St. Vincent pub opposite St Stephens by Chris Thorpe, who had just seen his piece Small Narration, and recommended that I go and see it, because he thought it would be right up my street. Which it was. Review here.

Something I remember Chris reflecting on at the time – something that hasn’t made it into my review yet – is the fact that WZ’s piece contains a number of excerpts from contemporary performances – in Britain, I think we’d classify most of them as “dance” pieces. The one exception is the Kings of England piece Where We Live and What We Live For. Every other piece is accompanied by the words “The critic wrote:” and an extract from a review of the piece. In WZ’s deadpan delivery, it is unclear whether he quotes these reviews approvingly, or slightly mockingly. Either way, the words of “the critic” are given weight. Chris’s follow-up observation to this was that WZ had had to write the critical appraisal of the Kings of England piece that he wanted to include himself, because there was either no review, or at least no review with enough analysis or detail to make it worth including. This spoke plenty to both of us about the state of British criticism.

So that was WZ, and Edinburgh. Anyway, we got on. I loved Small Narration, and I was in town, and had a few hours spare, so I suggested we had coffee. My train to and from the Airport was from Warszawa Śródmieście, which spits you out right at the foot of Pałac Kultury i Nauki – one of those Eastern Bloc “Stalin Wedding Cakes” – on the Kinoteka side (1).

I’d been to Warsaw once before for a glorious ten days in 2009 of Warsaw Theatre Meetings – the Polish Theatertreffen, basically. It was a brilliant festival. I even wrote a glowing Guardian blog about it – or at least tried to fit a glowing report around the inevitable “pose a stupid question” format that was the only way to persuade the [insert adjective] Guardian Theatre Editor to take any piece for a blog.

[In fact, in passing, in case I never write that particular J’accuse article in full – and I’m not going to name names – if you want to know why the Guardian Theatre Blog got shit, lost readers and then died, it seems largely due to someone’s belief that all the blogs all had to be 500 words long, had to ask a really dumb question, and that fewer than n readers was the cut-off point of unacceptable failure: irrespective of who those readers were. Someone who could not see that there was a possible readership of well over that lowest acceptable figure, if intelligent writers about theatre were allowed to write intelligently about theatre and to cultivate a readership. And more and more contributors got pissed off trying to fit the article around the non-question, tired of trying to fight down the stupid, unrepresentative headlines and the general dicking around with their prose. So the writers fell away anyway, surely followed by the readers. Still, that doesn’t matter, because now they all come here, go to Exeunt, to Maddy’s blog and Matt’s blog, and Catherine’s blog and Andy’s blog and Dan’s blog and Dan’s blog.   
FWIW, none of the above has anything to do with why I stopped writing for the Guardian’s Theatre Blog. I stopped for health reasons, and that’s all the euphemism you’re going to get. And the Theatre Editor in question was actually very understanding about it. So, no. No personal axe to grind whatsoever, just an ongoing sadness and frustration at the sheer level of wasted potential for the site.]


So Warsaw: I’d been there before. The Pałac Kultury/Stalin Wedding Cake was only a ten-minute walk from my hotel, and I knew where I was with the Kino entrance – it is, after all, fucking imposing. Soviet, Stalinist, imposing. There’s no pissing about with modesty or good taste here. There’s none of Dennis Lasdun’s ludic, postmodern Where’s The Fucking Door Anyway? attitude.

So, yeah. Wedding Cake, Kino-side. 12.30.

We go and have cappuccinos (8Zl – maybe €2? Not *cheap*, but not nuts either) in the Teatr Dramatyczny's lovely café (2) and WZ outlines Polish theatre for me.

As well as the Kinoteka, the Stalin Wedding Cake houses two of Warsaw’s main theatres. The Teatr Dramatyczny and Teatr Studio. The Dramatyczny was run for several years by Pawel Miskiewicz, and hosted the likes of Krystian Lupa, who is is pretty much Poland’s Peter Hall, Peter Brook and Peter Stein all rolled into one. Despite being dwarfed by the Wedding Cake’s vast central tower (30 floors up to the open air viewing platform near the top, up which I unwisely once went – I lasted about five minutes, before going green, and having to sit down) the entrance to Teatr Dramatyczny is imposing. Currently it is hung with vast posters advertising the new season – all typeface, haircut and leather. And apparently without and Laibach-like irony. It suggests a similar unfussy modernity to the design of the Schaubühne’s publicty stuff, albeit substituting the grungy modernity for a totalitarian one.

The theatre is now run by Tadeusz Słobodzianek, who is known mainly as the author of Our Class, which was performed at the NT in 09.

I remember thinking it was an effective piece of drama, at the time.

WZ disagrees.

It’s fine. He concedes, but it doesn’t really say anything. The play is an oversimplified story loosely based on Jan Gross’s book about the Jedwabne massacre. So, for me, it did say *something*. But it’s about evil, right? Argues WZ. About the sources of evil. And yet Słobodzianek’s play never attempts to dig into them. Instead, if you look at the play, it makes the naïve claim that it all starts in a classroom when one person picks on someone else. But why does that happen? The children’s ideas and prejudices seem to come out of thin air.

Put like that, I concede he has a point. There are a lot of things that play doesn’t do.

I suppose, I suggest, I was watching it only a few months after I’d been to Poland; had had a half-Polish girlfriend and so knew a lot of the back-story anyway. I mention Chris Thorpe’s work about Conformation Bias – that we see things in work that confirms how we are thinking about something anyway. So, perhaps I filled in a lot of the blanks in Our Class for myself. Perhaps I liked it because: competence + subject = interest. Who knows what it was, to be honest. But I was willing to hear an alternative point of view.

It’s very safe work, he was saying. It’s not bad. It’s actually technically very good, but it’s not new. And if there is anything controversial about it – it’s that it presents an extremely shallow vision of human nature and society.

But now this approach has spread.

Because, not only is Słobodzianek running Teatr Dramatyczny, he’s also got two more – Laboratorium Dramatu – a small stage of the National Theatre, and Teatr Na Woli – a city theatre with two stages (Scena Przodownik is actually a separate theatre again).

At which point, even if you’re the biggest fan of his work going, then you’ve got to concede there’s a problem.

Another problem facing Poland is funding. Theatre has been doing all right compared to many other countries up until now, WZ says. Theatre people have been finding stable jobs at the tens of municipal theatres across the country (Warsaw has about a dozen). However, there have been downsides to this. There’s been a complacency. It hasn’t been developing audiences.

You’re really good at it in Britain,. You really care about getting more people to come and see stuff. You have people whose job it is, he says.

I wince slightly. After all, the argument about audience development has been a pretty contentious one in recent years. A non-core activity pointlessly siphoning off funding that could be going toward making new plays, commissioning new writers, etc. (I paraphrase the arguments of, well, Mike Bradwell is probably a good example.)

But isn’t this just you [the Poles] pursuing the German model of not giving a fuck because you’ve got the funding? I wonder. Isn’t it good to be able to do what you like?

The difference is, Germany has a huge class – and I will call it a class – of people who are educated to a very high level and are interested in that, he says. We don’t have that, and that is a big problem. This is actually Slobodzianek’s explicit argument in favour of changing the model to what he calls the “British” one – instead of doing everything for the elites, lets have large shows for the masses and small experimental performances for the more picky spectators.

But it’s not that the work is alienating an audience through risk-taking and being difficult, He describes the work of Grzegorzewski who used to run the Studio in the 70s and 80s. Just this total surrealism. Very popular.

Oh, that anti-Communist thing where they made plays so that the Communists couldn’t see that they were being criticised?

No. This was art for art’s sake. No criticism of Communism as such, just total surrealism.

OK. But this new work?

Oh, very safe, very arty, very uninspiring. Four naked people in a children’s swimming pool screaming about their angst.

That sounds OK, I suggest.

WZ gives me a look.

Well, we [the British] haven’t had that yet. I argue. Not at our National Theatre, certainly. It’d be good to have it once if only so we could move on.

Yeah, sometimes not having had something can be a good thing. What they’re screaming, mainly at each other, is for most part incomprehensible. Also, it always seems to turn out to be a beautiful young woman who ends up naked, he says. And in blue light, and… What was it they wanted to tell me about? The human condition? Really? This is my condition?

He shrugs.

[I’m struck, for the first time of many during the past week, the extent to which since being back in Britain I’ve been being very cheer-leadery about a whole swathe of different sorts of high-end national/state theatre work. I wonder if I oughtn’t to be getting a bit more dissident again.]

We also talk about the lack of alternative models for working in Poland.

The invitations to perform or create new work expect you to bring in a product, as if it were all created somewhere in my secret laboratory. Artists don’t get together, they don’t watch each others’ work, there is hardly a feeling of community.

We consider the drawbacks of being a solo artist (or indeed a solo critic). I reflect that London is pretty good at the moment as far as being a critic goes, although we could do with admin staff.

We both stare in gloomy contemplation at the mornings’ work lost to admin. I somehow forget to include mornings’ works lost to pissing about on Twitter.

But it’s a thing. One needs company. A company, perhaps.

We discuss the Forest Fringe model. I note how many of those artists are also essentially solo operations. I suggest it’s because of costs and that you can do something yourself for free, but you can’t get someone else to help out for free. Not because other people wouldn’t, but because one doesn’t want to ask.

He says nice things about Britain’s ability to think of this in business terms, but is also wary of this.

We finish our coffee.

What about TR Warszawa, though? I ask.

I tell you what, let’s go and see this art museum now. This will tell you everything you need to know about what’s wrong with Warsaw today...

As cinemas go...

The café in Teatr Dramatyczny - wish this were a better photo

The entrance to Teatr Dramatyczny

The entrance to Teatr Studio

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