Monday, 27 February 2017

Klątwa – Teatr Powszechny

[seen 18/02/17]

[I have already written a short review of Klątwa for The Stage, but I wanted to write a much longer thing about it here.]

My relationship with Teatr Powszechny goes back to November 2015, when they invited me to review their production Roar, China!. As it turns out, the timing was significant. At the start of that review I note that the far-right, Catholic nationalist Law and Justice Party had won an overall majority in the general election just two weeks earlier.

The next time I was in Warsaw was for Barbara Wysocka’s Juliusz Cezar in January, 2016. By that point – two months later – there were near-weekly protests against the Law and Justice Party’s depredations into the freedom of the Polish press, its challenges to personal, political and artistic liberties, and so on.

By the time I saw Powszechny’s production of Jelinek’s Wściekłość – September 2016 – the Law and Justice Party were gearing up to ban all abortions in Poland. Even those medically necessary for the preservation of the pregnant woman’s life.

This is the context in which Klątwa opens. The situation in Poland is Very Bad Indeed.

[I should say, that this review is aimed primarily at my British contemporaries who possibly won’t get to see the show. On this basis, some comparisons I use might seem a bit parochial to mainland readers. It’s honestly not that we’re obsessed with bringing any given subject back to ourselves here in Britain – no matter how much our politicians may make it seem that way – more; simply that we *are* an island (and vassal state of America) and, as such, remarkably ill-served in terms in terms of European international work . As such, saying: “Oh, this Frljić production is quite like Nicholas Stemann’s Die Schutzbefohlenen...” would be functionally useless even if it was true. (Which it isn’t.)]

My relationship to the piece’s director, Oliver Frljić, begins in 2014 when I saw (and loved) his phenomenally successful international hit Damned Be The Traitor in His Homeland at the Sibiu Festival. (Despite my best efforts, it has yet to be seen in UK.)

A year later, at BITEF’15, I saw his piece Ristić Kompleks, and then again at its Mladinsko home, in May 2016. I have yet to see his (previous) latest piece, Our Violence, Your Violence – an adaptation of Peter Weiss’s The Aesthetics of Resistance, which opened in Vienna, Berlin and Ljubljana last autumn.

Frljić is brilliant. I am a huge admirer of his work and his politics. I might even go so far as to suggest that this year he will be the most important director/maker working in Europe. On current showing, he is absolutely the director/maker best equipped to deal with its coming/ongoing crises. It is perhaps no coincidence that he was a Serb-Croat born in Bosnia and was a teenager during the wars in ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s. I imagine that gives him a far better insight into “civilisation” than, for example, yours or mine.


As I say in my Stage review, this show is nominally a “production of” Klątwa (The Curse), an 1899 play written by Polish dramatist Stanisław Wyspiański. It is “a production” in the sense that would cause David Hare and the dullard he’s talking to in that interview instant heart-failure. Hopefully.

It begins with the whole cast making a phone call to Bert Brecht (!). It’s played as a pitch-perfect parody of Brechtian productions, and does that vital thing of telling everyone in the audience exactly how the evening is going to pan out. This is not – we can be assured – going to be a “straight production” of The Curse, but it also provides vital context about the original text, and about the current political situation in Poland., along with some amusing self-mockery – both of Poland and of theatre.

At the other end of the phone line – it turns out – is a giant statue of Pope Jean-Paul II with a massive erection. One of the actresses rolls a condom onto the papal cock and proceeds to vigorously fellate him for the next five minutes. As symbolism goes, it’s crude but effective. What’s perhaps most striking, though, is how long it goes on for. As it continues, you are actually forced to think about *why* you’re watching this. The obvious “shock”-value wears off pretty quickly, and you start to actually deconstruct it properly. The numerous readings and problems keep on piling up. Both the outward-pointing metaphorical values and the intrinsic ethical problems with making an actress go down on a plaster knob for five minutes. It also seems to function as a comment on trends in contemporary pornography (doubtless a massive growth industry in Poland) and as a comment/question about what is tolerated and what is not under this new Catholic nationalism to which Poland is being subjected. At the end of the five minutes (I’m guessing), the statue is hanged, with a sign round its neck.

This is followed by an early scene from The Curse itself, with naturalistic action replaced by a kind of grotesque chorus of violence. Then this itself is broken out of by the actress playing the role of the victimised young woman, who delivers an angry speech denouncing Frljić’s “feminism” for still somehow requiring women being shown being assaulted.

On one hand, sure, yes, you could say he’s having his cake and eating it here, by first having the scene and *then* having the denunciation. But, Christ! How absolutely brilliant to have the argument about the ethics of this problem *actually on the stage*. As we know, this is also something of a live issue here in the UK – this problem/question of there being real violence against women, and how does theatre talk about that? Especially if some people would apparently censor the appearance of any simulation of violence on stage. This seems to be a good solution. The actress clearly has her agency. She names and addresses the problem directly. No one could be left with any possibility to vicariously enjoy the sadism.

There is also a sense in which the director and the processes of theatre could be start to function as a metonym(?) for the oppressive mechanisms of the church. Which is a kind of genius move – the church cannot come back at the show for smugly criticising from some kind of artistic ivory tower when the show is as critical of itself and its processes as it is of the church. You kind of wish this sort of Brechtian discursiveness were available in the UK. (Why it isn’t is anyone guess.)

I think it was around this point that I started seriously wondering why English theatre couldn’t be more like this in its treatment of the classics. I mean, sure, it’s not “proper”, but it was also a damn sight less boring. And to having a production actually anticipate and argue about the problems of the production, in the production? Well, it would have solved a lot of the problems of Yerma and/or Hedda, wouldn’t it? [written before I saw Pygmalion, which has partially restored my faith in the English ability to make bold, intelligent main-stage theatre in the C21st]

Moreover, lest this sound like I was just enjoying a very relevant seminar, it’s very hard to convey just how *live* and “electric” (terrible cliché review term, but, it’s the cliché we want here) it was. Really. This wasn’t performed in the whiny, entitled, instant-switch-off, strident student voices you might be imagining. No. This was yer proper theatre-trained, top-of-their-game Polish actors really belting it. I don’t think the UK really has an equivalent form of acting at all.

But the most affecting parts of the show are yet to come.


One of the actresses stands up and, bashing a microphone against her stomach to mimic the sound of a baby’s heartbeat, announces that next week she is going to have an abortion. She asks the women in the audience how many of them have had an abortion. She tells us:

“I’ve decided to have an abortion. I’m not going to justify myself. This is my body, my belly, and no one – no country, no church, no politician – will be telling me what to do with it. I have an appointment for a procedure in the Netherlands next week. I’ll spend my hard-earned money on an abortion abroad...”

and sings the Polish national anthem.


The cast, dressed as priests, line up – kneeling – along the front of the stage, and each one describes when they were sexually abused by a priest from the Catholic church. It is quiet, avowedly unsensational, and as each story unfolds in four simple lines, your sense of absolute horror grows. Sure, these might not be the true stories of these particular actors (there’s a disclaimer later about how theatre is fiction), but there’s literally no reason to doubt that they are. And if each of these actors was sexually abused by a priest at some point in their lives, what does that say about the statistics of Poland overall? You got the feeling, sitting in the theatre on Saturday night, that there was a terrible, general assent to the truth of the scene. It’s a horrible, shattering indictment of widespread child-abuse on an almost industrial scale. What it says about the culpability of everyone from parents, to authorities, to priests, right the way up to Jean-Paul II himself. It’s little wonder that they hung his effigy with a sign round his neck – “Patron of Paedophiles” – like partisans put on Nazi collaborators.


The show skips on again. Actress Barbara Wysocka (she who directed Powszechny’s award-winning Juliusz Cezar at the Gdansk Shakespeare Festival) delivers a monologue about how Frljić is just some international professional provocateur and will be off to Munich or Maribor the day after the première, his hypocrisy in his treatment of the actors, and – more than this – the fact that he’s take a job curating the Malta Festival in Poznań this year, even after they banned a show in 2014.

Elsewhere, an amusing actor, apparently known for his willingness to get his kit off/perform degrading roles (that could be made up in his monologue), puts his bits through a colour-photocopy of Frljic’s face.

An actress takes a chainsaw to the large wooden cross that has loomed over the stage all evening...


The whole thing is episodic. All Frljić’s work that I’ve seen is. In UK I can even imagine this being taken (by some) as a flaw. The thing is, I’ve seen a fucktonne of “flawless” work that is boring beyond measure. Work that doesn’t work. Or do anything. Klątwa is never boring. It works perfectly. And clearly it has an intellectual and political reach well beyond the walls of the building in which it is performed. And, really, the choppiness must be deliberate. At one point in the show the actors even announce a two minute break*.

So let’s allow that Frljić, and his enormously accomplished team of dramaturgs, and his actors, have actually thought about what they’re doing. Let’s, instead of reading the episodic structure as “a mistake” let’s read it as a strategy, a device; a device for making the constructedness of the event manifest. Let’s not think of the fact that there’s a bit about two thirds through, after the “confessions” of abuse – where the actors machine-gun the audience with wooden replica guns screwed together from multiple crucifixes to amazing loud music – that would have been a perfect place to end the show on “a visceral high” where the show doesn’t end as “an error”. Let’s honour the fact that Frljić instead steps back from that kind of rabble-rousing, and instead keeps on worrying away at his subject until it’s done to his satisfaction. And all the while, let’s remember that this is “a production of a classic text”.  And that as a piece of theatre it works brilliantly.


Post-script: I am aware that in the week since I saw the show, all sorts of inflammatory lies have been printed in the Polish press, leading to threats of violence against crew, crew, and theatre staff and daily protests outside the building, and a ceaseless campaign of intimidation.

Perhaps, you think, I should address that in this review. The problem is, I can’t. Because the things that are being protested about simply aren’t in the show. The campaign against is – I believe – on the basis that the piece is blasphemous. It isn’t. God isn’t mentioned once in the new material, and only occasionally (and respectfully) in the original script, which has been in circulation since 1899. No “objects of worship” are desecrated in the piece. Personally, I find even that law ridiculous, and wouldn’t mind if they were, BUT. THEY. AREN’T. There is nothing in the show that contravenes even the right-wing, Catholic laws of Poland. It is, what I believe they call here in England, “fair comment”. This is precisely the sort of art that free speech laws were conceived to protect. It is not interfering with or mocking anyone’s beliefs. It isn’t even an attack on Catholicism, per se. It is an attack on man, and the criminals who have turned the Catholic church into the largest child sex abuse ring in the history of humanity, and who seek to exercise control over the bodies of women without consent.

If God is half the Father that Christianity takes him for, it is impossible not to conclude that He would be on Frljić’s side, proudly wearing a “NOT IN MY NAME” badge on His eternal lapel.

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