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Ground Zero


Krzysztof Warlikowski Nowy Teatr (A)pollonia TR Warszawa Polish theatre Jacek Poniedziałek Małgorzata Szczęśniak Polish identity William Shakespeare Greek tragedy staging adaptation sexuality LGBT culture exclusion Hamlet Iphigenia Alcestis Stanisława Celińska Holocaust Second World War Warsaw Euripides The Bacchae The Dybbuk Krum Cleansed France Netherlands theatricality The Kindly Ones J. M. Coetzee animals


Piotr Gruszczyński is the literary director and one of the co-founders of Warsaw’s Nowy Teatr, where he is also jointly responsible for the company’s artistic programme. He collaborated with Krzysztof Warlikowski and Jacek Poniedziałek on the adaptation of the text and worked as the dramaturg for the theatre’s inaugural production of (A)pollonia, which premiered in May 2009. This text is his statement on the direction of the Nowy Teatr’s practice at its foundation in 2008, set within the context of the evolution of Warlikowski’s work since the 1990s.


‘Ground Zero’ is a twentieth-century term. It first came into use after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War. In military terminology it defines a site of mass devastation – most often the area directly beneath a large explosion, or the epicentre of a civil disaster.

In twenty-first century history, it came to mark the void left after the fall of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York. That assault on the symbolic heart of global capitalism propelled this enigmatic phrase back into use – for we had forgotten about it, as though for many years we had convinced ourselves of having attained a higher rung [numeracja] of civilisation. But these and other ‘Grounds Zero’, having come into being, have only continued to encroach on and engulf ever greater regions of civilian life. The impact of such events resonates across multiple generations and territories; it functions like a kind of ‘antimatter’ against the human. In his productions, Krzysztof Warlikowski has been attempting to examine and to approach ‘Ground Zero’ since his theatre’s very beginnings, fully aware that its terrain is continually expanding.

For Warlikowski and the artists of the Nowy Teatr, the theatre exists for us to be able to talk to one another. This is already significant, as it may give us the chance and the courage to speak about things we feel we cannot talk about, are afraid to talk about, or perhaps do not know how to talk about. At times we may believe it is better to remain silent, but in such cases little can be derived from our silence. In this theatre, we are all at fault. After the wrongs we have committed – individually and collectively – the only way for mourning to become possible is through talking, through a shared discussion. In this way the theatrical encounter may begin to function like that of a support group. Theatre becomes a way of life and a way of bettering the world. It may give us the chance to understand something about ourselves, to examine our actions and responses, our memories of the past, and their consequences. Here we can – we even must – experience some guilt, since we are prompted to reassume responsibility for our actions, and those to which we assent. And participating in various social, political, and cultural processes inevitably burdens us with some blame for what those processes engender – sometimes unintentionally, but often with irreversible results.

It is not the ‘performance’ that counts. Instead of ‘performing’ perhaps we should rather speak about ‘communicating’ – that overused and overdetermined word – or even older terms: ‘understanding’ or ‘covenant’. Warlikowski proposes to the audience a kind of shared journey – a collaboration, a co-experiencing, a co-participation in thought – although in this theatre, which is first and foremost an intellectual proposition, the greatest emphasis is always placed on thought. For this reason, the spectators are subjected to very particular treatment, which at first may serve to disturb their tranquil (or chaotic) everyday reality, and enable them to enter alternative modes of reflection and experience. Warlikowski continually works to broaden the spheres of impact on the audience, employing diverse theatrical ‘languages’ and technologies. Our presence as spectators is frequently exposed in our shifting relationships to the actors – ensuring that the theatre never becomes a ‘safe place’ where we may passively observe. Live video feeds also suggest particular modes of witnessing, forcing us into a close confrontation with minute details of the performers’ reactions. Then there is bombardment – with stimuli, with emotions, with visions – right to the very end of the performance, so that only after having left the theatre can we begin the long process of reflection and putting things in order. The event is intended to hold the spectators in its grip: not to let them breathe a sigh of relief and to forget all about it, or later to erase its memory with dinner and a glass of wine.

The spaces in Warlikowski’s theatre, as designed by Małgorzata Szczęśniak, are profoundly discomforting; one cannot furnish such spaces or feel at home there. They are always transitory, ‘hygienic’, never decorative. Szczęśniak’s sets are purgatories that signal to us to ‘walk this way’. There is no other option. We must frequent these bathrooms, abattoirs, dissecting-rooms. They are the only places that have been offered to us – in the hope that even if something ‘dramatic’ were to take place there, even if we were to behave unrestrainedly and contrary to expectations, one could quickly and easily clean up and eradicate every trace. The chapel of the Steinhof psychiatric hospital in Vienna incorporates a raked floor designed by the architect Otto Wagner, which can be hosed down easily and efficiently. Should a church avoid taking such meticulous precautions? On the contrary. A Mass is attended by people, not gods – so hygiene above all. Appearances must have the semblance of being maintained, so that those to come may first feel ‘at ease’ there and not catch the stench of fear and humiliation. And also so that such events do not disturb the peace of what we proudly perpetuate each day under the names of ‘humanity’, ‘culture’, or ‘civilisation’...

The key phrase in Warlikowski’s 1999 production of Hamlet was: ‘‘Tis now the very witching time of night’ (in Stanisław Barańczak’s Polish translation Shakespeare’s phrase equates to: ‘The dark magic of the night is now being fulfilled’). The need to examine the nature and legacy of evil, to penetrate into the darker side of human existence, has long been the cornerstone of Warlikowski’s theatre. Shakespeare and the ancient Greeks consequently took on central importance for him, for no one else has so perceptively and so extensively described the sources of evil – the ways in which it penetrates our peaceful and stable everyday reality, and how it may come gradually and irreversibly to dominate our way of life. In Warlikowski’s theatre, the age-old question of whether humanity is essentially good or evil is not under discussion. After all, evil is something inherent to our existence, and will still claim its share regardless of our good deeds; saints could not be distinguished as such without the sins of others. But saintliness is a religious category, while the theatre of Warlikowski is entirely secular, and thus interhuman. Everything here takes place between people. One exception might perhaps be the presence of Dionysus in The Bacchae (2001), and the vengeful stupor he visits on Agave; but even here the god enters deeply into the human world and begins to act according to its rules. And in Warlikowski’s more recent productions, being ‘cursed’ by the gods becomes a mere pretext for people to shun their responsibilities. Ariel’s presence in The Tempest (2003) was already reduced to a kind of literary convention, while The Dybbuk (2003) saw the maturation of a process of demystification and secularisation that was later to be intensified in (A)pollonia. The compromised, self-involved gods no longer have any special place here; people are the sole perpetrators of events. And this secular, interhuman ‘church’ is something infernal. How can we draw any other conclusion in the face of the damages and traumas sustained throughout the course of our history – whether widely acknowledged and documented or otherwise?

If the nature of evil is what Warlikowski’s theatre deals with in particular, then the Holocaust must loom on the horizon. This is among the most significant events he has addressed. Sometimes however, his productions also address the everyday – the seemingly (or actually) trivial. They trace how apparently small or banal events reveal the hidden mechanisms of tragedy from just beneath their surface; the imminence of death, which may imbue even the most ordinary occurrences with a greater significance. The attempts of the protagonist of Krum (2005) to find some worth in his mundane life were futile; only the death of his mother could prompt him to emerge from the banality of his existence. If, like Krum, we were to succeed in investing our lives with a tragic dimension, we might somehow be saved; tragedy is meaningful, it gives direction and purpose. It is a kind of explanation, a justification, or perhaps even an alibi for what befalls us; and what befalls us is often uncalled for, unfortunate, senseless, evil, murderous, or regressive. Something may go well, somewhere, to some extent, but never an entire programme – only some scraps at most.

What does our sexuality have to do with all this? It is not in itself a source of evil. But its suppression – the cultural ‘explaining away’ of ‘irregularities’ when a so-called ‘exception’ occurs – may trigger aggression or rebellion. And a justified one, for that matter. One of the great themes of Warlikowski’s theatre is homosexuality and its functioning within a heteronormative society. However, he is not interested in presenting an emancipatory lecture or ‘message’. What is much more important and interesting is the dynamics of homosexual communities and relationships. This is not about outraging the heterosociety; more about a rebellion of the homosociety. After all, exclusion from the flawed mechanisms of the majority does not guarantee order or happiness – and in any case, such terms do not belong within Warlikowski’s domain. Here we can function only in tragic categories – happiness emerges as a delusion, or even a usurpation.

Warlikowski’s performances always analyse issues of exclusion. This would appear to be their originary theme, the engine driving the events – whose participants become grist to their mill. At the outset someone always considers himself or herself to be superior to another, to have the right to decide another’s fate, the right to exclude the other from society, to categorise him or her differently, according to distinct, discriminatory laws. This is the source of the human catastrophe. It can take place at an individual level, played out in the seclusion of domestic or familial affairs, but it can also be broad in scope. For one can exclude a whole race, a nation, a group identified by its sexual preference, and deprive it of its right to exist. Then the catastrophe becomes vast; but it does not cease to affect individuals – the singular victims, of which there may be millions. The particular strength of Warlikowski’s theatre is that it does not speak about masses and crowds. It always analyses the singular – the individual case.

For the actors, this theatre can approach their own personal vulnerabilities, their feelings of shame, the private aspects of their relations-to-self and of their physicalities that usually remain away from public view. As the peep-show dancer in Cleansed (2001), Stanisława Celińska was transgressive – through the exposure of her mature body and her confrontation of personal issues linked to her physiology and intimacy that were previously ‘closed’ to her. This role was even described by critics as the fulfilment of the ‘total act’. But there are still other ‘total acts’ in Warlikowski’s productions. Due to the tone established by Kane’s text, Cleansed focused attention on issues of erotic and physical transgression. Perhaps the two most transgressive performances by Warlikowski were produced outside Poland: A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed in Nice (2003), and Yukio Mishima’s Madame de Sade in Amsterdam (2006). In Nice the ensemble was made up of students from local acting schools; this unusually young cast exhibited a striking freshness in their reactions and in their drive to break with established theatrical conventions. On the other hand, Madame de Sade explored the limits of perversity – to the extent that such a performance likely could not have been produced in Warsaw. All the characters were played by men, with the exception of the servant, and a strange, erotic panopticon was created onstage. Thanks to the relative assimilation of many fetishistic behaviours within cultural life in the Netherlands, the performance did not have to direct itself towards social taboos in the same way as Warlikowski’s Polish productions, and thus could immediately address more complex relations associated with the thematics of the play. It is notable that Warlikowski understands theatre as belonging neither to the author of a text, nor to the actors, nor to the director; it is of the place in which it is created. Theatre must first find and situate itself within a particular context, and only then can a performance be constructed. Otherwise, it would produce a mere exhibition piece; there would simply be a showing and not a dialogue.

(A)pollonia, the Nowy Teatr’s debut Polish performance, is in a way the culmination of Warlikowski’s previous theatrical explorations. It is difficult to describe this undertaking in an unambiguous way. A theatrical essay? Perhaps. In this performance, which is a complex adaptation of numerous texts – from ancient tragedies to contemporary literature, to scripts created through devising and improvisation – Warlikowski for the first time functions as a dramatic author in his own right. The fragmentation and conjunction of the source materials is so extensive that, in effect, there appears an entirely new play, an original text. Moreover, the entire theatrical apparatus previously developed in Warlikowski’s theatre changes its purpose; with (A)pollonia, it becomes a mechanism for revealing the dependencies and finitude of human existence.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this production is the attempt to explore a phenomenon whose broader circumstances and impact are rarely examined. Warlikowski focuses on situations in which exclusion and death meet in very particular circumstances: the sacrifice of life for another. An event ultimately beyond all calculation or imagination, the reality and the legacy of sacrifice are often ignored, shunted, and shoved away, not openly discussed. And yet it continues to take place. We usually think of those who gave their lives for others only in heroic terms. We admire them, we erect statues, we commemorate them. We both genuinely admire them and seek good conscience for ourselves – to rid ourselves of the remorse that we are living comfortably, while they are gone. Warlikowski opens up a new subject in (A)pollonia, one that few have approached up to now in the theatre. He investigates what lies beyond the heroic narratives around the victims; he tries to uncover the wider context and the effect of their decisions on those who survived – often on those for whom the sacrifice was made. Nothing remains straightforward and unambiguous. The traditional categories are inadequate, and there emerge swarms of small, unworthy, self-interested, afraid, dependent, or instinctual people. Some of the perpetrators we may call executioners, but there are a great many who do not warrant such a clear-cut term. Often they are people who unwillingly or unwittingly became caught up in events that exceeded their imagination or comprehension. These are perhaps the most intriguing, for in them ‘the witching time of night’ can be fulfilled.

Three women who give their lives for others are Iphigenia, Alcestis, and Apolonia Machczyńska. Their sacrifices lay the structural foundations for the production. Iphigenia gives her life for her fatherland, or rather is murdered by her father in exchange for fair sailing winds. Alcestis gives her life for her husband. Apolonia (a non-fictional character) is killed for trying to save twenty-five Jews during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Her father, who had the opportunity to save his young, pregnant daughter by accepting responsibility for keeping the Jews in hiding refused to do so. These three women are the sacrificed victims. And there are still others – such as Iphigenia’s father Agamemnon, who returns from Troy and speaks about his experience of war in the words of the SS officer Max Aue from Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. Agamemnon/Aue not only attempts to reckon with the killings by imposing an arithmetical order – calculating the deaths per second, Jews by Germans – but also confesses that his deepest desire is to be a pliable woman, devoted to male lust. His actions are determined not by fully rational decisions but by ambiguous motives related to deeply hidden fears and complexes, and to the orchestrated removal of an individual’s right not to kill: ‘There were always reasons for what I did. Good reasons or bad reasons, I don’t know, in any case human reasons. Those who kill are humans, just like those who are killed, that’s what’s terrible. You can never say: I shall never kill, that’s impossible; the most you can say is: I hope I shall never kill’.

The parade of victims and perpetrators has a certain order, a chain in which guilt and innocence are intertwined, where the Erinyes become the Eumanides and vice versa. The performance attempts to reconsider Greek tragedy in light of the legacy of the Holocaust – but for this to take place,  ancient tragedy must undergo a complex process of demystification, with the characters and their motives deprived of any sense of fate. Even the Apollo of Euripides’ Alcestis becomes compromised as he attempts to find a replacement to be sacrificed in place of his beloved Admetus. Apollo’s actions effectively condemn Admetus’ wife Alcestis to death; he pays the price with another person’s life, and becomes increasingly desperate, misogynistic, and vulnerable. No gods, no fatum. People decide everything. And it has always been this way, as Euripides indicated when he stained the hands of people with blood, and not those of the gods. If tragedy is to be re-inscribed within the moral framework after the Holocaust, it must be a tragedy defined by fatelessness. Desolate and at the mercy of people, such a world becomes boundlessly terrifying. People are terrifying.

For radically confrontational reasons, the textual montage of (A)pollonia also incorporates the renowned talk on ‘The Philosophers and the Animals’ by Elizabeth Costello, the fictional title character of J. M. Coetzee’s series of lectures. Costello, whose speech takes up almost forty minutes of the performance, conducts a direct, impassioned, and provocative comparison of the extermination of the Jews during the Second World War with the continuing mass extermination of sentient animals ‘to be consumed in the comfort of our homes’. This text, only recently translated into Polish, has provoked a particularly intense reaction among audiences in a country where many of the Nazi camps were situated, and has brought a more detached, unsettling perspective to the subject matter. Along with an Israeli representative made-up to look like a clown (or even the Joker from Batman) as he conducts the posthumous award ceremony of the ‘Righteous among the Nations’ medal to Apolonia Machczyńska, we are witness to a set of provocations that have led some critics to accuse Warlikowski of anti-Semitism with (A)pollonia. However it is not the recognition of sacrifice in itself that is at issue here, but the ambiguous nature of its remembrance. The conventions of ‘good conscience’ and of our comfortable, redemptive approval of heroic deeds from the past may obscure the more difficult, disquieting memory work that lies ahead of us today. In this context, we must recall Warlikowski’s assertion that ‘the reality is the scandal – not the theatre that seeks to debate it and discuss it’.

Warlikowski’s theatre has continued to undergo an intensive evolution and to take surprising turns; with the formation of the Nowy Teatr certain established approaches have been abandoned in favour of new and unfamiliar solutions. This theatre attempts to cover an increasingly broad terrain; each performance unearths new issues which must be tackled and brought into a forum for discussion, reflection, and collective contemplation. In a sense, Warlikowski increasingly attempts to rob the theatre of its ‘theatricality’; however, in the actors’ self-revelation, in the search for dialogue, we find that we are departing from the theatre only in order to return somehow to the essence of the theatrical meeting and the debate that can take place there between people. This dream is not new, but when it intensifies, when artists emerge who are prepared to relinquish the superficiality of their acts, some further, small steps may be taken. We remain within the theatre, but this theatre gravitates towards particular traits: meeting, conversation, communication, co-existence, compassion – here and now, directly. It is theatre conceived as a way of being together, not for certain individuals to act in front of others. And in any case – is it appropriate for us to ‘perform’ at Ground Zero?

Translated from Polish by Dorota Kultys, with Duncan Jamieson and Adela Karsznia.

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