Krzysztof Warlikowski is a founder and Artistic Director of the Nowy Teatr (New Theatre) in Warsaw and among the foremost European performance practitioners working today. He has directed more than fifty theatre and opera productions in Poland and internationally, including in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Israel. Early in his career, Warlikowski was an assistant to Krystian Lupa and to Peter Brook, and he also trained with Ingmar Bergman and Giorgio Strehler, before becoming a directing associate and regular collaborator of TR Warszawa, where his work received widespread critical acclaim. In 2008, along with a group of his long-term collaborators, he co-founded the independent Nowy Teatr, which presented its inaugural production (A)pollonia in 2009. For further biographical and career information and source materials, see ‘Krzysztof Warlikowski: Chronology of life and work’.
Małgorzata Szczęśniak is a set and costume designer. She graduated from the School of Fine Arts in Kraków in 1972, then studied psychology at the Jagiellonian University (1972-76) and organised art classes for children with behavioural disorders, as well as art therapy activities for people with schizophrenia, under the supervision of the psychiatrist Noemi Madejska. Having begun a PhD on the psychology of creativity, Szczęśniak transferred to a diploma in stage design (1981-84) at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, under the tutelage of Jerzy Skarżyński. After completing her studies, she left for Paris with Warlikowski. In 1992, they staged their first performance together – Auto da fé by Elias Canetti – and have continued their collaboration ever since. Szczęśniak was one of the co-founders of the Nowy Theatre in 2008.
Jacek Poniedziałek graduated in acting from the State Higher Theatre School (PWST) in Kraków in 1990, where he also met Warlikowski. From 1990 to 1992, he worked with the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre, and from 1992 to 1994 with the Stary Theatre in Kraków. From 1999, he performed regularly at TR Warszawa in Warsaw, and in 2008 he became a key founding member the Nowy Teatr ensemble. He has taken lead roles in many of Warlikowski’s productions and participated extensively in the processes leading to the creation of the performances. Following his move to Warsaw, he has also featured in many films and television series.
Joanna Targoń is a theatre critic and journalist who writes regularly for the Kraków edition of the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza and for Didaskalia theatre journal.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare | translated by Stanisław Barańczak | TR Warszawa | Premiere: 22 October 1999 | Director: Krzysztof Warlikowski | Set and costume design: Małgorzata Szczęśniak | Music: Paweł Mykietyn | Choreography: Saar Magal | Lighting Design: Piotr Pawlik
This conversation was conducted shortly after the premiere of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Hamlet in 1999. This was the director’s first production at TR Warszawa (formerly the Teatr Rozmaitości, or Warsaw Variety Theatre), and took place at the invitation of the theatre’s Artistic Director Grzegorz Jarzyna.
Hamlet began a very fruitful period of collaboration between Warlikowski and TR Warszawa, which included the gathering of an informal ‘collective’ of co-creators who would work together on the majority of his subsequent productions. Warlikowski’s association with TR would last until 2007. Also participating in the present discussion were two of Warlikowski’s long-term collaborators: the set and costume designer Małgorzata Szczęśniak, and Jacek Poniedziałek, who played Hamlet in the 1999 production. The conversation was led by the theatre critic, Joanna Targoń.
Joanna Targoń: What was your interest in Hamlet? It seems that the main reasoning behind the many cuts you made was to deprive Hamlet of an external world, such as [a political context]. There have been objections that [your production] is simply a family history.
Krzysztof Warlikowski: This context would either have to be historical or to evince certain contemporary characteristics. Our production deals more with the inner sphere of the characters than with the external. There is an absence of history, of politics – but do we really concern ourselves with politics as much now as we did fifteen years ago? Hamlet always emerges from where we find ourselves. These dozen or so actors belong to the current Polish reality, and so do I – theatre exists in a concrete world and time. We’ve seen many versions of Hamlet that played with the idea of creating a historical panorama. We wanted to extract something else from Hamlet. Since we were working in a modest space at the Teatr Rozmaitości, an intimate, familial Hamlet emerged. In this play, which was written after the death of Shakespeare’s father, there is a more profound ‘human dimension’ than in his other texts. There is a deep, mythical structure there – a crime in the family and the need for revenge – which is present in the Old Testament and in Greek tragedy.
Małgorzata Szczęśniak: We like to view human beings through their social roles and yet the most difficult thing is simply to look at oneself in the mirror. We are afraid of self-reflection. The first act of the play is condensed – the threads unfold simultaneously. It serves as an introduction to the scenes in which you can focus on the characters, on their inner world, and on events.
Małgorzata Szczęśniak. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.
Warlikowski: Act I was built around the coronation and wedding ceremony. It seemed to me that the Ghost couldn’t just appear at any moment. It’s as if the purpose of the wedding and the coronation was to call forth the old king.
In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet speaks in soliloquies from the very beginning. I didn’t want Hamlet already to be Hamlet before meeting the Ghost, but rather to become him... We can’t go deep inside straight away – we have to build something before we can ‘blow it up’. In The Taming of the Shrew, the only person with a psychologically oriented experience of the world is Kate, who is surrounded by puppets, by the ‘babble’ of the world. And, in the final scene, it is she alone who speaks with a human voice. In Hamlet, in the first part of the performance, only Hamlet speaks with such a voice. It’s not until the second part that we begin to hear the voices of the other characters. Different points of view emerge. The characters contradict one another. They see themselves differently from how others see them. In the first part Hamlet has them all worked out, but now we wonder whether [his view] matches who they really turn out to be.
I tried to find order in the text, which, at the beginning, is very obscure. The first part is a night shimmering with sex, passion, and irrationality, prompted by the appearance of the Ghost. The second part is an infernal, remorseful night, which ends at dawn with Hamlet meeting Fortinbras’ army and the madness of Ophelia – a stream of suffering flowing beside her father’s corpse.
Claudius (Marek Kalita) and Hamlet (Jacek Poniedziałek) in Warlikowski’s Hamlet. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.
Jacek Poniedziałek: It was about not branding Hamlet as Hamlet from the beginning – rather he was a blank slate, a tabula rasa. Of course, he has problems, such as his sexual identity. This is directly connected to family, to his mother, who is ‘tainted’ like him. Until the appearance of his father’s ghost, this is the most important problem for Hamlet. There was no rapport between father and son – Hamlet ran away from home very early to go and study, and didn’t maintain close contact with his father, who went to war...
Warlikowski: We didn’t assume any of this. In fact, we explicitly told ourselves not to reconstruct Hamlet’s past. We’re interested in what happens after the Ghost appears.
Poniedziałek: But when I go out for the first scene I need to have some knowledge, even if we don’t go into the details of Hamlet’s past.
Warlikowski: Hamlet begins at the moment when something else ends: the story of [two] brothers and a woman, at the end of which one of them dies and the other takes his place as king and husband. This story returns later in a scene from The Murder of Gonzago, but only in the distance, as a metaphor. The past begins to propel the characters into this infernal night. The problems that you mention aren’t present in the first scene. I don’t want you to add anything.
Poniedziałek: I don’t have to act it but I have to know about it. The bedroom scene shows that Hamlet and Gertrude were once very close to each other.
Warlikowski: It’s not a question of the emotional bond – only of the tragic tension in the scene. Something in Hamlet’s relationship with his mother is transgressed.
Poniedziałek: He [makes this transgression] because she is dearest to him and her betrayal hurts him the most...
Warlikowski: I don’t want you to name it. I don’t know why you got undressed, and neither do you. Hamlet goes to his mother stark naked but doesn’t even realise it. Hamlet’s past with his mother and father is contained within this scene. Stanisława Celińska (Gertrude) wanted to establish the relationship between her [character] and her first husband during rehearsals. [Also] Marek Kalita (Claudius), between Claudius and his brother. But it should – residually, subconsciously – creep out in certain situations; the characters don’t really have a clear understanding of what these relationships consist of. I didn’t want to impose a crude psychological outline onto the mythical structure of Hamlet. Hamlet speaks to the Ghost and then immediately meets Ophelia – these two worlds collide. I didn’t wonder whether Hamlet slept with Ophelia, the only important thing is that it’s a kind of ‘spasm’ following an experience that is beyond human comprehension...
Krzysztof Warlikowski. Photograph: Stefan Okolowicz.
Targoń: It seems to me that Hamlet is not so much over-sensitive here as over-emotional. He goes through extreme experiences. The first is his meeting with the Ghost. Each of these experiences is taken out on someone else later on. He didn’t want to seduce Ophelia, it’s as if she was drawn to him by the strange aura of his conversation with the Ghost. Later, Hamlet discovers the consequences of his emotional reaction, and this drives him to despair: he sees the consequences and it causes him pain. This is carried out very precisely. It seems to me that Hamlet’s task in this performance is to make people aware of their own evil, because he has discovered it in himself.
Warlikowski: These are the most painful discoveries. If Hamlet says, in Ophelia’s presence, ‘You, Horatio, are the only one who is pure’, it’s not a confession of love for Horatio, but an emanation of evil – the desire to hurt Ophelia.
Poniedziałek: This was read [by audiences and critics] as a manifestation of Hamlet’s inclination towards homosexuality. But in fact he doesn’t know what his [sexual] orientation is. His love for Ophelia is pure, authentic, and profound in this production – just as true and authentic as his love for Horatio.
Ophelia (Magdalena Cielecka) and Hamlet (Jacek Poniedziałek). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.
Szczęśniak: Hamlet is an object of love for many people. I didn’t pick up on him being homosexual in our production. He’s a man who struggles with himself. Friendship between men is sometimes so strong that it’s already love, just as with friendship between women. Love can remain undeclared, particularly if one is lonely and feels the need to be close to someone.
Warlikowski: Hamlet is surrounded by various characters: Horatio and Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. For a long time I couldn’t understand what Shakespeare intended – what kinds of different relationships Hamlet had with these characters. At last I understood that they were to enrich the emotional depiction of Hamlet and to balance the other side of his nature, which is revealed in him by the ghost of his father. After meeting his father, Hamlet, who was created to love, begins to hate.
Targoń: Why are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern played by women?
Warlikowski: I wonder whether in the theatre, which is based on conventions, women in male roles – Hamlet, Lear – enrich or impoverish the character. When, in Shakespeare, a man says, ‘I love you, Sir’, to another man, it no longer means anything – it only transports us into a world of past conventions. Once, it was associated with the order of friendship, with devotion to another, with readiness to sacrifice one’s life for the prince. I wanted this element to exist in our Hamlet. Women can often draw a kind of emotional availability from within themselves that men today no longer show.
The central podium in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Hamlet. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.
Targoń: [Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s] death is Hamlet’s only deliberate and selfless crime.
Warlikowski: It didn’t make sense to me to tarnish people with evil. Hamlet’s evil is the irrational evil of myth or Greek tragedy. The only source of evil is the crime of fratricide. That’s why evil begins to spread following Hamlet’s meeting with the Ghost. It takes possession of someone who’s unable to deal with it. I didn’t focus on any other motivations, such as Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s desire to gain wealth at court. I was more interested in the irrational evil that emanates from Hamlet and causes destruction all around him. For me, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not the instruments of evil but rather the victims of it.
Poniedziałek: The mythical evil, the ‘original sin’, sets a sequence of crimes in motion that takes over this world and breaks up the family. This Hamlet is in fact about family, but a mythical family.
Targoń: What function do the Players serve? The troupe fulfils two roles. In accordance with the text, they perform The Murder of Gonzago, and at the same time they take responsibility for guiding the plot of Hamlet.
Warlikowski: Hamlet is the Bible of the theatre – there’s a lot said [in it] about acting [and] about theatre. I, the director, and we, the actors, found the ideal opportunity to say what we’re after, the kind of dialogue that we expect to have with the audience...
Poniedziałek: ...whether we want to show something or whether we want to experience something together. The Players in The Murder of Gonzago aren’t from an ‘old’ theatre – [a theatre that is] a little crude and kitsch, as in many stagings. We wanted to find other aesthetics.
Targoń: This ‘theatre within the theatre’ has a slightly different function from the one in the play. It doesn’t serve to reveal Claudius’ crime. Horatio, who’s supposed to be watching Claudius, cannot do so because from where he is sitting he can’t see him. Each of the spectators of The Murder of Gonzago discovers something about themselves. Also due to the fact that [in your production] this theatre is unfamiliar, ‘Oriental’.
Warlikowski: The most important thing for me was Claudius’ entrance among the Players – like in the anecdote about the performance of Othello in which a spectator got up and shot Iago. The power of theatre causes a displacement, it shifts Claudius to a different dimension. He enters this dimension because he wants to settle things, because his crime has appeared before his eyes. At this moment, theatre becomes life, regardless of the chosen aesthetics.
I wanted to see The Murder of Gonzago in its purest form. I sense an eternal metaphor there [in this relationship between] two men and a woman. I wanted to understand it and to bring it as close as possible to us. It wasn’t about me searching for a noh stylisation or anything like that – I was looking for the aesthetic that could best convey the antiquity [of this situation]. But the Players have to speak the archaic text in a way that is authentic. I also wanted Claudius and Gertrude to understand that their crime is not exceptional, but that it has its source in human nature.
For me, the Old Testament quality of Hamlet is very important – this pressing need for revenge, which makes us wonder why Hamlet doesn’t kill his uncle. It’s as if we had forgotten about the teachings of Christianity and considered murder to be the obvious response to murder.
Each of the characters views [The Murder of Gonzago] from their own perspective. Hamlet doesn’t look at Claudius, he wants to see his parents on the stage. I wanted this performance to infect each of them, to penetrate them as deeply as possible – in fact, this is what I want to achieve in the theatre: to bring about catharsis. The Murder of Gonzago concludes the first part. It unleashes something within these people.
Targoń: Why are the Players involved throughout the performance?
Warlikowski: In Hamlet, Shakespeare maintains a dangerous balance between illusion and disillusion, fiction and theatre. It seemed to me that this theatricality would help me to tell the story in the simplest way: through theatre. And it’s very difficult to tell Hamlet in a simple way because there are many worlds that interpenetrate – those of the characters, the actors, the spirits, the devil, and of God. I believed that the Players would be able to convey all of these realities without disrupting them. When one of the Players scatters the snow, I – the ‘spectator/child’ – find myself in a castle in Elsinore, in a tall tower, I feel the cold...
Poniedziałek: The Players hold Hamlet together – [the narrative] is either told to them, or they tell it. Actually, in his final soliloquy, Hamlet evokes the theatre: ‘You that look pale and tremble at this chance/That are but mutes or audience to this act’. When the Players embody the various characters, they effectively become them [within the world of the play]. The Player performed by Cezary Kosiński carries a very deep mystery – the most inexplicable and disturbing: the mystery of death. He enters as a Player. Then, he is the Ghost who brings the bad news that infects Hamlet and his entire world. Then, as a Player, he delivers a monologue about Pyrrhus [in which another] crime is related [involving] two men and a woman. He also physically resembles Hamlet’s father. In The Murder of Gonzago, he transforms into [Hamlet’s] father. Then, he reappears as a Gravedigger, then as Osric – the angel of death. It’s really not about creating a distance here.
Targoń: As I understood it, the Ghost appears to Hamlet in different guises and each time enters his soul.
Warlikowski: Hamlet’s soliloquies are always reactions to the appearance of the Ghost... Like the Stations of the Cross.
Poniedziałek: We wanted to portray a man who, each time, is trying to avoid taking revenge in order to save himself. But he doesn’t have the chance. The Ghost says, ‘This visitation/Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose’. The Captain says it’s worth dying for a ‘patch of ground’. Each time, Hamlet is compelled to act. But Hamlet can’t comprehend the situation, deep down he can’t understand why he is to commit a crime.
Warlikowski: In the scenes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with Horatio, Ophelia, and even his mother, we initially perceive Hamlet to be friendly and in need of love – this is how he used to be before the arrival of the Ghost. At a certain moment, however, there is a rejection: Hamlet becomes suspicious, aggressive – no dialogue is possible with him. For example, in the scene with Ophelia: Hamlet considers Ophelia to be weak – like Gertrude, she is a woman, who has betrayed her husband. But when he sits before her and sees her tears, he perceives her as pure and wants only to love her. It’s after he catches her in a lie that he begins to mistreat her. When the world fails to live up to the uncompromising demands imposed by the Ghost, Hamlet wants to destroy it. This world is not worthy of Hamlet.
Jacek Poniedziałek as Hamlet. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.
Targoń: Hamlet did what he intended – he forced people to discover the evil within themselves. Why does he return? He consents to die – in fact it is a suicide.
Warlikowski: Hamlet went out into the world – to Wittenberg – for another life, but was then summoned back to Denmark for a funeral. If he had returned to Wittenberg, he might have avoided the seemingly inevitable experience of death that awaits him here. He returns to Denmark once again because for him there is no other life, no other place but his home. He returns to Denmark – to a cemetery. And he enters a grave.
Targoń: The consequences of crime are conspicuous: Polonius’ body lies on the stage for some time; Ophelia, lying in her grave, is visible to the audience throughout the final scene.
Poniedziałek: The dead Polonius lies between Hamlet and his mother, dividing them; the conversation between mother and son is thus tainted with death. At the beginning of the conversation, Gertrude is wearing her royal cloak – she is afraid, she hides behind the majesty of the queen. It’s only Polonius’ death that causes her to howl, to cry, to be afraid, and to love. The mother begins to say things she has never said before.
Targoń: In Hamlet [almost] everyone is killed. In your play they are not killed, they die...
Warlikowski: A death scene is a magical moment in the theatre. This final journey should be the strongest moment, and I want the spectators to participate in it as well. I want them to accompany those who cross over to the other side. Death is portrayed too easily in the theatre – someone is killed and then they go and lie down in a corner.
Targoń: The space is arranged as a system of mirrors. The audience observe themselves, there’s also a mirror that reflects the actors, and in front there is a wall, with paintings depicting animals.
Warlikowski: Hamlet is a very mysterious play. So much has been written about it and yet everyone discovers something different. Małgosia [Małgorzata] and I conceived the space, in which the audience on one side of the stage view [the performance] somewhat differently from the audience on the other side. The actors perform on a podium in the centre; some of the audience sit on the stage, some in the auditorium.
Szczęśniak: The spectators sitting on the stage are made to assume the role of voyeurs – they are in the castle. It would be ideal if everyone could see the play twice, once from each side. This is how the space is opened up, while the walls and mirror [can] also form a closed room. The space can be open or closed. The wall of paintings is made of old wood; it creates intimacy and provides warmth. We took the boards from an old barn and the fresco designs from synagogues. This gave the space a sacred feel.
Warlikowski: I wanted the wall to be old, to have energy. The spectators come up and look at it during the intervals, they touch the paintings, they wonder what they mean. They want, as I do, to sense the past. It’s not an aesthetic experience, it’s an existential one.
Claudius (Marek Kalita) and Gertrude (Stanisława Celińska). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.
The first part of the performance is a kind of intoxication with life, love, the world, with the semblance of power, of might, the gleaming crown, the bonds of friendship. The wall serves as the background for the coronation. In the second part it becomes more ‘medieval’ – the wall is transformed into an altar. The characters begin to know themselves and abandon their passing convictions about what life is. They attain finality. The first part is a theatre of life, what tempts us in life. The second is life’s ‘quagmire’, what makes us recoil from it, what we are afraid of.
Poniedziałek: The second part ends with a duel, with medieval swords rather than rapiers. This leads to a death ritual; the characters submit to it, without understanding why they are to die.
Szczęśniak: It’s difficult to construct a set that doesn’t aim to imitate but that gives a sense of the cosmos; a space like the one in the Globe Theatre, in which the spectators surround the stage and observe each other. We wanted to create a similar community of actors and spectators. We kept only the essential props. The costumes are very synthetic, a bit more decorative in the first part, similar in cut – the King, Hamlet, and the Ghost are all dressed the same. In Shakespeare, the costumes should only stimulate the spectator’s imagination. We are becoming more and more interested in the actors, in ideas, and less in the framework of the performance.
Warlikowski: We have produced several plays by Shakespeare and we’ve gradually learned what this world needs and what it doesn’t. And we stripped it down. Thus, the remaining objects – a skull, a flute, the swords – acquire great significance on the stage.
Shakespeare gives life to the theatre because he emerges from a very old tradition, as does Greek theatre. This world is very simple because it depends on the actor – this is why it has such strength.
Targoń: There is a lot of physical cruelty and bodily contact in your performance. The Murder of Gonzago scene doesn’t begin with the dumb-show but with a fight – seemingly a real one, not simulated. The fury that led to the fight is as tangible onstage as the bodies of the victims.
Poniedziałek: In a certain sense, Krzysiek [Krzysztof] has rejected the theatre. He doesn’t show dirt for the sake of it but because this is how we are.
Warlikowski: In Poland, more often than anywhere else, people intrude in the lives of others and rummage around with dirty hands. My performance reflects this harsh reality.
Poniedziałek: The problem is how to show this without being distasteful and in a meaningful way. During rehearsals, Krzysiek provoked tensions between people. The force of certain actions was so great that it was as if we were intruding on the limits of each others’ bodies and souls.
Warlikowski: We worked outside the theatre, in a rented space with large windows, overlooking a garden where children would play. Once, we were rehearsing the monologue about Pyrrhus. Cezary Kosiński began to speak louder and louder, he became more and more visibly transformed, and suddenly the children started to come closer and to press their faces up against the glass. I thought this monologue should attract the King and Queen in the same way. A non-theatrical space allows more freedom of thought, it doesn’t demand instant results.
Targoń: Is Hamlet mad or does he feign madness?
Poniedziałek: I don’t know. It all depends on the situation. One of the mysteries of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and one of the mysteries of Warlikowski’s Hamlet is that all the borders between love and hate, madness and consciousness, are fluid. They exist in darkness. Hamlet is not consistent.
Warlikowski: I had no ambition to stage Hamlet. There have been so many productions that I didn’t think I could add anything insightful. I wanted to touch people with Hamlet – to capture their extreme reactions and emotions, which in Shakespeare are like lavender oil: when they’re watered down, they bring pleasure and when they are concentrated, they make your head spin.
Translated from Polish by Duncan Jamieson, Adela Karsznia, and Małgorzata Rogalińska.
- ^ This text was first published in Polish as ‘Grzech pierworodny. Z Małgorzatą Szczęśniak, Jackiem Poniedziałkiem i Krzysztofem Warlikowskim rozmawia Joanna Targoń’, Didaskalia, 34 (1999), 8-11. Eds.