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Body, Word, Memory: The actor in Krzysztof Warlikowski's theatre


Krzysztof Warlikowski Nowy Teatr TR Warszawa Sarah Kane Bernard-Marie Koltès Hanoch Levin William Shakespeare Sophocles Euripides Teatr Rozmaitości Teatr Dramatyczny The Taming of the Shrew Stanisława Celińska Magdalena Cielecka Adam Ferency Mariusz Bonaszewski Małgorzata Hajewska-Krzysztofik Danuta Stenka Cleansed The Tempest Jacek Poniedziałek Andrzej Chyra The Dybbuk The Bacchae Renate Jett (A)pollonia Grzegorz Jarzyna Krystian Lupa


Monika Żółkoś teaches in the Department of Literary Anthropology and Artistic Criticism at the University of Gdańsk. She is author of the monographic study Ciało mówiące. ‘Iwona, księżniczka Burgunda’ Witolda Gombrowicza (The Speaking Body: Witold Gombrowicz’s Ivona, Princess of Burgundy, 2002). She has published articles in Alternatives Théâtrales, Dialog, Teatr, and Opcje, and was a co-editor of the collected volume Dialog w dramacie (Dialogue in Dramatic Plays, 2004).

The dramatic compositions directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski have been some of the most important events on the Polish theatre scene of the last few decades.

His characteristic and unmistakable style consists of a wide variety of elements, with his selection and interpretation of literary texts being particularly noteworthy in the contemporary Polish context. Warlikowski does not focus on the prevalent traditions of Polish Romanticism and post-Romanticism, nor is he interested in recent Polish drama. Rather, he reaches for canonical European texts that are not directly implicated in Poland’s national interpretative context, and explores how they intersect with the current social reality. Some of the most important sources for Warlikowski have been Shakespeare, the ancient Greek tragedians (Sophocles, Euripides), and contemporary playwrights such as Sarah Kane (1971-1999), Bernard-Marie Koltès (1948-1989), and Hanoch Levin (1943-1999). Warlikowski’s productions accentuate questions of gender and sexuality, societal modes and constructions of embodiment, and ethically ambiguous aspects of interpersonal relations that tend to be neglected within ‘high culture’. His protagonists often suffer from unfulfilled affective desires. In recent years, Warlikowski has also returned repeatedly to the post-traumatic motif of the Holocaust and the treatment of the Polish Jews, exploring questions of collective and transgenerational guilt, repression, and remembering.[1]

Literary selection and thematic focus are not the only main components that mark the distinctiveness of Warlikowski’s theatre. His productions have exerted a considerable influence on the renewal of approaches to acting craft in Poland. At TR Warszawa (the Teatr Rozmaitości/Variety Theatre in Warsaw), he encountered a group of artists who, like him, sought to create performances that unsettled, provoked, and asserted a profound impact on their audiences. Many of these actors have continued to work with Warlikowski into the current phase of his activity at the Nowy Teatr (New Theatre), which he co-founded after leaving TR in 2008.

Warlikowski began his collaboration with TR in 1999 as an already established artist, having directed acclaimed performances both in Poland and abroad. Some had become quite controversial cultural and public events, such as The Taming of the Shrew (1998) at Warsaw’s Teatr Dramatyczny (Drama Theatre). This production undertook a gender-inflected reading of Shakespeare’s play, depicting the ‘taming’ of the protagonist, Katherina, as an aggressive process that imposed various normative conventions of femininity. Nobody in the recent ‘institutional’ [instytucjonalny] – that is, mainstream – Polish theatre had previously interpreted Shakespeare in such a radically feminist way. Several critics have pointed out that Warlikowski’s work on The Taming of the Shrew was a landmark in the emergence of his mature theatrical style. Nevertheless, his appointment at TR Warszawa signalled an intense period of further development. There, Warlikowski had the opportunity to work with a relatively stable ensemble that shared his creative sensibilities, was open to taking artistic risks, and was committed to interrogating established approaches to acting.

Warlikowski’s ensemble had a permanent core, and included actors who had developed artistically not only through their collaboration with him, but with TR Warszawa’s artistic director Grzegorz Jarzyna and, in certain cases, with Krystian Lupa.[2] However, the group has never been hermetically sealed. Other artists have been invited to collaborate with the ensemble for certain productions, on condition that they engaged at a personal level with the process and sought to move beyond the externally constructed roles prevalent in much Polish repertory theatre. Also, the Austrian actor, Renate Jett – whose performing style was very close to that developed by Warlikowski and the actors at TR – was invited to join the group, after her collaboration with Warlikowski in Stuttgart.


Jacek Poniedziałek as Hamlet, and Magdalena Cielecka as Ophelia in Warlikowski’s 1999 production. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Following the inception of this ensemble, Warlikowski and the actors at TR Warszawa staged several productions, including Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1999), Euripides’ The Bacchae and Sarah Kane’s Cleansed (2001), Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Solomon Ansky’s The Dybbuk (2003), Hanoch Levin’s Krum (2005), and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (2007). However, the productions were not the only main objective; equally important were the investigations undertaken during preparation and rehearsals, and the performers’ individual trajectories across multiple works. According to the accounts of several of the actors, the creative process would continue long after the premiere, with roles being revised and further developed. Individual performances became part of a larger, continuous process, in which the actors’ roles connected with their performances in other productions and entered into complex interrelationships. For instance, Stanisława Celińska played Queen Gertrude in Hamlet, an ageing stripper in Cleansed, and the mother of the protagonist in Krum, creating a tapestry of different existential conditions engendered by an exploration of the relationship between maternity and sexuality. This emphasis placed by Warlikowski on specific aspects of the creative process, rather than on the final product, resonates with a certain idea of theatre as a laboratory for experimentation. However, the ways in which Warlikowski’s laboratory research was conceived and functions are distinct from those in the established Polish discourses of laboratory practice associated with the work of Jerzy Grotowski or with Włodzimierz Staniewski’s Centre for Theatre Practices ‘Gardzienice’, for example. The latter approaches have rarely been reflected in, or translated into, developments within mainstream theatres in Poland. In this regard, there have been in effect two distinct streams of Polish theatre – ‘alternative’ and ‘institutional’ – and connections between them remain largely incidental.[3]

Stanisława Celińska as Gertrude (left) in Warlikowski‘s 1999 production of Hamlet. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Stanisława Celińska as Gertrude (left) in Warlikowski‘s 1999 production of Hamlet. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Warlikowski has not created a holistic ‘system’ or an integrated approach to performer training; intuitive understanding, being-in-doubt, and the ongoing evolution of working methods are essential components here, and singular approaches for individual actors are in constant negotiation. Although Warlikowski has not outlined a theory of acting as such, he has nevertheless managed to effect a practical shift in how acting has been conceived in Polish repertory theatre. I suggest that a major difference between Warlikowski’s approach and previous trends within institutional theatre lies in the disparate ways in which the actors’ work is conceived in the theatrical space. In the staging and reception of Polish repertory productions of the 1970s into the 1990s, actors’ bodies were largely understood to function as signifiers of certain emotions and intentions; in Warlikowski’s theatre, they have become sites of liminal experiences. The actor does not seek to resemble or to represent something in the traditional sense, but to interact authentically in space and in relation to other bodies. In this sense, there is a marked contrast between Warlikowski’s theatre and theatres rooted in a more rhetorical or replicative form, despite the shared reliance on a literary base. With Warlikowski, the spoken word is animated throughout the whole body, and the experience of language becomes primarily a sensuous one.

In an interview conducted during the preparation of Cleansed, Celińska, an experienced repertory actor, suggested that ‘Composed, coldly calculated acting no longer touches anyone. What can touch people are honesty, openness, and authenticity. Dramatic literature has changed, acting must also change’.[4] This dissatisfaction and the search for a new aesthetics of acting by a small circle of artists associated with TR eventually took on a much wider importance, with their work coming to influence significantly the expectations of contemporary Polish audiences. The deep privacy of the role, the inner layering of the character and its correlation with aspects of the actor’s personal life, as well as the development of highly individualised modes of physical expression, have led to the redefinition of the boundaries marked by individual and societal inhibitions within Polish theatre.

These changes of acting style are not reducible to an emerging generation of artists; it should be emphasised that several of the principal actors in Warlikowski’s theatre did not begin their creative journeys with this director. Already formed and experienced actors, with clear and crystallized ideas about their work – such as Celińska, Adam Ferency, and Małgorzata Hajewska-Krzysztofik – have, in their own unique ways, lent outer credibility to the ethos of the ensemble. A key shift has been the extent to which ‘characters’ in Warlikowski’s theatre are rooted in the actors’ personal lives and physical limitations (albeit without a singular technique or a method of physical training). While this does not entail a complete rejection of the actors’ earlier professional experiences, it does suggest a critique of techniques used at many commercial theatres, where catering to audience expectations is often paramount. Warlikowski prevents his performers from focusing on such approval, and attempts to engage the spectators through the singular life background of each actor. As his reputation has grown, Warlikowski’s recent productions may not carry the same level of risk: they have stirred up less controversy and have been met almost universally with positive reactions. However, the protests and reactions of previous years have, to a certain extent, influenced his actors and provided them with critical perspectives on their practice.

The risk involved in ‘measuring’ the actor’s personal condition against the character can be seen especially in the roles played by Hajewska-Krzysztofik and Celińska. Before committing to work with Warlikowski, Hajewska-Krzysztofik had performed extensively with Krystian Lupa; her collaboration with TR thus did not mark a sudden jump into experimentation, but rather a new development out of her earlier artistic choices. She took part in Lupa’s famous compositions in the 1990s, when his theatre became highly esteemed by audiences and critics alike. She played Konrad’s wife in Thomas Bernhard’s Kalkwerk (The Lime Works, 1992) and Ritter in his Rodzeństwo (Ritter, Dene, Voss, 1996). Both are hurt, broken, and introverted women, who are engaged in perverse games within their immediate environments. With Lupa, Hajewska-Krzysztofik developed a nuanced and seemingly withdrawn mode of performing, combined with a notably intense stage presence. She mastered a detail-oriented approach, avoiding excessive gestures and affectation; her characters were as if ‘hidden’ within her. They gave the impression they were almost too damaged to appear to the world; rather, they interacted with other people through singular gestures – a gaze or a word.

Since joining Warlikowski at TR Warszawa, Hajewska-Krzysztofik has further developed the radicalism of her stage presence by exploring a series of liminal states across several productions. In The Bacchae, she played Agave, who, in a Dionysian fury, tears her son Pentheus to pieces. In the performance, she enters the stage holding her son’s head under her arm – intoxicated with blood and unburdened with reality. The act of recognition through which she becomes aware of her deed is embodied by the actor through a kind of double expression. Grzegorz Niziołek writes that her realisation ‘that the hunted animal was her son resembles both childbirth and agony. […] Her body is tense and powerless; it is given over to forces beyond her control. Her voice is determined by the rhythm of her quick, short breaths. Her body, in a liminal state, experiences the extreme contradictions of life’.[5] In Cleansed, Hajewska-Krzysztofik played Grace, a woman who, like Agave, reaches the limits of human experience – this time, the limits of gender. Grace desires to undergo a transsexual procedure in order to transform into her brother. She expects the doctor, Tinker, to change not only her sex but with it her whole identity. With a penis stitched onto her body, and her chest tightly bandaged, she stands before the spectators as if before a mirror in which to observe her new condition. Grace’s appearance lays bare the utopian nature of the whole project: the amputation of all outer signs of femininity does not fulfil her desire, nor endow her with a masculine identity. Warlikowski’s productions consciously reveal the external and cultural nature of gender; gender roles are imposed on the protagonists – at times violently – creating restrictions and fracturing their sense of identity.


Małgorzata Hajewska-Krzysztofik as Grace in Warlikowski’s 2001 production of Cleansed. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

In The Tempest, Hajewska-Krzysztofik plays an ageing Miranda who, through her ignorance of the appropriate social conventions, remains oblivious to how she should behave in ‘civilised’ company. In Hajewska-Krzysztofik’s interpretation, Prospero’s daughter is like a Shakespearean Kaspar Hauser. Raised outside civilisation, she has retained an untamed, intuitive way of perceiving reality, which she absorbs as if through her skin. Maturity and childhood resound within her with the same force. They allow Hajewska-Krzysztofik to break down the sentimentalism of the character and endow her with the capacity for a radical kind of love towards Ferdinand. This Miranda is disadvantaged in a particular way; she remains unadapted to the norms of the world she now enters, combining childish behaviour, a youthful emotional force, and the body of a mature female actor who by the ordinary conventions of repertory theatre would likely be considered ‘past’ playing a romantic lead. Hajewska-Krzysztofik draws – or rather accepts – the character within herself and within her own psychophysical condition; she has the courage to endow Miranda with her personal characteristics and to ground the character in her own bodily experiences. There is little ‘impersonation’ as such; the dramaturgy of this role depends precisely on the connection of amorous impulses to mature bodily attributes that – in other theatres and by social convention – are typically kept apart and unspoken. This shaping of the relationship between actor and character consciously links the actor’s self-cognition with social transgression and self-revelation.

Stanisława Celińska refers to the stripping back of her own acting style in Warlikowski’s performances in the following terms: ‘Everything that I had constructed so beautifully during those years [in professional theatre] – all the so-called “cold and constructed acting” – was shaken off’.[6] Celińska’s creations would not have existed had it not been for the decision to break with her safe professional environment and past experiences by pursuing a new path with Warlikowski. To recognise fully the boldness of her decision, we should recall that Celińska had been a commercially successful and well-established theatre and film actor for many years, known primarily for her roles in Andrzej Wajda’s films.[7] She had started to fall back on certain forms of stylisation and caricature, and admits that prior to her encounter with Warlikowski she had lost something of her experimental curiosity. Speaking of her role as the peep-show dancer in Cleansed, she states: ‘Up to now, I made use of a characteristic style of acting – I’d be funny, entertaining, cheerful, fat. And it [worked] all right. [But] love is a quite dangerous subject. It’s always associated with a certain fear, with risk. Personally I had wanted to avoid this and to forget about something [from my personal life], to live a normal life’.[8] Celińska’s performances in Cleansed or as Gertrude in Hamlet, speak to the core of such risks. Preparing these characters effectively demanded that she measure each role against her own sexuality, against certain personal desires she considered to be closed or dormant for her.[9] This is particularly true of her difficult part in Cleansed. Celińska’s peep-show dancer is an aged, fatigued, and bitter woman. The fullness of her body is accentuated by her undersized black lingerie. During her dance, she teases the men with suggestive gestures; she emits inviting cries and seductively caresses her thighs. At the same time, in the midst of her humiliation and objectification, she remains surprisingly detached from and immune to all the wrongdoing that surrounds her. She is capable of cutting through it in a way that sanctifies even Tinker (Mariusz Bonaszewski), the sociopathic doctor who conducts experiments on human bodies and souls.

The work on this role caused Celińska to refer to a sphere of private experience that for her belonged already to the past. She admits that ‘I had various bits of baggage. I am of a certain age, I have a certain investment in my name and professional position, and I had various anxieties. I was afraid that maybe this literature [Cleansed] was not worth the risk. I also didn’t want to touch on certain aspects of my life that I regarded as closed. I was embarrassed by my physicality’, and that ‘I was afraid of exposing my body, and also of touching on what I’d already finished with in my life – that is, the need for physical and emotional love’.[10] When interviewed, Celińska often indicated that her work on Cleansed came at a high personal cost, and that she initially felt unable to perform the dancer’s sexual gestures and the physical contact with her partner. She prepared for the task by observing erotic dancers in peep shows, eventually concluding that the most crucial aspect is in the character’s kernel of innocence, which stands in sharp contrast to her surroundings and provided a way for Celińska to begin to overcome her personal difficulties with the role. In Warlikowski’s production, the stripper’s dance becomes an act of compassion – a kindness towards the perverted doctor of Kane’s play.





Above: Stanisława Celińska as the peep-show dancer in Cleansed. Photographs: Stefan Okołowicz.

Warlikowski’s choice of actors is undeniably strategic and purposeful. While it is not possible to identify a single approach that he relies on, it is clear that he does not look for a fit between actor and role in the conventional sense. The character as described often conflicts in myriad ways with the actor’s image and personal and career experience, and is not easily reconcilable with their physical state. In Warlikowski’s theatre, the role should exist as a challenge or obstruction. To perform a role, the actor must often inhabit a situation that is difficult for them, not only in an artistic or physically challenging sense, but also existentially. In Piotr Gruszczyński’s extended series of interviews with Warlikowski, the director – hinting at Tadeusz Kantor’s famous phrase – claims ‘you cannot enter the theatre with impunity’.[11] Kantor employed this phrase for the first time in the context of the clandestine underground theatre during the German occupation of Poland in the Second World War, when ‘entering the theatre’ could result in the arrest of all those present. However, in subsequent years, Kantor tended to repeat the phrase in a less literal sense. In this later context, it referred to the personal and psychological ‘cost’ of the theatrical experience; ‘entering the theatre’ meant maintaining a certain openness towards being roused or challenged. When Warlikowski cites Kantor’s phrase, he refers it primarily to the actor’s work, but also suggests that this is ‘a mutual obligation’ both for the actors and for the audience.[12]

In his work, Warlikowski explores radical conditions and liminal situations. He does not accept performances grounded in theatrical form, that have not been layered internally, and is highly attuned to ‘inauthenticity’. He waits patiently for the role to mature. He circles around the text, sometimes asking the actors a flurry of questions, often touching on subjects that are seemingly not directly related to the play. While working on The Tempest, he raised the question of Jedwabne, a town in northeast Poland where Poles conducted a massacre of their Jewish neighbours in 1941.[13] He thus invoked the problem of forgiveness, which was central both to the Shakespearean drama and to the heated public debates that were taking place in Poland at the time of its staging. While working on The Dybbuk, Warlikowski initiated discussions with the actors about the Holocaust and the post-war Jewish legacy in Poland. The scholar Małgorzata Dziewulska has argued that Warlikowski’s theatre bears certain similarities to that of Konrad Swinarski, the eminent Polish director and close student of Brecht who died in an aeroplane crash in 1975. Not unlike Swinarski, Warlikowski closely interrogates the dramatic text. He asks questions that provoke the actors to deconstruct it and uncover new lines of characterisation. He does not trust surface readings or what appears to be most self-evident about the characters, searching instead for the subterranean and the ambiguous elements that lie within them.[14] Warlikowski offers the actors challenging roles, poses difficult questions, creates discomforting situations – and waits for their performance personas to ‘germinate’.

Warlikowski works with a relatively stable ensemble of actors. However, he has made strategic and productive use of introducing outsiders into that group – artists with significantly different experiences and styles of performance – thus provoking intense exchanges and interactions within the collective. Mariusz Bonaszewski had specialised in playing characters from Chekhov before he was cast in Cleansed; his professional experience was in elaborating psychologically complex creations, but without being exposed to a more personal exploration of, for example, his physicality and sexuality. Warlikowski prompted Bonaszewski to create a character who explores the limits of human cruelty towards others – whose sadism actually appears as a peculiar act of interpersonal connection. In subsequent interviews, Bonaszewski described the greatest challenge as not giving in to the temptation to engage in a moralistic way with his character Tinker. Tinker’s humanity is revealed in his erotic dreams about the ageing peep-show stripper, which – as we learn from interviews with Celińska – were difficult for Bonaszewski because of their lack of inhibitions.[15] Bonaszewski acknowledges that in a certain moment in the course of working on this role, he began to withdraw and to rely on emphasising its external form. Warlikowski pushed him to abandon these calculated behaviours, to avoid portraying a stereotypical perpetrator of atrocities. Instead, he set him a challenge to seek in this role ‘a small child, who observes everything with interest and a smile’.[16] Tinker’s cruelty thus became grounded in an amoral exploration of his surroundings and interactions rather than in a prefigured sadistic impulse.


Stanisława Celińska (left) and Mariusz Bonaszewski in Cleansed. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

The central objective here is not to manipulate, shock, or embarrass the spectator with the actor’s intimacy; the profoundly private character of the role is not intended to become exhibitionist. In one interview, Jacek Poniedziałek, who played Hamlet in Warlikowski’s 1999 production, states that, ‘[t]he actor should always speak from their own self. [...] By observing the personality of the individual, we can reach the mechanisms of their behaviour – by orienting ourselves towards what is internal and not focusing on external gestures’.[17] Warlikowski made the tendency towards such acting an interpretative key to the whole performance of Hamlet. The actors occasionally revealed their private ‘selves’ as if from ‘behind’ the characters. However, their objective was not to multiply the levels of theatricality, but to free the characters from their past cultural, literary, and social histories, as well as to work on Hamlet in a way that would draw out its more individualistic, carnal, and interpersonal dimensions.[18] Warlikowski was aware of the challenges that occur when working on such a canonical text – which carries the considerable baggage of a rich theatrical tradition – and he aimed to free the actors’ relationship to this play from the weight of history.

The changes in the conception of acting introduced by Warlikowski’s theatre, particularly the emphasis on personal, psychophysical experience, can be compared to a trend that has featured heavily in the arts scene in Poland for more than a decade. In Warlikowski’s theatre, the actor’s body is the primary conveyor of meaning. Analogously, human physicalities and their entanglement in social and political discourses, as well as rejected or censored images of the body, became central to the work of artists engaged in the ‘critical art’ movement from the early 1990s onwards. In this work there increasingly appeared, as Izabela Kowalczyk writes, ‘bodies contrary to ideas and to norms, bodies that are ill, old, disabled. They explore the zones at the limit of experience and analyse ways of disciplining the body. They draw attention to the differentiated [modes of] construction of the sexes’.[19] In the work of artists such as Katarzyna Kozyra, Zbigniew Libera, and Artur Żmijewski there is a return to an image of a body that cannot be possessed or contained by mass culture, and which becomes manifest through experiences that are problematic in popular representation – such as illness, ageing, disability, or ugliness. Such a body is no longer perceived as an aestheticized ‘container’, but is instead revealed to be implicated in relations of ‘dispersed power’, in Foucault’s terms.[20] The act of exposing a body that is habitually rejected or marginalised within the public sphere, or excluded from public representation due of a lack of conformity to social ‘norms’, reveals the power relations that are inscribed in and that discipline the body. Jolanta Brach-Czaina has argued that ‘critical art’ rejects the idea of a body constituted through the gaze of another and which operates on the principle of the viewer’s pleasure. Rather, ‘critical art’ asserts the body’s subjective experience.[21]

Warlikowski’s productions at TR Warszawa often took such bodily experiences as their theme. This required the actors to mobilise their physical presence onstage in a completely different way – often to play naked, and to measure themselves against their own inhibitions and blockages. The effect was a certain ‘displacement’ of the body in performance. An important theme in this theatre is the preoccupation with Otherness, with what is typically excluded by the established social order. Often the majority of characters must redefine themselves and their attitudes in relation to a figure or phenomenon they cannot tame or appropriate, assume within their existing worldview, or subsume within familiar categories. In The Dybbuk, Magdalena Cielecka plays Leah, a young woman who is ‘entered’ by the spirit of her deceased lover. Cielecka’s performance clearly reveals the divisions that ensue within Leah, and her hesitation in the face of conflicting feelings and impulses. On one hand, she manifests a phantasmal desire for bodily fullness, and for a lasting union with her beloved (the young girl ‘dissolves’ within the lover, and he within her); on the other, the terror experienced by the young girl indicates that Leah has been effectively alienated from herself – she has lost control of her body, which is possessed by the dybbuk. Leah’s sense of fulfilment and the nightmare of being excluded from her own bodily experience are brought together simultaneously, within a singular performative mode that also intersects with wider debates around Polish and Jewish identities.


Magdalena Cielecka as Leah in The Dybbuk (2003). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Many of Warlikowski’s protagonists similarly manifest a psychophysical condition that is hard to classify, often placing significant demands on the actor. This is true both of Jett’s Caliban and Cielecka’s Ariel. Grzegorz Niziołek has argued that in Warlikowski’s production of The Tempest:

Ariel and Caliban have androgynous features: [the former] strives toward identification with a phantasmatic image of femininity, and the other attempts to break free of it. In light of their experiences, the body is [signified as] something that is rejected, ambivalent, tamed, [and yet] subject to rebellious drives. Corporality becomes a site of inner conflict and, as with language, a site of conflicted identity.[22]

In The Bacchae, Pentheus’s (Jacek Poniedziałek’s) characteristically ‘feminine’ attire is what testifies to the king’s decline, and to his humiliation at the hands of Dionysus. Warlikowski’s actors expose the theatrical nature of sexual identity; they ‘dress up’ in genders, and perform them consciously. Andrzej Chyra’s Dionysus is another characteristic example of such a hybrid existence. The horror and the strangeness of the god are demonstrated through the actor’s rapid, successive use of diverse forms of physical expression. Dionysus is entangled in disparate orders of being; Chyra constructs the character using soft, animal gestures, imbuing them with a delicate aura that is conveyed through his manner of speaking and his very subtle movements. But in certain scenes in which he displays his cruelty, his facial expression petrifies and his manner becomes dominant and decisive. In Chyra’s interpretation, Dionysus’ condition is fluid and intangible, and his physicality so inhuman that it can neither be grasped nor defined. It conveys the menacing potential to incorporate or generate any kind of tone or gesture. The words of Lynda Nead are well suited to this creation: ‘All transitional states [...] pose a threat; anything that resists classification or refuses to belong to one category or another emanates danger. And once again it is the margins, the very edges of categories, that are most critical in the construction of symbolic meaning’.[23] The first scene of The Bacchae is particularly significant in this respect. The god, barely visible on the dark stage, gibbers incomprehensibly. Slowly, from these disturbing animal-like grunts, words emerge. Dionysus is born in language.

One of the key features of the acting in Warlikowski’s theatre is the attempt to explore – as if for the first time – the in-depth connection between word and body. At times, language becomes an almost physical obstacle: it acts as a blockage, a resistance, as in the declaration of love at the opening of Cleansed. In this scene, the Austrian actor Renate Jett speaks Polish with obvious difficulty: she mispronounces and drops certain sounds, and breaks down sentences using the phraseology of a learner. In one interview, she refers to the performance as ‘an escape from my mother tongue’, stating that, ‘At first, I didn’t understand what I was saying, and every word was a separate entity. Only recently [nearly two years after working on the role] have the words become linked for me in a meaningful whole’.[24] The lengthy process of the emergence of linguistic meaning allowed Jett firstly to experience the words sensuously, at the level of sound and resonance. In this performance, the word is inextricably bound up with the body, and the act of speech becomes a whole bodily act; language in Warlikowski’s theatre is consciously rooted in the actors’ physicalities.

Complex relations between language and gender in Warlikowski’s theatre are best exemplified in his adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. Kate (Danuta Stenka) undergoes an enforced transformation: three transvestites, replacing the female servants of Shakespeare’s text, force a ‘prostitute’s dress’ onto Kate and teach her the art of ‘sex-appeal’, performing a certain conception of femininity as a template for her to follow. This dynamic resonates with the theory of gender performativity formulated by Judith Butler, who writes: ‘In what senses, then, is gender an act? As in other ritual social dramas, the action of gender requires a performance that is repeated. This repetition is at once a re-enactment and re-experiencing of a set of meanings already socially established: and it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimation’.[25] In Stenka’s and Warlikowski’s interpretation, the performative nature of gender coincides with its overt manifestation and the aggressive imposition of norms. In the subsequent scenes of the play, Kate learns how to perform socially ‘acceptable’ models of femininity and, consequently, surrenders her autonomy. This process reaches its culmination in her final monologue, which reveals language to be a primary instrument in shaping gender roles. In this memorable and intriguing speech, the protagonist accepts the superior standing of her husband and his authority over her life, and professes to him her eternal debt of gratitude. Stenka delivers this speech as if every word were turning against her and causing her pain. She spits the phrases with bitterness and disgust, in an unstoppable, vomiting motion. When, at certain moments, she searches for words of resistance, it is as if she cannot emit a sound. Her mute protest carries no weight.[26]


Danuta Stenka as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew (1998). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Warlikowski’s actors often evince a certain performance persona and a concentrated intensity of stage presence prior to being ‘dressed up’ in the gestures or words of a given production. The latter emerge only out of the actors’ ‘inner’ engagement and decisions. First the role must be constructed internally, and the corresponding forms of expression are found only later. At times – and this is particularly striking – the actors suppress almost all external manifestation of their characters. Cielecka, who gained experience in Jarzyna’s theatre and began to work with Warlikowski as an already experienced artist, is noted for this trait. All of her protagonists are women ‘with a secret’ – that of an extraordinarily studied, but never completely revealed personality. What resonates within these characters is a perceptible inner life of unusual intensity. One of her first stage creations, which became crucial in terms of her professional career, was the title role in Jarzyna’s production of Witold Gombrowicz’s Iwona, księżniczka Burgunda (Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy). This character or persona continued to resonate in Cielecka’s ongoing work, as if having permeated her subsequent creations. It is detectable in her Ophelia in Warlikowski’s production of Hamlet, and in the role of Pia, the childish maid in Jarzyna’s production of Uroczystość (Festen, 2001) to name but two; she appears silent, scared, like a creature suddenly transported into civilisation, unable to adapt, abandoned in a foreign world. Like several of Warlikowski’s long-time collaborators, Cielecka seems to have carried with her, and continued to explore, develop, and deepen such traits in her subsequent creations – there is a continuity of work which extends across a series of productions and which reveals the sustained nature of the actors’ investigations.[27]


Magdalena Cielecka as Ophelia in Warlikowski’s Hamlet (1999). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Angels in America was Warlikowski’s final production at TR Warszawa. This cult theatre, a symbol of the post-1989 transformations in Polish performance, has turned out to be too small for the two distinguished directors, Jarzyna and Warlikowski. Warlikowski left, together with a close group of actors, to form the Nowy Teatr. In May 2009, this company staged its first production: (A)pollonia, based on a collage of texts that contain motifs of sacrifice and post-traumatic memory by Aeschylus, Euripides, Hanna Krall, Jonathan Littell, and J. M. Coetzee, among others. The TR period has passed, but Warlikowski has opened a new chapter with substantially the same group of artists.[28] Their performances in (A)pollonia were of equal intensity but marked some new developments in Warlikowski’s theatre. The more extensive use of media technologies is a particularly noticeable feature: during the performance the action on stage was transmitted through a live camera-feed to projections on the rear wall. This device is used to incorporate close-ups, the nuances of expressions and gestures, and to give a sense of intruding on the actors’ privacy. In (A)pollonia the actors appear to ‘juggle’ their various conditions. At times they portray ancient, mythical figures, at others, figures from reportage; these shifts are combined fluidly and simultaneously through live, recorded, amplified, or distorted media. However, the actors continue to embrace their private, individual presences on stage. For Warlikowski and the ensemble, (A)pollonia signalled both a continuation and a search for the new.

Original text translated from Polish by Duncan Jamieson and Adela Karsznia; text subsequently expanded and updated in English by the author and editors.


  1. ^ For further discussion of this subject, see ‘The Path to The Dybbuk’, ‘Life in a Cemetery’, and ‘Poland's Dybbuks: A response to the Warlikowski dialogues’, Polish Theatre Perspectives, 1 (2015). Eds.
  2. ^ For more on Lupa’s work, see his extended interview ‘Returning to the Garden of Childhood’, Polish Theatre Perspectives, 1 (2015). Eds.
  3. ^ Maja Komorowska has proved an exception to this rule of dissociation, having worked as an actor with Jerzy Grotowski’s Laboratory Theatre and drawn on elements of this experience during a successful career in so-called ‘institutional’ theatre and film. (See the extended interview with Komorowska, in which she reflects on aspects of this transition: In Jerzy Grotowski’s Theatre’, Maja Komorowska talks to Barbara Osterloff, trans. by Justyna Drobnik-Rogers, in Voices from Within: Grotowski’s Polish Collaborators, ed. by Paul Allain & Grzegorz Ziółkowski (London: PTP, 2015), pp. 46-60. Eds.)
  4. ^ Teresa Wilniewczyc, ‘Dzień wcześniej skończyłam pięćdziesiąt lat: Rozmowa ze Stanisławą Celińską’ (I Turned Fifty the Day Before: A conversation with Stanisława Celińska), Notatnik Teatralny, 28-29 (2003), 15-32 (p. 16).
  5. ^ Grzegorz Niziołek, Warlikowski: Extra ecclesiam (Kraków: Homini, 2008), p. 82.
  6. ^ Wilniewczyc, ‘Dzień wcześniej skończyłam…’, p. 29.
  7. ^ These include Wajda’s film Katyń, which is discussed by Milija Gluhovic in his article ‘Exhumations: The return of the dead in Tadeusz Kantor’s Let the Artists Die and in Andrzej Wajda’s Katyń’, Polish Theatre Perspectives, 1 (2015). Eds.
  8. ^ Wilniewczyc, ‘Dzień wcześniej skończyłam…’, p. 24.
  9. ^ Ibid.
  10. ^ Ibid., pp. 20 and 24.
  11. ^ Warlikowski, in Szekspir i uzurpator. Z Krzysztofem Warlikowskim rozmawia Piotr Gruszczyński (Shakespeare and the Usurper: Piotr Gruszczyński in conversation with Krzysztof Warlikowski), ed. by Piotr Gruszczyński (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo WAB, 2007), p. 44. Original quotation from Kantor cited in Krzysztof Pleśniarowicz, Kantor. Artysta końca wieku (Kantor: Artist of the End of the Century) (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, 1997), p. 55. (Kantor’s statement was hung as a sign on the door of the room in which his performance The Return of Odysseus was being staged, in occupied Poland in 1944. Eds.)
  12. ^ Szekspir i uzurpator, p. 44.
  13. ^ For further discussion of this subject, see ‘Reimagining the Jewish Legacy in Post-communist Poland: Dialogues’. Eds.
  14. ^ For further discussion of Swinarski’s work, see ‘Returning to the Garden of Childhood’. Eds.
  15. ^ Wilniewczyc, ‘Dzień wcześniej skończyłam…’, p. 24.
  16. ^ See Maria Hepel, ‘Nie ma przepisu: Rozmowa z Mariuszem Bonaszewskim’ (There are no Recipes: A conversation with Mariusz Bonaszewski), Notatnik Teatralny, 28-29 (2003), 149-153.
  17. ^ Katarzyna Łuszczyk, ‘Podroż w siebie: Rozmowa z Jackiem Poniedziałkiem’ (A Journey within Oneself: A conversation with Jacek Poniedziałek), Notatnik Teatralny, 28-29 (2003), 41-49 (p. 47).
  18. ^ See Agata Adamiecka-Sitek, ‘W poszukiwaniu straconego ciała: Ciało – obraz – znak’ (In Search of the Lost Body: Body – Image – Sign), Notatnik Teatralny, 28-29 (2003), 190-209. (See also Warlikowski’s comments in ‘Original Sin’, in Polish Theatre Perspectives, 1 (2015). Eds.)
  19. ^ Izabela Kowalczyk, Ciało i władza: Polska sztuka krytyczna lat 90 (The Body and Power: Polish Critical Art of the 1990s) (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Sic!, 2003), p. 19.
  20. ^ See, for example, Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: selected interviews and other writings 1972-1977, ed. by Colin Gordon (Brighton: Harvester, 1980).
  21. ^ Jolanta Brach-Czaina, ‘Ciało wspołczesne’ (The Contemporary Body), Res Publica, 11 (2000), p. 6.
  22. ^ Niziołek, Extra ecclesiam, p. 116.
  23. ^ Lynda Nead, The female nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 6.
  24. ^ Katarzyna Sokulska, ‘Dialog o zagubieniu. Rozmowa z Renate Jett’ (Dialogue on Loss: A conversation with Renate Jett), Notatnik Teatralny, 28-29 (2003), 154-156 (p. 156). (On this performance, see also ‘Actors and their Truth’, Polish Theatre Perspectives, 1 (2015). Eds.)
  25. ^ Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 178.
  26. ^ Grzegorz Niziołek has suggested that this scene represents the final rape of Kate; see Extra ecclesiam, p. 29.
  27. ^ For further discussion of this continuous development, see Justyna Drobnik-Rogers, ‘Krzysztof Warlikowski and collaborative processes to performance: An intertheatrical reading’, Polish Theatre Perspectives, 1 (2015). Eds.
  28. ^ For details of the composition of this ensemble see ibid. Eds.

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