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Dangerous Island


Krzysztof Warlikowski Nowy Teatr TR Warszawa The Tempest William Shakespeare Jedwabne Jan T. Gross


Joanna Wichowska graduated in theatre studies from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and the Academy of Theatre Practices at the Centre for Theatre Practices ‘Gardzienice’. She has worked as an actor in ensembles such as Gardzienice, Teatr Węgajty, and Double Edge Theatre, and has served as a literary advisor to the C. K. Norwid Theatre in Jelenia Góra. Her articles on theatre have been published in Didaskalia and Notatnik Teatralny. She currently works as a theatre editor for the online magazine Dwutygodnik.

Burza (The Tempest) by William Shakespeare | translated by Stanisław Barańczak | TR Warszawa | Premiere: 4 January 2003 | Director: Krzysztof Warlikowski | Set and costume design: Małgorzata Szczęśniak | Music: Paweł Mykietyn | Lighting design: Felice Ross

It is impossible to feel safe during Krzysztof Warlikowski’s performances. Through its directness, his theatre is capable of attacking as well as seducing.[1]

There are as few rows of seats as possible in the auditorium, often with part of the audience on the stage itself. The closer, the better. The actors are within touching distance. They possess an extraordinary readiness for extreme emotional and physical revelation. This theatre does not want to be contemplated or admired, it does not want to be an aesthetic object. It wants to touch. There are moments when it spills out openly, defiantly from the stage and into the audience. It forces its way into the spectators’ private sphere, removing the comfort of anonymity and unmasking their suspect role as voyeurs. During the Mousetrap scene in the play-within-the-play in Warlikowski’s Hamlet (1999), the court sits facing the audience at the edge of the stage, right in front of the first row. Lights illuminate the auditorium. The actors look directly at us, straight into our eyes – no tricks, no coquetry. For an excruciatingly long time. A trap has been laid for us. In Warlikowski’s production of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed (2001), the characters are present together on stage during just one brief scene. They do nothing; the action is on ‘pause’. There is time for Grace to utter her final words: ‘Kill them all’. The house lights go up. They are looking into our eyes again. They smile, they laugh. Grace has anticipated us. It is up to us to throw the first stone.

The fundamental mechanism of the theatre is revealed and reversed at the same time; the observers become the observed. Warlikowski executes the exchange of roles brutally, and yet also with a degree of subtlety. The brutality emerges from the fact that we are lit without any prior warning, placed unceremoniously under the gaze of the actors – and the more direct and organic their gaze, the more defenceless they leave us. The subtlety emerges from the fact that no one forces us into anything or to enter into a communion with the actors. We may gaze at them, they gaze at us. It is not only the audience who feel naked, but the actors too must cast aside their characters and gaze humanly and sincerely, with all safeguards removed. This is not at all easy and perhaps exposes the actors’ vulnerability more than appearing naked onstage. The division between actors and spectators is not dissolved; rather its relativity and the potential interpenetrations of the two worlds are revealed. No one pretends that the space beyond the footlights is empty. Equally, no one flirts with us, no one indulges in any tricks. We are simply noticed. It is worth sitting in the front rows for Warlikowski’s performances, just for this ambiguous pleasure of being exposed and recognised, of being provoked and treated as an individual. The closer, the better.

Warlikowski seeks out ways of directly confronting the spectators, enlisting the help of the authors whose work he stages. A text by, say, Shakespeare must be made tangibly close. It must be spoken, says Warlikowski, ‘in such a way that audience members feel it under their skin during every moment of the performance’.[2] It must be ‘made so direct that it takes the theatre to the limits of destruction’.[3] The Tempest is especially suited to such transgressions, since it constantly comments upon itself, creating an illusion and immediately shattering it (‘We all were sea-swallow’d, though some cast again, / And by that destiny, to perform an act’). However, the director participates in this game of illusions not in order to manipulate the levels of theatricality, but rather to test its limits once again, its ability to get under the skin of audiences.

Caliban (Renate Jett, left) and Stephano (Jacek Poniedziałek) in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of The Tempest. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Caliban (Renate Jett, left) and Stephano (Jacek Poniedziałek) in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of The Tempest. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

The distance between Shakespeare’s poetics and our contemporary linguistic conventions and sensibilities is collapsed. Warlikowski strips down the text of its elaborate metaphors, multilayered similes, rhetorical flourishes, deft linguistic concepts, and mythological staffage – all that belongs to historical convention. He rarely permits us to delight in the beauty of the words or in an insightful or witty bon mot. These are matters of secondary importance. He distils sentences to their essence. The dialogue possesses a great clarity – it retains no superfluous phrases nor embellishments. All that remains are the events taking place between people, and their affective responses, for which the actors seem to search out the most suitable words – here and now.

Warlikowski’s adaptation of the script appears to have taken place onstage during rehearsals, with the final version a result of the actors’ confrontations with the text rather than of the director’s preconceived decisions. Many cuts and additions seem to have resulted from improvisation and chance events during rehearsals. The actors first appear to try Shakespeare’s words on for size, as if trying on a costume – checking where it chafes, where it rustles unnecessarily, whether it fits snugly or sits uncomfortably. It is only then that they begin tailoring, making cuts, removing unnecessary decorations – and sometimes replacing certain details with others that are simpler or more functional. They rediscover the poetry in several of the wordplays, and a deep engagement where a superficial reading would reveal mere convention. They introduce contemporary colloquialisms into the text in such a way that it would be difficult to imagine the characters as complete without a few ‘fucks’ here and there. They demonstrate that the profound statements in the play can be uttered without striking false notes, and that Shakespeare’s metaphors can become concrete, can take on physical form. Shakespeare is brought exceptionally close to us when spoken by such actors. And his words are engaged to speak insightfully about the contemporary world.

The island of Shakespeare’s play is what we might call fantastical: elemental, filled with creatures, plants, strange sounds, and magic. However, Warlikowski’s stage is almost aseptic. The space is marked out sparingly and precisely – it contains just a handful of objects, which renders these all the more significant. It is shaped, and caused to expand or contract by the lighting. It provides fertile grounds for the imagination, but above all for how we perceive the actors. In Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s restrained set design, each gesture, facial expression, and intonation becomes exceptionally clear. The vast, almost empty stage space manifests itself differently with every scene. Elements of contemporary, everyday life appear, but devoid of any context. In the scenes involving Stephano and Trinculo, there are barstools and a rudimentary bar but little else; the first scenes with the shipwrecked royals simply feature business-class aeroplane seats. These elements serve as synecdochic symbols capable of evoking entire worlds. The actors treat the lighting and music (by Felice Ross and Paweł Mykietyn, respectively) as on-stage partners. The lighting condenses the images, carving out microcosms from the void; or alternatively it reveals an unfathomable depth and immensity to the scenes. The music attentively accompanies the nuances of the actors’ performances. Electronic sounds shape and determine irregular rhythms, often remaining at the level of an abstract hum or noise, or forming non-melodic, repetitive structures. On other occasions, these develop into melodic sequences, as in the case of the simple tango motif that accompanies the ‘bar scenes’. Sometimes the music consciously verges on the kitsch, endowing the banal with a veneer of nobility, and the grotesque with an air of gravity.

Initially everything takes place in the foreground. The low, diffuse light picks out a rectangle of the stage immediately before the front row. The stage floor is covered at audience level with mirrored, square tiles. Further back, the outline of a platform is visible, set against a vast, empty space that is closed off to the rear of the stage by a high, curved wall incorporating a row of windows just below the roof. The audience is also seated to the side, on the stage itself. When taking their seats, the spectators pass a heavy wooden table over which a woman is bent, busily cutting out human shapes from paper. The performance begins with a sound. Only then are the lights dimmed. A tempestuous noise can be heard far away in the distance – a combination of the thud of an aeroplane engine, the gust of a strong wind, and the hum of a crowd – while the darkness is penetrated only by the small flames of matches struck by the woman at the table. The figure is Miranda, and she and Prospero talk by candlelight, surrounded by a thickening fog. The stage is lit more brightly as Ariel awakens. The lights pick out the scaffolding beneath the platform: Caliban’s metaphorical cave. Prospero’s and Miranda’s shack is a bare table with a candle, and a pile of logs ready for chopping. Miranda traipses about in old, worn-out trainers. Prospero, in a dark sweater, blends into the background. Together with Ariel and Caliban they are stuck here, forced to repeat for years on end the same old family psychodramas, mutual grievances, power struggles, and rebellions. They are slowly consumed by bad memories and unreal dreams. Life takes place elsewhere, in the almost mythological, lost paradise of Milan. They speak about it constantly, yet it seems all the more unreal and nonexistent. It belongs to the past.

Prospero obsessively asks the others: ‘Do you remember?’ Before revealing the events of the past, he asks Miranda what she recalls from her childhood. Her memories are vague and clouded. She contrives her remembrance; she lives in the present – in a partial, incomplete world. She does not know who she is, since her identity depends on her fractured memory. Prospero had kept her past hidden, and now he returns it to her: ‘Your father was the Duke of Milan’. Ariel has expunged his painful memories of the past, forgetting the debt he owes to Prospero, while Caliban also prefers to believe in his version of events: that he was tricked out of his rights to the island by Prospero. Prospero conducts the business of putting the memories of the island’s inhabitants ‘in order’ with a remarkable pedantry. A refined web of interdependencies, couched in pent-up desires, is developed. Everything here takes place between beings.

Miranda, in a worn-out, ragged, pink dress, leans over the table. She cuts little figures out of paper and places them within a heavy book. She faces away from the audience and her face remains hidden for a long time behind her thick, waist-length hair. Years of isolation on the island have turned her into a wild animal. Małgorzata Hajewska–Krzysztofik portrays this wildness through several emphatic behavioural traits. Her Miranda hunches her shoulders, walks with a stoop, and shoots quick, uncertain glances from under her brow. She is incapable of sitting still: she fidgets, crosses her legs, crouches on a chair. Sometimes she snorts. She has a brisk and ungainly gait, spreading her feet wide apart. Her gestures are sudden and uncouth. Her tetchy voice reverberates disturbingly with the frustrations of solitude and with the rhythm of a life determined by routine, devoid of human contact. We might imagine her zealously making her paper figures for days on end. And yet with real humans so close, her taciturn father strands them. Miranda is resentful, almost furious. She reacts impulsively. Her love, too, is impulsive. When she encounters Ferdinand, it erupts with the force of all her latent, repressed, unfamiliar urges.

Prospero has the air of a man bored of speech. He has no desire to open his mouth. His words are unexpressive, just as he has no inclination to make any definite gesture. He tells his daughter of past misfortunes in a flat, languid monotone. He does not appear to be someone whose ‘zenith doth depend upon a most auspicious star’, but rather resigned to the fact that his ‘fortunes will ever after droop’. If the thought of taking revenge moves him in some way, he does his best to disguise it. Only once, when Ariel relays to him the news of the successful ‘shipwreck’, does Prospero come alive. And finally, sitting at a conference table having re-secured the throne of Milan, a trace of relief is visible on Prospero’s face. And that is all. He reveals no other emotional involvement in the storm that he has unleashed. Adam Ferency (Prospero) faces an exceptionally difficult task. The role of Prospero has not only been stripped of all pathos and ceremony, but also all theatricality. Ferency must forget about even the most fundamental elements of acting craft – projection, intonation, expressiveness. He is required simply to dispose of his actor’s tools. Prospero’s role is transparent. A persona is visible, as if beneath the surface. Ferency performs without performing. Like his Prospero, he acts without any tricks.

Magdalena Cielecka’s Ariel is initially boyish. He is slight, wears a tracksuit, and has a short shock of hair. ‘Go and make yourself like a nymph of the sea’, commands Prospero; in reply, Ariel bares a naked shoulder. He laughs scornfully, defiantly, as if saying, ‘Like this?’ His beauty is androgynous, and his body can be moulded into different forms. It is enough for him to remove his scruffy socks, reveal his slender legs by pulling up his trousers, and don a bright orange wig to fulfil Prospero’s wishes and become a ‘nymph’. He becomes an actor in Prospero’s theatre. From this point on, in fulfilling both his master’s spoken and undeclared commands, Ariel constantly changes costume, plays various roles, transforming before us on the stage. Cielecka shows – with extraordinary craft – the incapacitation, the descent into ominous lethargy, and the growing confusion of figures among a mass of incarnations, costumes, and genders. Her role is permeated with eroticism and metaphysics, the two vectors of Shakespearian ‘dressing-up’, as Jan Kott’s insightful analysis revealed.[4] Ariel gets tangled up in his tracksuit and dresses, constantly dons and removes his wig, smudges his bright make-up, and stumbles in his high heels. His metamorphoses soon cease to appear comical. In driving others to madness on Prospero’s orders, he loses himself. Beneath the layers of masks, his own true face disappears.

Caliban crawls out from beneath the platform as if from a cave, his pile of chopped logs perhaps the only element of the scenery taken literally from the text of The Tempest. He moves about nonchalantly, with a rolling gait and his head thrust forwards. Renate Jett’s supple body and soft, rounded, creaturely movements, as well as the unusual unpredictability of her expressive face, ensure that Caliban takes on a cartoon-like quality. There is also something of the child about him. Jett, an Austrian actor, meticulously sculpts each word as she battles with the demands of articulating a not-yet-familiar language. Her over-defined accentuation makes the audience all the more aware of what beautiful language Caliban uses. His vocabulary is rich and sensuous. Paradoxically, Shakespeare’s poetry sounds best coming from the lips of a ‘monster’ who has just learned to speak. Caliban is also defined by the warm, sensual timbre of Jett’s voice. Its feminine quality adds further dimensions to Caliban’s ambivalent status – is he human or creature? A child? A man? A woman?

The disaster at sea turns out to be an aeroplane crash, and the action moves away from the audience. The platform is illuminated. The tempestuous noise from earlier is heard once again, but it is now clearly the sound of an aircraft engine. The rulers of the world sit comfortably, reclining in luxurious seats: the silent King of Naples (Zygmunt Malanowicz), the kind-hearted chatterbox Gonzalo (Lech Łotocki), and the two eloquent jokers, brimming with spiteful wit, Sebastian and Antonio (Marek Kalita and Andrzej Chyra). There is a gulf between them and the provincial, shipwrecked inhabitants of the island. They are immaculately dressed, self-assured, and – especially the latter two – infinitely cynical. They talk nonchalantly about distant voyages – between Naples, Milan, Tunis. For the rich and powerful, time passes on intercontinental flights, making calculations on laptops, and conceiving schemes. The scene features many wordplays and witticisms, with the actors skilfully accentuating their ominous undertones. Antonio proposes committing a crime in the same tone that he might discuss a lucrative business deal. Logic and cold calculation dominate, with any emotive responses deeply buried. However, they erupt unexpectedly when Antonio suddenly takes aim at Sebastian – not with a weapon but with a pen. The prop store of contemporary crimes is infinitely banal. Pens replace daggers. A signature on a document replaces a bloodstain. Plotters conspire with immaculate manners, dressed in sharp suits and designer labels. Warlikowski’s Tempest is structured around a caste system. But these are different castes from those in Shakespeare. Instead of kings we have dignitaries and businessmen, the rulers of the contemporary world. In place of spirits and captive monsters, we have Others – those whose difference is the source of their suffering. Instead of jokers and fools we have half-baked and dangerous conmen making botched attempts to take control of the world.

The nobles and Ariel before the ‘shipwreck’ in Warlikowski’s The Tempest. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

The nobles and Ariel before the ‘shipwreck’ in Warlikowski’s The Tempest. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

The action shifts to a platform, where we see three figures propping up a bar. Behind them, along the rear wall of the stage, shines a cheap, orange, neon strip-light. In Stanisława Celińska’s interpretation, Trinculo (or rather Trincula) acquires new depth as a downtrodden woman who has seen it all and now reminisces about the good old days over a drink (she went to England once – a fact she proudly repeats to all who will listen). Celińska fills her character – who spends almost the whole time motionless at the bar, rarely speaking – with an impressively rich inner life. Stephano (Jacek Poniedziałek) is a narcissistic, provincial macho man with slick hair, something between a military and a cabaret blazer, pointed patent leather shoes – but no trousers. He smiles nervously, shoots out uncertain glances in search of self-affirmation, and is prone to sudden outbursts of aggression. Poniedziałek maintains a subtle balance between a self-focused narcissism and an outward crudeness and perversity. His song about Meg, Marian, and Margery is a masterpiece. It is accompanied by monotone, arrhythmic music, within which he manages to find a slow, melancholic melody, punctuated by odd, uncomfortable pauses. The playful lyrics are completely at odds with the artful melody and ponderous vocals. The sense of absurdity grows and becomes disturbing; should we laugh or be frightened? The music during the bar scenes helps to create many such ambiguities or even alienation effects. As Stephano pours drink straight down Caliban’s throat, the music evokes a solemn communion or mystical initiation. A certain magnetism develops between them, culminating in Caliban signalling his deference and humility. Very simply and directly, he unties Stephano’s laces, removes his shoe and sock, and places his lips to his foot. Trincula is overcome by distaste as she looks on at them beneath the table. Stephano is, in his own way, moved by this previously unknown pleasure (a muffled ‘Oh, fuck’ escapes him). A perverse game has emerged, with Caliban ceremonially subjected to a new hierarchy.

From left to right: Caliban, Stephano, Ariel, and Trinculo at the bar. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

From left to right: Caliban, Stephano, Ariel, and Trinculo at the bar. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Ariel shifts between the ‘bar’ and the ‘aeroplane’. For all except Prospero, Ariel is simply a voice, an invisible cause of madness. He struggles to cope with his many tasks – he strikes up a song for three voices, sings into the microphone, changes from his tracksuit into a pink dress – all while trying to convey the appearance of gracefulness. His foot gets caught in his tracksuit, his elbow in the sleeve. He looks pitiful and shocking. ‘This is the tune of our catch, play’d by the picture of Nobody’, says Trincula. Ariel is Nobody. It is this that enables him to constantly change his skin. His metamorphosis into a female air steward, who gives a safety demonstration of the seatbelts and oxygen masks with consummate professionalism, is a perverse prelude to the scene of the conspirators’ impending madness. Their faces are covered by the oxygen masks and they writhe spasmodically in their seats. In the gloom, something seems to jerk at their bodies, forcing them to repeat frenzied, violent gestures. The lights gradually come up to reveal figures standing motionless behind the seats. Here they are again, but without the masks. A ghostly sensation of duality, as if the world of cynical scheming were suspended for a brief moment; as if they were suddenly consumed by their dark fears – or perhaps even by remorse.

Ariel in the ‘aeroplane’ in The Tempest. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Ariel in the ‘aeroplane’ in The Tempest. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Ariel’s constant metamorphoses evidently come at a high price. With each appearance, his body becomes increasingly sullied and powerless until it finally burns out and disappears. With his last ounce of strength, Ariel climbs onto the platform singing a gentle melody. His hips and legs are paralysed; he can use only his arms. By the end he has truly become spirit – he is liberated from his body as if it were another costume. Something mysterious takes place between Ariel and Prospero. Smothered in cheap jewellery, exhausted, semi-conscious, Ariel asks Prospero: ‘Do you love me?’; this is all that remains of Shakespeare’s floating, rhyming question. Warlikowski’s Prospero replies mysteriously: ‘Cicho!’ (Hush!). We discover nothing more, and can only hazard an answer to Ariel’s question. In a further departure from Shakespeare’s text, Ariel disappears before the end. It is over his body that Prospero abjures ‘rough magic’. Prospero’s monologue becomes something of a mournful lament. For it is Ariel, the hybrid boy-girl, who constantly changes appearance, the spirit, who gives his master a lesson in empathy (Ariel: ‘Your charm so strongly works ’em that if you now beheld them your affections would become tender’. /Prospero: ‘Dost thou think so, spirit?’/ Ariel: ‘Mine would, sir, were I human’).

Ariel (foreground) and Prospero. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Ariel (foreground) and Prospero. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

The only figures outside the hierarchical world of masters and slaves, of the powerful and the weak, are Ferdinand and Miranda. Warlikowski manages to salvage this kitsch love story from the sickly sweet and banal. In this version their love story takes place at the intersection of words and instincts, between elevated rhetoric and the carnal. Redbad Klijnstra (Ferdinand) consciously struggles with the poeticised language that Shakespeare puts in his character’s mouth. He seems not to notice that throughout their conversation Miranda absent-mindedly scrunches up her dress, rolling it up around her abdomen. Their dialogue takes one path, while the subconscious reflexes of their hidden sexuality take another. Miranda reacts to Ferdinand’s sentimental drivel with the unequivocal words, ‘You love me’, rather than the search for assurance of Shakespeare’s text. In the initial performances of Warlikowski’s production this line remained a question, but after several days the question-mark disappeared, along with any lingering traces of doubt. The instincts that cause us nervously to shift our feet or touch our lap have more in common with love than the elegant words with which we attempt to describe it.

Miranda is free of duplicity; she cannot simulate anything, behave calculatedly, or use beautiful words as a means of seduction. When Ferdinand makes the chivalrous announcement that ‘You’ll be my mistress, and I your servant’, Miranda offers her hand with such force that we hear a loud slap and Ferdinand’s muffled cry of pain. Ferdinand ‘civilises’ Miranda. He pulls her hair back from her face, straightens her hunched back, and laces her scruffy sneakers. He turns her into a ‘woman’ acceptable to his society. He responds to Prospero’s demands with a solemn vow that he will not take Miranda’s virginity before marriage. Both men play this scene fully aware of the anachronistic nature of such conventions; Warlikowski’s Prospero immediately cautions, ‘Don’t mock me’.

Warlikowski not only deprives the love story of sentimentality but also finds a way to use this thread to comment insightfully on contemporary reality. Prospero conjures up a spectacle for the young couple. The house lights go up. Ferdinand and Prospero look directly at the audience. This is one of the ‘dangerous’ scenes when we must reveal our faces and confront the actors’ gaze. This time we are more than just unmasked voyeurs. Rather than allegorical figures from Greek mythology, three women appear before us onstage, in Polish folk dress. They are ordinary women brought here as if straight from a rural wedding. Not only has the theatre spilled out over the footlights, but an extratheatrical reality also permeates the stage. This reality is our own, familiar and instantly recognisable for Poles. Some audiences react to it with laughter. Having attended several performances, I have heard various types of laughter. Sometimes a stifled, nervous giggle, as if it would be wrong to laugh out loud (‘But they aren’t actors...’ ‘The trembling of their hands as they hold the trays of bread and vodka isn’t staged – it’s real’). On other occasions the laughter emerged freely, and led to eager participation in the celebration onstage: encouraged by the women the audience would willingly join in the traditional Polish wedding chant of ‘gorzko, gorzko’ (‘bitterly, bitterly’),[5] loudly counting off the length of the kiss and shouting out comments. At times, the audience’s surprise defuses quickly into a collective eruption, before returning to a silence brought on by the tangible sense of an extra-theatrical reality. Sooner or later it is this aspect that becomes dominant, with playfulness and verbal participation giving way to a deeper level of engagement. Miranda cries, and her tears also seem somehow to extend beyond the theatrical. The women discuss the necessity of adhering to the divine laws. This is all spoken in our presence, but also aimed directly towards us. Illuminated by the house lights, we are left somehow defenceless.

The Polish wedding scene in Warlikowski’s production of The Tempest. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

The Polish wedding scene in Warlikowski’s production of The Tempest. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Warlikowski seems to distance himself equally from both mockery of this rural idyll that serves as a symbol of the nation (religious-patriotic slogans aired against a background of Polish willows and Chopin’s mazurkas) as he does from any simplistic elevation of traditional values or hope that they might bring salvation in a cynical world. Warlikowski offers no solutions. He unexpectedly shows us a fragment of a world that is at the same time so simple, profound, and anachronistic that it seems infinitely alien and distant. It is a sign of our heavily guarded sensibilities that we react to such otherness with great discomfort, or with embarrassed laughter. Warlikowski is on our side, asking the same questions – namely, what has happened to us to leave us without shelter, without knowing how to confront such simplicity? And he leaves us with this unanswerable question.

At the end of the performance, the protagonists meet at a long table, covered with a white tablecloth. Order is re-established, albeit with some adjustments. New rulers take office. The servants remain as such, now waiting on the table. Stephano – standing motionless, his gaze directed to the floor – is the embodiment of subservience. Trincula stands upstage in an evening dress, singing ‘What a Wonderful World’. Caliban is made up as a waitress. He slaps Sebastian for making a pass at him. Antonio is dethroned at Prospero’s order, leaving him to wallow in his guilty conscience – something to which Antonio himself gives little credence, as is evident from his earlier exchanges with his peers (‘If ’twere a kibe, ’twould put me to my slipper’). He has at least been granted forgiveness. He sits silently, motionlessly at the head of the table, letting tears roll down his cheeks. And such is the end to this story of plots and violence. We might view Antonio’s tears as purifying if only we could be sure that these are tears of remorse. But there is no such certainty. Moreover, this almost mafia-style gathering seems to be an indication of future conflicts in an incurable world of power struggles. Meanwhile, the happy couple seem not to be subject to the laws of this world. Ferdinand and Miranda remain blissfully unaware, and are consequently unaffected by the events around them. They not only fail to recognise any wrongdoing or sense of foreboding, but even mistake it for goodness (Miranda: ‘How beauteous mankind is!’). Such naivety comes across as piteous, yet her sincere desire to believe in the reconciliation also appears understandable. Indeed, it seems to derive from a very human need and a conviction that time and a capacity for forgiveness can heal all wounds.

Following such an ending it would be possible to leave the audience with this ambiguous illusion of a final reconciliation. But Warlikowski instead chooses to engage in another confrontation. Prospero’s closing monologue, which departs entirely from the frame of the performance, presents another opportunity for demystification, and for looking the audience right in the eyes. Prospero/Ferency sits onstage, and with a gentle, almost apologetic smile, he asks for our applause. We are provoked one final time, manipulated into yet another ‘dangerous game’. There seems a clear purpose: to confront us with the question of whether we approve of this hasty, conventional, half-hearted ‘settling of accounts’ that has taken place before us. Is it sufficient to declare and to formalise this reconciliation in order to clear one’s conscience? Has the transformation been sufficient? Does this reconciliation reassert the order that had previously been thrown off-balance? (And is it even possible to achieve such restitution?) Such questions immediately extend beyond the situation presented in the performance.

In his statements leading up to the premiere of The Tempest, Warlikowski notably recalled the question of the massacre of Jews perpetrated by Poles at the town of Jedwabne in 1941. According to the director, the reappraisal of this event prompted by the publication of Jan T. Gross’ book Neighbors, the public debate that ensued, and the official remembrance ceremonies commemorating the victims (at which the Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski apologised for the crime on behalf of the nation) were vital reference-points in the creation of the production.[6] The echoes of the situation around Jedwabne are introduced very subtly and indirectly into the performance; we might even venture to say that they act on the spectators almost in a subliminal way. Perhaps this is the source of the sense of unease and fear that becomes tangible in the production. The realisation that the gestures of repentance, mourning, and reconciliation – all these exorcisms performed on the ‘demons’ of memory – may be illusory is painful, and we experience it as such. The final applause, as prompted by Prospero’s monologue, also becomes highly ambiguous. On the surface it is not out of place at the end of an evening at the theatre, but its legitimation of the suspiciously straightforward resolution draws attention to the lack of relief that accompanies the play’s final exchanges. And yet we continue to applaud. In submitting ourselves to convention, we realise that it is not possible to come to a resolution through conventional gestures. It is as if, through extorting this ovation, Warlikowski placed a mirror before us and forced us to gaze at the rather unflattering reflection. This is more disquieting than having to face the actors gazing straight into our eyes.

Translated from Polish by Małgorzata Rogalińska and Paul Vickers; author’s revisions translated by Duncan Jamieson and Adela Karsznia.


  1. ^ This is a revised and edited version of an extended review that first appeared as ‘Groźna Wyspa’ in Didaskalia, 53 (2003), 2-8. The performance under review was also documented on film and is available on DVD with English subtitles: Burza (Warsaw: Narodowy Instytut Audiowizualny, 2009). Eds.
  2. ^ ‘Skondensowany strach’ (Condensed Fear), Krzysztof Warlikowski in conversation with Agnieszka Fryz-Więcek, Didaskalia, 47 (2002), 6-8 (p. 8).
  3. ^ Ibid.
  4. ^ Jan Kott, Shakespeare, Our Contemporary, trans. by Bolesław Taborski (New York: Anchor Books, 1966), p. 314.
  5. ^ This chant accompanies the couple’s first kiss, with the guests calling for the kisses to bring ‘sweetness’. Trans.
  6. ^ For further discussion of Warlikowski’s approach to the creation of this production, and to the issue of Jedwabne as a continuing theme in his performance-making, see ‘Reimagining the Jewish Legacy in Postcommunist Poland: Dialogues’, elsewhere in this volume (pp. 87-114 of the print edition). Eds.

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