Something Wicked this Way Comes
Leading Polish theatre director Grzegorz Jarzyna’s Macbeth brings Shakespeare into the crucible of modern conflict, writes Mark Brown
Grzegorz Jarzyna’s theatre company TR Warzsawa (which is based, as its name suggests, in the Polish capital, Warsaw) is among the most celebrated in Europe. Their work appears on stages all over the world. Scottish audiences had a memorable encounter with the company in 2008, when they brought their acclaimed production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis to the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF).
Given the international acclaim for his work, I am surprised when Jarzyna tells me that he didn’t expect that his show 2008: Macbeth (which he brings to the EIF next month) would travel beyond Poland. Consequently, he explains, he wasn’t thinking about the logistics of performing the large-scale piece internationally when he arranged for it to premiere in a disused factory belonging to the big Polish munitions company Bumar.
The arms company, which was (and remains) a significant supplier to the US military, was a prime example of what then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld meant when, in 2003, he talked of pro-US, former Warsaw Pact countries as “new Europe” (in contrast with the “old Europe” of countries such as France and Germany, which opposed the Iraq War). Whilst Bumar was happy to be seen to be offering a site for a production by one of Poland’s leading theatre directors, company bosses were less pleased when they saw the show.
“They were not satisfied after the opening shows”, says Jarzyna. “They very quickly threw us out of the space. When they realised that the piece was making statements against the war in Iraq they didn’t like it all. After we had performed the 20 shows allowed in the contract, we were no longer allowed to be in the space.”
Following TR Warszawa’s expulsion from the old Bumar factory, the company were invited to perform the show in the United States. They rebuilt the set, on a smaller (but still significant) scale, under the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. “I was very surprised by the response of the American audience”, the director comments. “I was far more criticised in Poland for this production than I was in the United States. We opened the show in Poland in 2005, and it was not so clear for the Polish people whether they wanted the Iraq War or not.
“The occupation of Iraq had already happened, and Poland was seeing the opportunity to make some profits out of it. The feeling was that the war was over and we could make some money, especially from the relationship with the United States. So, this production was not so popular in Poland, from the political point of view.”
The production which Edinburgh Festival audiences will see will, in effect, be the same as that which played in New York. Installed in the cavernous Lowland Hall at the Royal Highland Centre, Ingliston, the set will be on an identical scale to that which was built under the Brooklyn Bridge. Jarzyna is pleased, not only by the size of the Lowland Hall, but also by its location. “The space is near Edinburgh Airport”, he observes, “so it is still related, somehow, to the war environment.”
Detractors of 2008: Macbeth have accused the piece of attempting to shoehorn the play into the director’s own political agenda. “Some people ask, ‘why do you involve Shakespeare in such a contemporary war?’”, says Jaryzna. “They say I am using Shakespeare in a situation that is too realistic and too political. From my point of view, that is the power of Shakespeare and the power of this play; it turns us from the times in which the drama is set to our own times.”
In fact, he says, it is as if the drama – in which innocent, non-combatants become victims of a military conflict – is crying out to be applied to the 21st-century. “I would say that I am not using Shakespeare, but, rather, Shakespeare is using me. He is using me to describe this war.”
It is not only the concept at the heart of the production which is contemporary, but also the theatrical means by which Jaryzna explores his ideas. Resolutely of our times, its slick, sometimes eerily surreal, visual aesthetic is very much of our times. Using filmed material in the midst of a prodigious theatrical spectacle, the piece reflects the director’s longstanding interest in the relationship between live drama and cinema; for instance, when I visited TR Warzsawa’s theatre in Poland in March of this year, they were performing T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T, Jarzyna’s stage adaptation of Pasolini’s film Teorema.
“I realised that the war was in the media”, the director remembers. “The drama was so cinematic. It was like a movie scenario, full of action.
“In the past the cinema took so much from the theatre”, Jarzyna continues. “Now, I think, it’s time for the cinema to pay back. I think we, in the theatre, can learn a lot from cinema. It makes the theatre much more contemporary, especially in terms of editing, lighting and music.
“I am searching for the golden mix. I want to combine the achievements of the cinema with live theatre. The human emotion and energy which you can feel from the audience is the essence of the theatre. For me, theatre happens in the relations between the actors and the audience. That is something that cinema can never reach.”
Although his work has been acclaimed and awarded around the world, it is still a special pleasure for Jarzyna to be invited to the EIF, especially with this particular play. “The most important thing for me”, he says, “is that I am bringing the wood to the forest. That is the challenge and the honour for me. It is an honour to be invited to bring Shakespeare’s Scottish play to Edinburgh.”
2008: Macbeth plays at the Lowland Hall, Royal Highland Centre, Ingliston, August 11-18. For further information, visit: http://www.eif.co.uk
Mark Brown 2012 EIF’s highlights
Les Naufragés Du Fol Espoir (Aurores)
The EIF’s use of the Lowland Hall in recent years has opened up a world of new possibilities of theatrical scale.This visit from visionary French director Ariane Mnouchkine and her globally renowned Théâtre du Soleil promises to be a stunning case in point. Combining texts by Jules Verne and Hélène Cixous,the sprawling, four-hour epicLes Naufragés Du Fol Espoir (Aurores) – The Castaways Of The Fol Espoir (Sunrises) – promises to bring the conflicting forces of modern European history to the stage in ways which are brilliantly humorous, emotionally affecting and startlingly original.
At Lowland Hall, Royal Highland Centre, Ingliston August 23-28
Romanian master Silviu Purcărete – creator of the extraordinary Faust (EIF, 2009) – brings his brilliant visual imagination to bear upon Jonathan Swift’s great satirical narrative Gulliver’s Travels. It is something of a coup for the Festival that it has secured the world premiere of this production. Joining Purcărete’s visual and theatrical brilliance to an original musical score by Irish composer Shaun Davey, this presentation by the director’s acclaimed Radu Stanca National Theatre of Sibiu promises to be as sharply relevant to the 21st-century as Swift’s original was to the 18th.
At King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, August 17-20
Meine Faire Dame – Ein Sprachlabor
The work of the great Swiss director Christoph Marthaler and his Theater Basel has been seen only rarely in Britain. Musical, comic, and defiantly inventive, Meine Faire Dame – Ein Sprachlabor (My Fair Lady – A Language Laboratory) – with a cast led by Scottish actor, and longtime Marthaler collaborator, Graham Valentine – bears the loosest of relations to Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady. Hungarian linguist Professor Karpathy instructs his students while worrying that his big secret will be exposed. A very distinctive and extremely humorous piece of theatre is in prospect.
At Lowland Hall, Royal Highland Centre, Ingliston August 14-19
The Scottish contribution to this year’s EIF theatre programme, Vanishing Point’s Wonderland promises to be an elegiac, disquieting and pointedly modern contemplation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland. Following a latter day Alice as she leaves home, the piece (which comes with a health warning about “adult themes”) considers the temptations and distortions of sexuality in contemporary society. Created by the company behind such visually stunning works as Lost Ones and A Brief History Of Time, it could be one of the most sumptuous shows at this year’s Festival.
At Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, August 29 to September 1
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 22, 2012
© Mark Brown