By Tomasz Miłkowski
Author: Janusz Wiśniewski. Script: Janusz Wiśniewski and Michał Handelsalts. Dramaturgy: Adam Nalepa, Staging: Janusz Wiśniewski. Music: Jerzy Satanowski. Choreography: Emil Wesołowski, Puppets (design and manufacture): Leszek Zieliński. Production: Studio. World Premier: September 13th, 2008, Teatr Nowy, Poznań.
Noah’s Ark, by Janusz Wiśniewski, began its world tournée in Tel Aviv last May. That was the beginning of the extraordinary adventure of the international theatrical family that has established Wiśniewski on the international scene with his precise approach and imagination. The international troupe consists of actors from different countries (Austria, Israel, Kosovo, Germany, Italy and Poland) who have worked together under Wiśniewski’s guidance and created breathtaking performances. In this exceptional production, Wiśniewski warns us of the disastrous consequences of the moral collapse of a European civilization that is failing spiritually because it has been self-centered and blind to its mistakes.
Born in 1948, Janusz Wiśniewski is a well-known Polish director and set designer who has established himself over time as a very serious artist in contrast to his playful beginnings. Although in this performance you can still find traces of the previous frenzy of his youth, a lyric tone and open thinking about the human being, who is so easily resigned to his solitary life, is now his major commitment. It is interesting that one of the very important signs of the new epoch in Polish theatre was his 2005 production of Goethe’s Faust at Teatr Nowy in Poznań. Indeed, Janusz Wiśniewski said that, for him,Faust is “a founding act of human solidarity.” So, from a mixture of hatred, blasphemy, struggle for survival, and hideous life, we can see the source of love. Extremely careful about all the details of that performance, the director showed excellent control over all the heterogeneous elements of it, and every actor, although bringing his/her own style to it (movements, gestures, etc.), contributed to the coherent mixture that made that event so special. The rhythm was stressed by the psychedelic music of Jerzy Satanowski.
His new performance, Noah’s Ark: The New End of Europe, is included in an international project aimed at the building of a modern biblical Noah’s Ark that would provide a chance to survive the dangers of the flood. Seven European theatres have participated in this project, including Cameri Theatre from Tel Aviv, Arena del Sole from Bologna and Schauspielhaus from Graz, among others. They came together in order to look for possibilities for survival in our present world.
Wiśniewski has come back to his earlier production, The End of Europe, staged 25 years ago (1984), and changed it according to the spirit of our times, thanks to close co-operation with this multicultural group of actors. The End of Europe was a tremendous success in many European countries, was awarded a prize in Edinburgh during the BITEF festival, and was presented the next year at the Holland Festival. Having seen the performance in Edinburgh, the reviewer of The Guardian remarked: “The title says it all: Janusz Wiśniewski’s The End of Europe is an apocalyptic image of a declining civilization, full of decay, grotesquery and repetitive frenzy.”
Now, on going back to his former production, Wiśniewski has changed his vision: while 25 years ago it was a symbol of the end of the iron curtain as well as the Cold War era, now it has become a story about new dangers, about a new flood of immorality that has arrived, assaulting Europe.
The title of the production is in itself rather significant, and it is interesting to note that many productions all over the world now tend to refer to the need for this kind of device for survival. The Ark has been a recognisable symbol in all times, but today—it is clear—the Ark seems to be especially needed. The Russian Priesniakov brothers wrote a play about the Biblical flood (Before the Flood, 2006); a young director from Israel, Yael Ronen, created a show called Plonter (in English, Tangle is something close to a Gordian Knot) that questions the contemporary flood of violence in the extreme Jewish-Arab conflict; Piotr Cieplak, a director from Warsaw, produced Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Tales for Children at the National Theatre, in which a huge transatlantic ocean liner plays the role of a contemporary Ark.
Noah’s Ark is full of rhythm, and the scenes change rapidly in a kaleidoscopic way, thus allowing for many different situations and emotions: cruel violence, solitary death, suffering, pursuit of money, revolt, longing, yearning for the past, and resignation. Amid the props, the most symbolic one is a pile of suitcases in the middle of the stage as a reminder of the extermination associated with the Holocaust, just as we have seen in many of Tadeusz Kantor’s productions. Having been deeply influenced by Kantor, Wiśniewski also introduces in this production a touch of mystery, when a swirling dancer, Hindu-like, appears on stage as a stranger—at least to the European tradition of suffering—whose presence is connected with a merry-go-round, a world made up of delusion. But it is this Stranger who sings the Salvation Song in Sanskrit at the end of the performance. That is in contrast to the fragment of a Robert Frost poem recited so many times during the performance, like a reminder: The world will forget you or laugh.
Wiśniewski’s gloomy performances that refer to masterpieces of European literature, especially Goethe’sFaust and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, seemed not to shed a light for the future. However, with this new production, he was to find the light of hope in difference, thus suggesting that it is our differences that can unite people in a creative dialogue. In a time of religious, military and social dissension, his theatre sends a message of the fellowship of nations. It may seem naïve but it is the only way to start a new epoch, a New Europe and a New World (though not necessarily the Brave New World of Huxley’s vision). The goal is not to blur distinctions or conceal cruelty, violence and hate; rather, it is to search together with others for the common interest.
One of the most interesting aspects of this unusual experiment is the fact that each actor speaks his or her native language, thus turning the performance into a kind of Tower of Babel. You might say that the performance is a sequence of soliloquies, but, in fact, the characters/actors search for each other despite their different cultural traditions. Here, both actors and viewers reach a rare level of understanding with their attempts to surpass linguistic or cultural differences. And you don’t have to speak the seven languages used by the actors to keep up with their emotions, thoughts and hopes.
Director Wiśniewski said in a 1992 interview that each performance he creates is a sequel of a former one: “It began when I staged Molière’s comedy The Imaginary Invalid, which turned into the performance Panopticum à la Madame Tussaud or Black Death Paris 1680 (1982). Then the characters, which I love up to this day, sprang into existence. The small box of the stage is all the world for me, I discovered then. You can make everything there, as long as you don’t forget about the trash and the make-up. You can create a comprehensible story about our life, even if you only use some pathetic papier-maché elements.”
Everything on the tiny stage seems to belong to a fair, with stands surrounded by lights and the costumes reminding us of Van Gogh’s paintings. High tragic tones in this performance are reflected in the mirror at the back of the stage, foregrounding the matters of truth and falsehood. Yes, the Apocalypse is approaching, but it is being held back at the last moment.
Twenty years ago the (then) young director pitilessly warned people of a catastrophe—old Europe could not be restored after the war experience, after the tragedy of the Holocaust. That production was moving. The viewers were shocked, delighted and frightened. Currently Europe is not wiser, but hope is rising as Europe begins to open to the Other. The New End of Europe strikes, with its precise diagnosis, in a crazy frenzy of music and dance. This “new end” is an invitation Wiśniewski’s small theatre is extending to us: perhaps “end” means the “beginning”? Who knows?
 Tomasz Miłkowski (1947, Warsaw, Poland) is a Ph.D.in Polish philology at the University of Warsaw, journalist, literary and theatrical critic, author of several books, essays, and reviews. He is also Editor-in-Chief of the Internet theatrical quarterly Yorick (www.aict.art.pl).
 Janusz Wiśniewski is a winner of The Boy Prize 2009, the most prestigious award for theatre artists in Poland, founded by the Polish section of IATC/AICT.