Tomasz Miłkowski*

The significant change came in Poland almost 30 years ago: the theatre of the Real Socialism period collapsed. Artists regained their freedom: the reviled institution of censorship had disappeared, a new time of liberty was coming, including the freedom, it seemed, from social obligations. The theatre ceased to be a substitute for democratic institutions, the free press and, sometimes, even school. The end of the Cold War had ushered in a new epoch.

It is evident at first glance that the balance of theatres has changed radically over the last two decades. One need only compare the number of theatres in the 1988/89 season with that in the 2015/15 season. In the last season before the collapse of the Communist system, there were 120 theatres in Poland, including 72 repertory ones, and in Warsaw, respectively, 28 and 20.Twenty five years later, the authors of Teatr w Polsce: 2014/2015, a publication of the Theatre Institute, counted 795 theatres in all, including 191 in Warsaw alone, of which 29 were repertory theatres. This gives the impression of a great flourishing, which is true of the spheres of non-subsidized theatre, producing theatre and the so-called “other theatres” category, which is a mixture of various kinds of activity, from educational projects to commercial agencies. If, however, we focus on the category of repertory theatres, or theatres enjoying institutional support (there are 120 public/subsidized theatres operating in Poland), it transpires that little has changed, despite the appearance of a number of new players.

It is worth citing several statistics (from the aforementioned season report of the Theatre Institute) that illustrate the condition of Polish theatres. The budgets of public theatres have stabilized in recent years at a little over one billion zlotys (which is approximately 250 million euros). Subsidies constitute 80 percent of the budget: three national theatres (the National Theatre in Warsaw, the Old Theatre in Krakow and the Grand Theatre/National Opera) received 168 million in grants. The subsidized theatres employed 4,431 people, including 1,607 actors, 370 puppeteers, 322 singers, 623 choristers, 555 dancers and 10 mimes.

In the 2015/2016 season, 1,520 productions took place (this represented 27 percent of the repertoire), of which 119 were premieres. There were 468 productions of the classics. Almost 30,000 performances presented by public theatres have been watched by 6,311,411 spectators this season. Statistically, this means that 16 percent of the population visited the theatrein a single season.

Teatr Współczesny, Szczecin, and Teatr Dramatyczny, Opole. Witold Gombrowicz’s Ślub (Wedding), directed by Anna Augustynowicz. Grzegorz Falkowski. Photo: Piotr Nykowski
Generational Change

The changes in the network of theatres were accompanied by a marked generational change. This was partly the result of purely biological processes; the great predecessors had passed away. I write here of the generation of masters who remembered Polish theatre from before World War Two and those who created it after the war, namely: Jerzy Grotowski (1933-99), Tadeusz Kantor (1915-90), and JózefSzajna (1922-2008). In addition, KrystianLupa (born 1943) and Jarzy Jarocki (1929-2012) have attained the status of masters. Although they represent different aesthetics, both are focused on working with the actor as the most important creator of the theatre.

These masters became, as it were, the patrons of the new generation of directors, who are at times rebellious, at times rejecting the old kind of theatre, searching for their own means of expression. This is especially true of Krystian Lupa, who, as a pedagogue in the Directing Department at The Ludwik Solski State Drama School in Krakow, has made a great impact on many talented directors (such as Anna Augustynowicz, Piotr Cieplak, Grzegorz Jarzyna and Krzysztof Warlikowski), who are fascinated by the poetics, philosophy and masterly technique of their mentor.

Video 1
The Marriage

Lupa’s students have already developed their own theatre language, and method of working with an actor. Anna Augustynowicz’s productions, for example, uses minimalistic design and, as a rule, black and white costumes. In 2016, she staged her version of The Marriage by Witold Gombrowicz, a co-production of the Współczesny Theatre in Szczecin and the Dramatic Theatre in Opole. The director drew the basic outline of her production from Gombrowicz’s play, but she dispensed with much of the detail and threw out the less important characters. She transformed the main character, Henryk, into her messenger. He accented his duality (as botha character and an observer of the character), commenting on his behavior and distancing himself from himself, as if in a dream. Henryk appears like an omniscient narrator of the show, who observes and assesses the behavior of the characters, but also the behavior of the actor who looks at the characters. It made for a very sophisticated spectacle.

Teatr Narodowy, Warszawa. Barbara Klicka’s Primer, directed by Piotr Cieplak. Bartłomiej Bobrowski, Edyta Olszówka, Monika Dryl, Photo: Yato Photography

Piotr Cieplak, a graduate of the Krakow theatre school, the predecessor of Jarzyna as the artistic director of TR Warszawa, has been, in his own way, close to Christian values. In recent years, he has been associated with the National Theatre in Warsaw. In this theatre, he created a poetic drama Elementarz (Primer, 2017), specially written for him by Barbara Klicka. The performance captivates with a beautiful form, delicate humor, irony and quotations. He avoids political allusions, although he touches with extreme precision the places of social sores that are infected with hatred, indifference and resistance to empathy. The production creates a dramatic image of linguistic confusion, inability to communicate and, moreover, the invasion of a language that we would not like to hear. The scene of the Choir of the Alphabet makes a great impression: the singers perform a cantata of wicked and vulgar words, constantly tossed into the public space.

Nowy Teatr, Warszawa, TR Warszawa, Teatr Powszechny, Warszawa, Teatr Studio, Warszawa and Underground Theatre, Wrocław. Franz Kafka’s Process, directed by Kristian Lupa. Andrzej Kłak. Photo: Magda Hueckel
The Trial

The guru of the Polish theatre, Krystian Lupa, still surprises with the openness of his artistic explorations. His staging of The Trial by Franz Kafka, in 2017, is a case in point. The very history of this spectacle is extraordinary. It was to be created at the Polski Theatre in Wrocław. However, the conflict of actors with the new director selected in the competition prevented these plans. A group of actors founded the Teatr w Podziemiu (Underground Theatre). It was with them that Lupa prepared The Trial, in Warsaw, with the assistance of his former students, Warlikowski and Jarzyna, as well as directors of the Teatr Powszechny (Universal Theatre) and The Studio. The performance thus became a manifestation of artists’ independence.

The production, which lasts about seven hours, is compelling for many spectators, and exhausting for others. One thing is certain: Krystian Lupa’s Trial is one of the most important Polish performances of recent years. Today’s Poland is a country from which you have to escape; but not because someone burns the ground from under your feet or because there is nothing to eat. You have to run away because life does not make sense here. So said Krystian Lupa before the premiere of The Trial, at NowyTeatr, in Warsaw.

Lupa’s story consists of three parts. The first part follows faithfully in the footsteps of Kafka’s novel, showing the fate of a man in the labyrinth of the modern world. In the second part, the hero refuses to participate in the action, and is stuck in a kind of limbo. The final sequence of the play resembles a nightmare. It is stuffy, there is nothing to breathe. It turns out that the court and its secret services have penetrated the innermost recesses, there is no escape from them, even in your own mind. There is a hint of hatred from everywhere.

A Great Change

The transformation of the Polish theatre did not take place immediately after 1989. The 1996/97 season turned out to be the season of great change. It marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Polish theatre, which built upon the traditions of the previous era, while giving the nation’s live drama a new complexion. The theatrical centre of Poland moved to the capital, although the theatre that grew out of the tradition of Jerzy Grotowski’s Laboratory continued to develop; for example, in Wrocław, an avant-garde theatre company Teatr Pieśń Kozła [Song of the Goat Theatre] was formed. Their first production was Song of the Goat – a Dithyramb (1997), which was based on Euripides’ The Bacchae and the music of which was inspired by old, polyphonic songs from the Greek regions of Epiros and Crete.

Teatr Pieśń Kozła, Wrocław. Grzegorz Bral’s Wyspa (Island), directed by Grzegor Bral. Photo: Teatr Pieśń Kozła
Video 2

Grzegorz Bral, the founder of the Song of the Goat Theatre, created his performance Wyspa (Island, 2016) from songs-images, sequences with a separate atmosphere that integrate the hidden motifs. This time, the motive is Shakespeare’s Tempest, and, more specifically, the farewell of Prospero, not so much to theatre as to the world. The performance seduces with its formal beauty. This is a “cold lament” from the land of ice, like a fairytale about the Snow Queen. Twelve mirrors, along with black chairs set against white walls, constitute the stage design. These unblemished mirrors, in various, geometric arrangements, build the whole world of the play; it is, however, a world of artificial emotions, so perfect that it is far away and inaccessible.

Teatr ZAR, Wrocław. Armine, Sister, directed by Jarosław Fret. Photo: Irena Lipińska
Armine, Sister

Theatre ZAR, which is run by the head of the Grotowski Institute in Wrocław, Jarosław Fret, refers to the musical tradition of ethnic theatre. It was ZAR that produced one of the most shocking performances in Poland, Armine Sister (2013). This is a tribute dedicated to the victims of genocide, the planned extermination, as a result of which hundreds of thousands of Armenians inhabiting the areas of the Ottoman Empire lost their lives. The performance refers to these tragic events, building a fugue of death in the theatre space, intricately constructed from the songs of Eastern Anatolia, in particular taken from the tradition of Armenian modal singing. It is a different way of extracting a voice, unknown in Poland. The learning, voice training and collaborative exercises involved in creating the production took many months.

The enchanting musical dimension is the foundation of this performance, in line with the ZAR theatre philosophy. However, stage actions are equally important, involving the perpetrators and their victims appearing among sixteen columns, which are reminiscent of colonnades in Armenian churches. The columns are deconstructed and eviscerated during the performance; the powerfully suggestive stage design involves streams of sand spilling out of the columns. An important role is played by an iron bed of torture, to which successive victims are tied with chains.

TR Warszawa. Dorota Masłowska’s No Matter how Hard We Tried, directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna. Magdalena Kuta and Maria Maj. Photo: Kuba Dąbrowski
Video 3
No Matter how Hard We Tried

The bridgeheads of young theatre in Warsaw paved the way for the Warsaw debuts of Krzysztof Warlikowski (Elektra, Teatr Dramatyczny) and Grzegorz Jarzyna (Bziktropikalny, Teatr Rozmaitości), who both introduced themselves to the public in Warsaw on the same night, January 18, 1997, initiating a long-lasting rivalry over the theatre-goers’ souls. They worked for ten years at TR Warszawa, where Jarzyna became artistic director (in 1998), and then separated, when Warlikowski started forming his Nowy Teatr (in 2008). Something was coming to an end, something else was beginning.

Jarzyna recognized and promoted the new Polish dramaturgy; which was one of the stated aims of his role as a theatre director. He commissioned many new plays, including: No Matter how Hard We Tried by Dorota Masłowska (2008), a talented young writer who portrayed Polish post-Communist society. She showed contemporary Poland, torn between tragic history, barren everyday life and dreams of greatness. A great performance was created at TR Warszawa (2009). It was bitter, yet fun, real, yet infused with quotes from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and its fantasy setting Neverland. No-one in this world is victorious. Primarily intelligence stands accused, occupied with her own career, and insensitive to the fate of thousands, to whom the new beautiful world offers nothing more than colorful, outdated writings drawn from the garbage can. The play, which Jarzyna directed, arouses laughter and horror. The director achieved a perfect combination of excellent actors with superb video projections in a production characterized by energetic rhythm and a focus on the humorous qualities of Masłowska’s language.

Teatr Polonia, Warszawa. Sabina Baral’s Zapiski z wygnania (Notes from Exile), directed by Magda Umer. Krystyna Janda. Photo: Katarzyna Kural-Sadowska
Video 4
Notes from Exile

Hopes for the rapid development of the private sector in the theatre have been answered, although the first such enterprises were dominated by agencies created for the purpose of creating and presenting a single production. The real transformation took place when Teatr Polonia was founded in Warsaw (2005), in the rebuilt cinema, where famous actress Krystyna Janda first opened Violet Stockings on a small stage and, then, on the main stage. Soon, other private theatres appeared in Warsaw. Some have commercial goals, whilst others focus on an artistic agenda. The latter include Teatr Polonia, in which Krystyna Janda staged a monodrama (Zapiski z wygnania [Notes from Exile]) in 2018, which referred to the dramatic events of March 1968, when there was an anti-Semitic campaign in Poland.

The subjects of Polish-Jewish relations, and of the traumas following the Second World War and Nazi occupation, are returning to Polish theatre; for example, in the loud drama Our Class (2010), written by Tadeusz Słobodzianek (and still in the repertoire of the Dramatic Theatre in Warsaw). Notes from Exile, presented on the stage of the Polonia Theatre, is a documentary show. It is based on the memories of a March immigrant, a Polish-Jewish woman who had to leave Wroclaw as a student. Krystyna Janda, who speaks the words of Baral, stands in the depths illuminated by the faint light of the stage. Behind a translucent screen, as if in some strange reality, she appears distant, like a dark memory. She stands at the microphone, her face magnified, filmed live and displayed on the screen, expressing terrible fatigue. We, the audience, listen and watch with a heavy heart.

Teatr Żydowski, Warszawa. Łukasz Chotkowski’s Golem, directed by Maja Kleczewska. GołdaTencer. Photo: Magda Hueckel
Video 5

In a project-installation entitled Golem, and created by the Warsaw Jewish Theatre (2017), director Maja Kleczewska reaches back metaphorically to the time of the Shoah. She explores the memory of the Holocaust using the dark figure of Golem, an artificial man, in order to touch unhealed wounds, frozen screams, uncomfortable pain and the obligation to remind. It is a spectacle devoid of action in the traditional sense of the word, or even the sequence of scenes. Activities in the large hall/film studio (where this production is presented) are held simultaneously, and their order can be altered freely, depending on the viewer’s choice, and also on the whim of the authors. The situation is similar to modern virtual museums, where the reality is fluid and undefined.

Teatr Powszechny, Warszawa. Stanislaw Wyspiański’s Klątwa (Curse), directed by Oliver Frljić. Dramaturgy by Agnieszka Jakimiak, Joanna Wichowska, Goran Injac. Photo: Magda Hueckel

The claustrophobic atmosphere portrayed by Lupa in The Trail also prevails in the most famous Polish production of the last few years, Klątwa [Curse], presented at Teatr Powszechny in Warsaw, and directed by the Croatian artist/scandalist Oliver Frljić. The Curse was based on the classic drama by Stanisław Wyspiański (1899). His precisely composed scenario shows the present “curse” of Poles, whose secular state is drifting towards becoming a church state. The director introduces many moving scenes and arguments, some of which are very bleak, others which are very emotional, so that the viewer cannot allow her or himself a moment of calm distance. The actors understand perfectly the aesthetics and purpose of the production, boldly giving their talent to a common cause. It is thanks to them that Frljić’s The Curse is not only an exceptional and socially important work, but also an artistically outstanding piece of theatre.

This rebel production, which ruthlessly shows the political ambitions of the Catholic Church, aroused violent protests by religious fanatics. Meanwhile, Frjić’s primary concern was that the show would be sufficiently theatrical, and only secondarily that it would trigger social debate. In fact, he actually expanded the areas of artistic freedom at the expense of conscious provocation.


*Tomasz Miłkowski (1947, Warsaw, Poland), PhD, Polish philology, University of Warsaw. Journalist, literary and theatre critic, author of a lot of books, essays and reviews. Editor-in-chief of the Internet theatrical quarterly Yorick (

Copyright © 2018 Tomasz Miłkowski
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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The Polish Theatre Looks at the Hands of the Authorities