Klatwa (The Curse)

Vad innebär det när politiker i regeringsställning efterfrågar en uppbygglig kultur som stärker den allmänna moralen och den nationella identiteten? Polen har genomgått stora förändringar sedan det högernationalistiska partiet PiS (Lag och rättvisa) tillträdde 2015. Domstolar har politiserats, journalisters möjligheter att bevaka parlamentets arbete har begränsats och situationen för landets minoriteter har försämrats. Teatr Powszechny var den första teatern i Warszawa som öppnades efter andra världskriget. Tillsammans med Nowy Teatr och TR Warszawa utgör de idag en av de tre mer progressiva teaterhusen i Warszawa. Teatern har producerat en rad kontroversiella föreställningar som ofta gått på tvärs med den rådande politiska ordningen. När Klatwa (Förbannelsen), ursprungligen en polsk klassiker från 1899, i regi av kroatiske Oliver Frljic hade premiär i februari 2017 orsakade uppsättningen permanenta demonstrationer utanför teatern som slutade i sabotage när syra hälldes i ventilationssystemet och skadade fyra scentekniker. I en specialskriven text berättar dramaturgen och dramatikern Agnieszka Jakimiak om arbetet med Klatwa. Vad kan vi lära oss av Polen och polsk teater idag? Joel Nordström, red. Teatr Powszechny deltar tillsammans med Backa Teater i det EU-finansierade samarbetet Atlas of Transitions. Ett nätverk som samlar teatrar, konstnärer och forskare från sju europeiska länder, i syftet att utforska potentialen som uppstår i och med människors rörlighet över traditionella kultur- och språkgränser.

Written by Agnieszka Jakimiak (Photographs by Magda Hueckel )

It has been a month since Pennsylvania sexual abuse report was released. According to the grand jury and the thorough investigation, more than 300 priests have committed sexual abuse in Pennsylvania and harmed more than 1,000 children. Suddenly what has been considered a shameful exception was recognised as an even more painful rule present in almost all Catholic communities. Pope Francis is now travelling all over Europe, making amends for the crimes that were committed by the Catholic church everywhere. His presence faces protests and demonstration in Ireland, his apologies are not accepted by a large community of people who were abused, hurt and let down by one of the largest religious institutions in the world. Seemingly the Catholic church is undergoing a massive crisis which, one may claim, has been unavoidable for a long time. Despite the pope’s attempts to make things finally right, more and more people all over Europe are leaving the church, disgusted by the lack of institutional transparency and disappointed with its failing support and inability to take action when its mechanisms turn out to be broken. Apparently one of the countries where the faith in the church remains unscathed, and almost nothing can disturb the irrevocable devotion to its ruthless but elusive power, is Poland. Here priests are still able to avoid their responsibility for the crimes committed, pope Francis is considered to be “the wrong pope”, compared to the sacred John Paul II, and ubiquitous silence among believers remain the best defense mechanism. Or is it also on the verge of change?

When we started working on The Curse in Teatr Powszechny in early 2017 - together with Oliver Frljić, Joanna Wichowska and Goran Injac - we were already aware that there was very much to discuss concerning the influence of the Catholic church on Polish mentality. Almost every issue can work as a trigger for an extended theatre investigation or a flaming social debate. No matter where one starts from - paedophile in church, the politics of Catholic church towards women, censorship applied by the church officials - there is always an ocean of information to scrutinise. We began with stating the obvious: Polish society is a prisoner of the church and its politics, Polish mentality is colonised by the Catholic morality, any kind of emancipation is impossible without acknowledging this fact. Despite the fact that we found many supporters of the direction we decided to take, we also expected to encounter resistance at some stage of the process.

There were several reasons for which we knew that this time working with Frljić would be challenging and maybe, at some point, risky - though this alertness did not accompany us during the rehearsals at all, due to the support and dedication that we came across among actors, management and employees of Powszechny Theatre. But it was not our first production with Oliver, neither was it a first piece in the history of Polish art dealing in a critical way with the church. Not long ago, Maurizio Cattelan’s installation “La nona ora”, exhibited in Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw, became a target of a furious MP who tried to “rescue” the lying sculpture of John Paul II and to remove a meteorite crippling the statue. He accidentally broke the pope’s leg and destroyed the sculpture. Some time later the exhibition of an installation, “Adoration” by Jacek Markiewicz in CSW in Warsaw, was cancelled after protests organised by far-right conservative organisations. Every attempt to undermine the power or infallibility of Catholic institutions in Poland in the realms of fiction seems to be condemned to a backlash. There were also additional factors connected to the context we were operating in that prompted us to think that “The Curse” may arouse a huge outcry from various actors of public debate.

“The Curse” is a regular theatre performance performed in a regular public theatre in Warsaw. The practice of inviting foreign theatre makers to stage a performance in a public theatre in Poland is not widespread, neither is it very rare. Warsaw theatres have in their repertoires performances by Marcus Öhrn, Yana Ross, Rene Pollesch and Konstantin Bogomołow, though most of the plays are directed by Polish theatre makers. It is also not very common that a foreigner deals with a classical Polish play - on one hand it stems from a hermeticity of the language, often not understandable among regular theatre audience, on the other this is a result of a conservative approach towards Polish literature among members of the theatre milieu and even more conservative expectations towards who should be dealing with it. Therefore, the choice made by the directors of Powszechny Theatre to employ Oliver Frljić to deal with a Polish play from the beginning of the 20th century, written by Stanisław Wyspiański - one of the most important and known Polish playwrights - was not an obvious decision. What should be noticed is the fact that “The Curse” is not widely known nor read by the Polish theatre audience – it’s considered to be one of the most crucial elements of national heritage, but this does not mean its content belongs to the common knowledge.

The plot is simple: in a small village near Cracow a priest lives in a relationship with a young woman, they have two children. When the village suffers from draught, the community blames the priest and the woman for the catastrophe. The priest feels that she should be the one who carries the responsibility and tries to avoid punishment himself. When the woman overhears his conversation with his mother in which the priest admits that the sacrifice of the woman is the only way to redemption, she decides to burn herself and her children at a stake. The fire does not consume her, she manages to escape to the village, where the villagers stone her to death.

The performance is loosely based on the text of the original play. It consists mainly of sequences derived from the topics and problems sketched by Wyspiański, such as the position of women in catholic community, the question of hierarchy present in community and then it moves to the realm of undermining the power of theatre representation and possibilities of taking a stand or an action within the frames dictated by the theatre. The first part of “The Curse” is a variation on the original text, but it includes sequences in which actors one after another tell the stories of how they were molested by priests or a monologue of an actress who admits in front of the audience that she is planning to have an abortion in the Netherlands, because it is her right to decide upon the birth (abortion is illegal in Poland, apart from three cases: when pregnancy is a result of a rape, when pregnancy endangers the mother’s life, when the child is to be born with severe dysfunctions which disable it from functioning). During the first part there are already indications that this performance is also dealing with the structure of theatre hierarchy - one of the actresses (Klara Bielawka) opposes against the position of women in Frljić’s theatre and draws consequences out of what she perceives to be humiliating in the theatre procedure: she tries to persuade members of the audience to have sex with her (as “Polish country expects us to reproduce”). The second part consists of a series of monologues: one with an actor who claims that theatre makers always expect transgression of him and in order to have a monologue he was forced to masturbate with a picture of the director (which he does) or another monologue of a desperate actress who retells the story of her failed idea - she wanted to collect money to kill the leader of the Law and Justice party (currently in charge of Polish government), but as it is forbidden by the law, she now doesn’t have a monologue and cannot perform her only spoken part. The final sequence involves Karolina Adamczyk slowly getting changed in safetywear and cutting down a huge wooden cross with a chainsaw. A gigantic eagle made of lightbulbs lighten up. All the actors gather on the stage, they climb ladders and start dismantling the lightbulbs.

Day after the opening somebody recorded fragments of the performance and sent them to the public television channel. We did not to have to wait for the storm to begin. Jacek Kurski, the head of Public Television, publicly announced that the actress who performed fellatio on a statue of pope John Paul II would be banned from television, although she had not been working in that medium for several months. Polish bishops published a statement in which they criticised the strategies and content of the performance. In churches, priests organised masses asking for the redemption of the sins of people involved in the production; public prosecutors were drowning under petitions for offences against religious feelings; and the mayor of Warsaw was accused of approving the scandal. As we know now, we could not have imagined better publicity. But one year ago, the whole theatre was in a panic. Someone broke the window of a car belonging to the mother of one of the actors, Julia Wyszyńska; someone called the theatre with a bomb threat; somebody was fired from public television for broadcasting material about “The Curse”; members of the Radical National Front spilled butyric acid in the foyer.

On the other hand, what could be observed was the intensification of voices supporting not necessarily the performance itself, but the values or truths represented on the stage. I can remember the first time I read in an interview a statement that is still unpopular in Poland - one journalists wrote: “Why is everybody disgusted by the fact that in the performance the statue of John Paul II wears a label saying DEFENDER OF PAEDOPHILES, when everyone knows that this pope was defending paedophiles?” More and more people started to address us or the theatre to share their own traumatic experiences with the church, to ask about upcoming debates on “The Curse”, we received very positive feedback from movie makers, journalists and activists. Does it mean that this time the theatre was able to cross the border between art and society? Though I am far from exaggerating the role theatre plays in society and I can hardly believe that as medium it is able to lead to any kind of social change, I must admit that this time a performance expanded its usual realm of influence. Obviously, the discussion about the Catholic church and its politics in Poland was supposed to happen with or without “The Curse”, but without a doubt some of the people participating in the debate would not feel inspired to take the floor without this trigger.

On the other hand, after the opening of “The Curse” with Oliver Frljić in Teatr Powszechny the most common argument we heard was that art should finance itself or it should be sponsored by private fundings or individuals. It was popping up alongside the accusation of blasphemy, racist and nationalistic rhetorics (“A Croat could not have the vaguest idea of how Polish society works”; “he should be deported”; “they were so courageous to criticise Catholic church in Poland, but they lack the courage to criticise Islam or Judaism and this is what one should do right now”) and hatred against actresses participating in the performance. This logical though still unexpected mashup of right-wing and neoliberal arguments walking arm in arm leaves the minority of people who think different absolutely helpless.

Agnieszka Jakimiak är dramaturg, dramatiker, filmkritiker och skribent. Hon har samarbetat med polska och internationellt verksamma regissörer som Weronika Szczawińska, Oliver Frljić, Bartek Frąckowiak och är utbildad vid University of Warzaw och i dramaturgi vid National Academy of Theatre Arts i Krakow.