Primitive, Sacred and Pure: T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T.

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Theatre & Performing Arts

In Warsaw, MAGADALENA PODBIELKOWSKA and PETER BISLEY interview T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T.’s award-winning Polish director Grzegorz Jarzyna, ahead of six performances at the New Zealand International Arts Festival.

Poland has just been hit by the worst weather in decades. The characterless buildings which dominate the southern downtown of Warsaw are skirted with huge piles of dirty, frozen snow. The thermometer reads -17°, but a vibrant contingent of Poland’s arts scene—film and stage actors, directors, writers and artists—have turned out for the opening night of theatre company TR Warszawa’s Faithless, adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s film.

TR Warszawa general director Grzegorz Jarzyna has flown back from Essen, Germany for the premiere, and we talk to him just before the performance, in his uncompromising red-walled office. Following his mentor Krystian Lupa, Jarzyna was a major figure in the transformation of Polish theatre during the heady ferment of post-communist development. He now leads a generation of young directors who have articulated a new direction for Polish theatre since the mid-nineties. Appointed artistic director of TR Warszawa in 1998, he  has been the general director since 2006. In Essen the director of T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T. is featuring in a major theatrical series as part of the city’s designation a European Capital of Culture for 2010. For this project Odyssey Europa, Jarzyna retold the Homeric epic along with five other leading European writers, including Péter Nádas and Enda Walsh.  

Jarzyna’s T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T. is an altogether different proposition to this re-forged epic, and is based on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 film Teorema and his later novel of the same name. Pasolini’s film is famous for its paucity of words: “Before I hadn’t thought of Pasolini as material that you could bring to the theatre. But I started to contemplate his art and to go deeper into his life.” Jarzyna’s reputation for challenging audiences and generating controversy was considered by some critics to be tarnished by the less contentious T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T. “The notion that it represents the maturity of my work is the speculation of Polish critics who are always on a deadline. In this case, the theory was that I became a mature artist by virtue of a more serious subject, but I think that there is something rebellious in all my performances: they are mature as far as my age and consciousness allows it. In every performance I try to do mature work, I do not create shows on a whim, for scandal and ferment, but every piece is some kind of disagreement with the existing state of things.”

Jarzyna was intrigued by the work’s relevance to the contemporary situation in Poland, by the “prophetic depiction of an all-consuming system of consumption.” Asked whether this theme retains its moral and cultural resonance, Jarzyna argued that before 1989 it would have been meaningless in Poland: “Poland was a totalitarian communist system, and we know what that really means.  Pasolini was a utopian and purely ideological communist.” However Jarzyna emphasises that the bourgeois capitalist-communist political dialectic was not his main inspiration for adapting the work. “Its rich metaphor and poetry have much larger force than its political message, and are applicable to the smallest cell of society, which is the family, and the relationships between them. This is a problem which touches each of us.”

“The notion that it [T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T. ] represents the maturity of my work is the speculation of Polish critics who are always on a deadline. In this case, the theory was that I became a mature artist by virtue of a more serious subject, but I think that there is something rebellious in all my performances: they are mature as far as my age and consciousness allows it. In every performance I try to do mature work, I do not create shows on a whim, for scandal and ferment, but every piece is some kind of disagreement with the existing state of things.”

Pasolini’s films are well known for the controversy they generate, ranging from the heretical accusations occasioned by La Ricotta to the rage prompted by the graphic, sexual violence depicted in Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom. The critic Umberto Eco wrote that “when society was passive, it was a reason for [Pasolini] to attack.” Jarzyna resists such a comparison with Pasolini, however he admits to having challenged ‘cultural backwardness’ in the past: “Scenes of love and sexual liberation thread through my work, and I had no feeling that I should take into account moral censorship.” Yet T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T., Jarzyna explains, “is based less on crossing barriers and sexual taboos, which were important for discussion in the sixties. I concentrate on the transformation of the hero, culminating in him wandering in the desert… and the exploration of mystical measures to reach the truth.”

Pasolini’s film centres on the actions of a visitor, a man who enters into the lives of a family, seduces all its members, and then leaves them to contemplate the painful truth of their own existence. For Jarzyna, “he is neither a symbol of defeat or victory. He is a catalyst that accelerates the inevitable and appropriate response: he triggers these reactions then disappears. He is the activator which evokes the truth deep within us. He helps us to look at ourselves without all the constructions of cultural life, to see the hypocritical self.” Press coverage has concentrated on relating the production to the 1968 film, but Jarzyna emphasizes that Pasolini’s novel of the same name is a major source: “In the novel the subject is more developed; especially the religious, mystical aspect, and the ultimate question of our existence and purpose of life.” For Jarzyna, the most profound thematic challenge posed by the work is its rejection of a fixed state of being: “The text at the end of the play portrays the figure disappearing into space, into desert, into nothing, the same recurring landscape, and touches on the philosophy of emptiness.”

Jarzyna’s role as a director and adapter of texts for theatre involves more engagement with the public than merely presenting works in a theatre. In the case of T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T., the development of the production began with a seminar: “I depended on that to introduce Pasolini into the discourse of Polish culture.” He also takes an active approach to challenges which are posed to the medium: “I do not distinguish too much between drama, novels or film. I select the source material for its quality and thematic interest.” This attitude comes from an understanding of the changing cultural context. “The perception of the theatre audience, for they are now surrounded by film, has changed with time and is different than twenty or even ten years ago. It is a constantly developing influence which theatre cannot be indifferent to.” This dynamism is perilous, however: “in the last decade I have seen performances that are only ten years old that are already dead.” Despite Jarzyna’s readiness to be inspired by new media forms, and to incorporate them into his productions, he still passionately argues for theatre’s unique qualities. As we talk, this passion shows itself in subtle expressions and gestures. His repose has an intimate, considered intensity: “Human presence and the passage of their energy, their sharing of that energy with the audience, is a primitive, sacred and pure experience. This is theatre’s advantage, because all the other visual arts have no access to that.”

Grzegorz Jarzyna’s T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T. plays at the TSB Bank Arena, Wellington, March 13-19. The New Zealand International Arts Festival runs from February 26-March 21, 2010.