ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

TR Warszawa, Poland; Directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna
New Zealand International Arts Festival, Wellington | March 13-19

TR Warszawa’s T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T., directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna, is a standout work of the 2010 New Zealand International Arts Festival. This play is an adaptation of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, the 1968 film and the later novel of the same name. The subtlety of Jarzyna’s production closely follows the near-wordless film, in which pure emotions and base human urges are rendered with a stunning visual palette. People familiar with Pasolini’s work will appreciate the explicitly filmic quality of Jarzyna’s play. Each gesture, each small movement, is captured by the uncannily cinematic lighting design, which gives an understated and riveting aesthetic. The costumes depict late-sixties European elegance; the music meshes evocatively minimal incidents.

The narrative is structurally simple: the stripped-back dialogue draws the focus to the most intimate physical details, details which are used to articulate and construct theatrical space. This spatial imagery relies on tremendous acting; the ensemble from TR Warszawa performs with precision and vibrancy. Jan Englert, who heads the cast, made his film debut in Andrzej Wajda’s 1957 work Kanal, a film which defined the course of modern Polish cinema. In T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T, Englert plays an industrialist and patriarch whose family is systematically seduced by a mysterious visitor (played by Sebastian Pawlak). These meaningless seductions strip back the layers of delusion which envelop the family, exposing the terrible emptiness of their lives: a romp of European nihilism ensues.

The fact that Jarzyna’s work is born out of a difficult, elusive film is reflected in the play: this piece may appeal more to connoisseurs of the visual, though there is plenty of humour and erotic spectacle too. The pace of the work is meticulous and unhurried, but the audience is rewarded for their attention, and the critical allusions that have been made to Hitchcock and his use of suspense are not unwarranted. The set embraces the challenge of representing the domestic interior, but only so we are convinced enough to be able to focus on the finely performed actions. The lighting is intricate, and staggeringly effective in shifting and building psychological tension from one scene to the next. A particularly compelling effect is the imitation of patches of light falling through open windows and doors, on to the white floor and the actors as they pace about.

The production uses a deep stage, and a closely (and, some have complained, claustrophobically) positioned audience. When characters leave the play permanently, they literally exit the theatre. Despite this close reference to the theatre’s actual space, the space is also used to produce cinematic images. This filmic aspect is not mimetic, but rather composes an artificial real, an intense visuality which is both demanding and absorbing.  Simple actions like the brushing of hair express the tense space which the figures inhabit. Jarzyna’s direction masterfully manipulates the dramatic potential of near-motionless, silent characters. TR Warszawa’s publicity materials, describing the existentialist philosophy of Karl Jaspers, presciently suggest that Jarzyna’s motionless heroes “almost explode the frame of the stage with the energy coming from within them.” The repeated makeup routine of the mother intones the illusoriness of the family’s materialistic existence. In other moments, one character walks towards another in repetitions which expresses both hope and fatality.

The overall achievement of T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T. is its power to narrate with few of the conventions of action and dialogue that audiences are accustomed to. It has some less successful moments: the ‘audience’ interaction of the opening risks mystifying an audience unfamiliar with Pasolini’s film and its wider social and political commentary. The end of the production unnecessarily allegorises the work into the contemporary social context, when each character’s downfall has already been so powerfully rendered, though this allegory would resonate more with Polish audiences. Jan Englert’s performance in these scenes is one of pure gravitas, but both sections rely on verbal performance, a mode which the rest of the production largely does without. These, however, are reservations prompted by the otherwise stunning coherence of the work: theatre speaks to us as strongly as ever in the age of Avatar.