Generally speaking, British perceptions of "European theatre" these days don't extend too far beyond whatever Ivo van Hove happens to be up to. Yet much more vibrant, interesting work is being done elsewhere, mostly without getting the wider exposure it deserves. (David Hare was pilloried by the Twitter mob last year for his remarks about "an over-aestheticised European theatre" style "infecting" UK stages - and it was surely van Hove that he had in his sights when he made the statement - yet the story was a more complex one: just a few years previously, Hare was to be found criticising Nicholas Hytner for not inviting international companies to the National Theatre during his tenure.)
I've been seeing theatre in Poland fairly regularly since moving to Łódź in 2016, and several of those productions - including Marcin Liber's Dogville at Nowy Teatr and Michał Zadara's Mother Courage at Warsaw's Teatr Narodowy - have ended up on my Top 10 lists of shows of the year. The Polish capital may remain the country's theatrical centre but the riches offered stretch far wider. And, though known mostly as Poland's principal cinema city - HollyŁódź, if you will - Łódź also boasts a lively theatre scene, one which often avails itself of the talent nurtured at the city's famed Film School.
One such production is Mariusz Grzegorzek's new staging of Jennifer Haley's play The Nether, which premiered last month at Teatr Jaracza, where Grzegorzek's productions of Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House (Posprzątane) and Arthur Miller's The Crucible (Czarownice z Salem) continue to be huge hits. (A director of cinema as well as theatre, Grzegorzek has been Rector of the Film School since 2012.) Haley's play opened at California's Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2013 and was staged at London's Royal Court by Jeremy Herrin later that year, where it became the (somewhat surprising) recipient of a West End transfer. I didn't see Herrin's production so was particularly grateful to catch Grzegorzek's, which gives the play a bold, haunting and hallucinatory treatment that it's hard to imagine being matched.
The text, presented here under the title Otchłań (which translates as "The Abyss"), might be described as a digital dystopia, and Grzegorzek's statement that the play confronts "the spiritual desolation that modern technology breeds in us" suggests his perspective on the issues at hand. Haley imagines a not-too-distant future in which the Internet has evolved into "the Nether," a network of virtual reality worlds which allows users to act out their desires via online avatars. One such realm, the Hideaway, provides a space for paedophiles, and the play's action flits between scenes in that realm - where the "shining little girl" Iris meets an enigmatic newcomer, Mr. Woodnut - and sequences set in an interrogation room where a detective, Morris, faces off with one of the Hideaway's regulars, Doyle, and with its creator, the aptly monikered Mr. Sims. The question emerges: Does a space such as the Hideaway provide an incitement to deviance or an outlet that stops its users from committing crimes in the real world?
Such debates may not be novel, but, for those of us who count ourselves deeply concerned about the Internet's impact on our minds and souls, they remain urgent nonetheless. And Grzegorzek's highly stylised, expressionistic and often eccentric approach proves a compelling fit for Haley's spare but twisty text, which conceals and discloses as its characters' identities and personas shift and blend. The play's two worlds are brilliantly rendered here, with the director's design - complemented by Magdalena Moskwa's superb costumes - setting the clinical, spacy ambience of the interrogation room against the suspiciously lush Victoriana (with inevitable Lewis Carroll associations...) of the Hideaway. The contrast is conveyed aurally as well as visually, with the decorous classical textures of the virtual realm rubbing up against the twitchy, rumbling soundscape provided by DJ Alex. And, as in Grzegorzek's take on The Crucible, projections are adroitly employed throughout, the images blossoming and blooming, flickering and fragmenting, and creating eerie, distorted landscapes over the bodies of the performers.
The acting is highly physical in the manner that Grzegorzek seems to favour, and the cast works together wonderfully well. As Morris and Sims, Agnieszka Skrzypczak and Andrzej Wichrowski bring wit and heat to debates that might look dry on the page. Hunched and huddled, Krzysztof Zawadzki makes Doyle a singularly disturbing study in depletion. As the watchful Woodnut, Marek Nędza is a dandy with a touch of Dali. Most arresting of all is Paulina Walendziak as Iris, all poses, Pre-Raphaelite tresses and porcelain-doll skin. (The actress also plays Betty Parris in Grzegorzek's Crucible.) Vocally, Walendziak is probably doing too much here: an extraordinary array of squeals and shrieks issues from her. But, given what she's playing, her heightened approach may be justified, and her reactions make her a captivating presence, as the entirety of the drama seems at moments to play out across her amazingly expressive face. It's a startling performance from an actress whom we're sure to see a great deal more of on Polish stage and screen.
There are times, it must be said, when Grzegorzek seems to be working against the grain of the text: Iris lip-synching to "O Mio Babbino Caro" is emblematic of an attempt to turn the piece into an operatic tragedy that the material itself resists. The stark, low-key ending, in contrast, is perfectly judged, stripping away every ounce of stylisation to implicate characters, performers and audience alike in a potent, poignant reminder of the reality beyond the seductions of the screen.
Otchłań plays in repertory at Teatr Jaracza, Łódź. For dates and booking details see here.
[Poster design and production photos credit: Mariusz Grzegorzek]