Tuesday 30 August 2022

The Beginning of a New World - Reflections on Retroperspektywy Theatre Festival 2022, Łódź


With a striking poster design evoking the cosmic, sci fi and futurology, the just-concluded 11th international Theatre Festival Retroperspektywy (RPS), curated and organised by Teatr CHOREA at Fabryka Sztuki between 19-28 August, took as its title "The Beginning of a New World." 

A potent post-pandemic (sic) topic if ever there was one, this was a theme explored in typically diverse and idiosyncratic ways across the Festival's carefully curated programme. As usual, RPS encompassed theatre and dance performances, concerts, exhibitions, workshops and discussions - as well as, this time, the launch of the new book Rodowicz-Teatr-Droga (Rodowicz-Theatre-Road): a collection of interviews with CHOREA co-founder and RPS artistic director To­masz Ro­do­wicz, edited by Da­riusz Ko­siń­ski.  

From feminist deconstructions of classic 19th century literature (director Joanna Lewicka's Bovary) to a bespoke children's show (Jo­an­na Fi­lar­ska and Pa­weł Gło­wa­ty's Sklep z dobrym humorem/A Good Humour Shop); a performance about inter-generational contact developed with the company's senior and youth groups (Złota Nić/Golden Thread); and a superb abstract art exhibition featuring the work of over 20 artists, the Festival's inclusive ethos and high standards were maintained, making for 10 days of artistic experimentation, intellectual and sensual stimulation, mischief, political subversiveness, surprises, and pure joy at 3 Ty­mie­niec­kie­go Stre­et. 


The explosive opening show of last year's Festival, Łukasz Kos and CHOREA's adaptation of Witold Wandurski's 1925 satire Śmierć na gruszy (Death on a Pear Tree), was such an unforgettable, wild riot that it seemed tough to top. But though substantially more streamlined, Ragnarok, this year's opener, proved more than daring enough. Directed and choreographed by Ad­rian Bart­czak, this collaboration between CHOREA and Carte Blanche National Dance Theatre of Norway was slightly reminiscent of previous CHOREA shows based on Bruno Schulz's texts, Skrawki (Scraps) (2020) and Pętla (Loop) (2021), with a strong emphasis on ensemble movement, a fascination with repeated rituals, and several of the same performers featured.


Ragnarok, with its "Twilight of the Gods" title, develops its own aesthetic and attitude, though. Its hypnotic, dialogue-free 30 minute opening sequence presented Rodowicz, Janusz Adam Biedrzycki, Maja Caban, Joanna Chmielecka, Michał Jóźwik, Małgorzata Lipczyńska, and Anna Maszewska slowly making their way around the carpeted stage, as a tangled knot of pain: their bodies contorted, crawling, reaching out, mouths sometimes agape in silent screams. 


If this haunting vision of collective distress gestured towards the horrors of the past two years - and those that are still ongoing - the show's evocation of a post-apocalyptic scenario remained intimate, interior and quite abstract. Clearly divided into differently toned sections, Ragnarok went on to show a social world being established (sandwiches made on stage were handed out to the audience) then fragmented, while a delirious dance interlude stripped set and performers, suggesting a bizarrely deconstructed club night. Tomasz Krzyżanowski's music, ranging from classical requiem to twitchy electronics, enhanced the immersive richness and unpredictability of the performance, which implicated the audience right up to the conclusion - and beyond, as bits of Marta Góźdź - El Bruzda's set - a carpet, a cup - greeted us at the exit.


While ensemble work often defines CHOREA's performances and collaborations, solo shows by female performers also have an important place in the Festival, and have often proved particularly powerful. Following Akty (RPS 2019) and W zawieszeniu (Suspended) (RPS 2020), this year's programme included Romans (Love Affair), a monodrama performed and directed by Natalia Sakowicz from a script by Zuzanna Bojda. 


I say "monodrama," but Romans is actually better described as a dialogue or duet, since the piece is based on Sakowicz's manipulations (both senses of the word seem appropriate here) of an extremely expressive human-sized puppet: one "Marta". The interactions of this pair allow Romans to pitilessly chart the arc of a relationship, from curiosity and exuberant erotic exploration through overlapping identities to coercive control and abuse - a bit reminiscent of Leos Carax's use of puppetry to interrogate the darker corners of parent/child dynamics in Annette (2021). Sound and music are central in Romans too, from tautly sustained moments of total silence to a startling interlude of synth-scored operatic vocalising. The set design is spare but carefully detailed (take a close look inside the wine glasses dotting the stage), leaving plenty of space for Sakowicz's fearless, expertly controlled performance. 


Given the main theme of this year's Festival, the presence of Sta­ni­sław Lem in two of the programme's productions was not unexpected. Ma­te­usz Pa­ku­ła's Lem vs. P.K. Dick explored the relationship between the two pioneering authors, while director Da­niel Adam­czyk and playwright Ma­ciej Gor­czyń­ski offered a compelling theatrical take on Lem's 1971 satirical novel KON­GRES FU­TU­RO­LO­GICZ­NY (THE FUTUROLOGICAL CONGRESS), which, like Lem vs. P.K. Dick,  was also constructed as a two-hander for male performers.


The versatile Michał Jóźwik featured again here as Lem's iconic recurrent hero Ijon Tichy, alongside a dynamically multi-roling Ja­ro­sław To­mi­ca for a hallucinatory journey blurring reality and fantasy, one that was ludic but also freshly urgent in its thematic concerns, ranging from  ecological disaster to war. Alongside Adamczyk and Miłosz Wójciuk's lighting, the contributions of on-stage musicians Jan Ja­wor­ski, Szcze­pan Po­spie­szal­ski, Jo­an­na Szczę­sno­wicz, and Jan Tar­kow­ski on strings, trumpet, and electronic instruments added substantially to the atmosphere, complementing Jóźwik and Tomica's great rapport. 

Po dru­giej stro­nie

Created from literary texts, interviews with migrants, and writings by the performers themselves, Po drugiej stronie (On the Other Side) by Wrocław's Jubilo Foundation theatre group was another arresting piece, this time combining movement and audience address along with video projections and art installation elements. Directed by Diego Pillegi, the show began with its trio of performers - Alessia Romano, Marek Idzikowski, Michał Murawski - hidden under sheets; it went on to present their interactions through and around six see-through panels which functioned variously as screens, mirrors and cages. 

Po dru­giej stro­nie

Philosophical statements delivered in rapid-fire direct address focused on issues ranging from freedom and seclusion to the audience's position in the theatrical event: "You are not individuals here. You are a plurality of persons...You are breathing in one and the same rhythm...the rhythm in which we are speaking." A particularly disturbing sequence evoked the dementing effects of random screen culture, but this dark night of the soul led to a cathartic coda, with the performers finally joining the audience for a shared moment of quiet contemplation of the natural world. 


Of the several concerts featured in the programme, the two I saw, both performed in Fabryka Sztuki's Glass Hall, were highlights of the Festival. For those of us whose primary acquaintance with Bulgarian music is the contributions of Trio Bulgarka to Kate Bush records, the Saturday night concert by Oratnitza was nothing short of revelatory. Though reduced to four from their usual six-strong line-up (singer Ivan “Popa” Go­spo­di­nov and keyboardist Hri­stiy­an Geo­r­giev were absent due to illness), this superb band of young Bulgarian musicians gave their all in a thrilling performance combining tradition and modernity. 


With extraordinary, earthy and ethereal vocal harmonies from Diy­ana Vas­si­le­vav and Asya Pin­che­va, drums heartily thwacked by Ste­fan Ce­kov, and Geo­r­gi Ma­ri­nov establishing the did­ge­ri­doo and bagpipes as the coolest, funkiest instruments on the block, Oratnitza rocked like a tempest (appropriately, given the storm that started up during the show, with lightening flashes visible through the window behind the band). With Ma­ri­nov constantly urging the audience to "come closer!",  it didn't take long for the crowd to loosen up and dance, buoyed by the band's charisma and the infectious, cleansing energy of their music. 


The following evening found an equally remarkable concert taking place in the Glass Hall. As a company, CHOREA  has always maintained strong links with Ukrainian artists and these connections have only been  strengthed throughout the ongoing war resulting from Russia's invasion. With a title referencing the Roman politician Cato the Censor's famed phrase "Carthago delenda est" ("Carthage must be destroyed"), Le­sia Ukra­in­ka The­atre's IM­PE­RIUM DE­LEN­DA EST, directed by Dmy­tro Za­kho­zhen­ko, combined songs, poetry, projections, testimony and reportage in a viscerally  powerful performance, the first large-scale work that the company have presented since the invasion and one which they have performed in bomb shelters in their home country. The tone was fierce, urgent and defiant, culminating in the proud unfurling of the Ukrainian flag. 


In sum, the "New World" inaugurated and explored at Retroperspektywy 2022 was a brave one, avoiding cosy utopianism for more complex, questioning visions - and also offering a vital reminder of the vibrant richness of European cultural expressions still so often sidelined and suppressed by US cultural dominance. 

As Rodowicz told Dariusz Pawlowski in interview: "Theatre, like few artistic activities, has a meeting space inscribed in it. It is a constant dialogue...In my opinion it has huge obligations...to protect the human in a person, to rebuild relationships between people. The most important thing today is that after leaving the theatre I want to take care of myself and the world at least a little." In their diverse ways, the best performances at RPS 2022 achieved that goal. Allowing "a plurality persons...to breathe in one and the same rhythm," the Festival opened its audience up to fresh ways of being, seeing, connecting and creating in our personal and collective futures.

Retroperspektywy Festival 2022 took place at Fabryka Sztuki between 19 - 28  August. Full details of the Festival programme are here


Related reading:

Review of Powinniśmy być…Impresja na kilka czasowników (We Should Be...Impression on a Few Verbs

Review of Pretty Woman: The Musical (Teatr Muzyczny)

Friday 19 August 2022

Article on Burning an Illusion (dir. Menelik Shabazz)

I wrote a piece on Menelik Shabazz's Burning an Illusion, which is released on Blu-ray for the first time next month. The essay will be featured in the Blu-ray booklet and can also be read at the BFI website here.

Wednesday 3 August 2022

10 Great Reggae Films Article, BFI online

Celebrating 60 years of Jamaican independence 🇯🇲 , I wrote about 10 great reggae films, from The Harder They Come to Babylon to Lovers Rock. You can read the article here.  

Sight and Sound, September 2022 Issue

The September 2022 issue of Sight and Sound is out now. I wrote about Kate Bush's cinema influences and her 1993 film The Line, The Cross & The Curve for the "Lost and Found" column in this issue. More details on the issue here.