Sunday 31 December 2023

Best Theatre and Live Perfomances Seen in 2023

Marek Pospieszalski at Fabryka Sztuki
(Photo: Marta Zając-Krysiak fotografia)

I decided to do things a bit differently than usual, and combine theatre and concerts on this list this year. In some ways, the line between the two grows ever blurrier: the most popular concerts right now tend to be highly produced theatrical spectacles - carefully choreographed down to the last gesture. 

There's little space for spontaneity in these huge arena scenarios, and the shows I've gravitated towards this year tended to foster closer audience/performer connections, whether it was Daniel Cerqueira combining song, serenade, silliness, memoir and memorial under fairy lights in a tiny Brixton art studio in the beautiful Danny is Fantastic or Marek Pospieszalski making a saxophone do things you didn't know saxophones could do in his captivating solo show at Fabryka Sztuki. 

Performing in Poland for the first time since 2014 accompanied by long-time bassist Jon Evans plus drummer Ash Soan, Tori Amos' Ocean to Ocean show in Katowice retained every bit of the intimacy of her two previous solo tours as she operated her arsenal of keyboards and welcomed the Katowice crowd with a casual "Hey Poland, what's up?" 

Tori Amos at Spodek in Katowice
(Photo: Jacek Raciborski )

Part blistering rock show, part revival meeting, the trio stretched the songs into supple, jazzy jams across a set list tailored to the place and moment. Surprises were many but the single moment I loved most was the ferocity with which Amos pulled out a gem of a line from "Smokey Joe": "One's past is not a destination".

Mo­rze ∞ moż­li­wo­ści 
Photo: Agnieszka Cytacka fotografia)

From the bewitching gentle puppetry of Fundacja Gra/nice's Mo­rze ∞ moż­li­wo­ści  (Sea of ∞ Possibilities) to the exhilarating wild rides of BUD and Rejs (Cruise), this summer's Retroperspektywy Festival in Łódź provided several of the year's theatrical highlights; the absolute standout was the closing Livet. Suite for the Earth concert, which brought together singers and musicians from several countries in an extraordinary performance. 

(Photo: Agnieszka Cytacka fotografia)

Otherwise, a tendency toward Łódź-specific stories with a wider resonance characterised some of the best theatre presented in the city, especially at Teatr Nowy, whether Dobrze ułożony młodzieniec's innovative dramatization of the interwar life of transman Eugeniusz Steinbart or the immersive evocation of the city's rave culture in Mój pierwszy rave.

Dobrze ułożony młodzieniec

Spectacularly subversive takes on Hamlet and Carmen were also highlights, and I predict a  bright future for Grzybki (Mushrooms), a sharp, playful and song-filled exploration of motherhood, written by Aleksandra Skraba, who co-starred alongside Elżbieta Zajko.

(Photo: Mr. and Mrs. Oh!)

I saw less theatre in the UK this year, which still seems too in thrall to new plays based on real-life figures, confusing celebrity status with dramatic interest.

(Photo: Marc Brenner)

Tom Littler began his Orange Tree Artistic Directorship with two smart and crowd-pleasing productions: of The Circle and She Stoops to Conquer. Still, the best production I saw at the OT this year was Kalungi Ssebandeke’s rich and haunting revival of Mustapha Matura's Meetings, in which a postcolonial conflict between tradition and modernity plays out in the kitchen of an upwardly mobile Trinidadian couple. With a great trio of performances from Kevin N Golding, Bethan Mary-James and,  especially, an absolutely stunning Martina Laird, Meetings wasn't the hit it deserved to be, but Ssebandeke’s production won't be forgotten by those who were lucky enough to catch it

Trouble in Butetown 
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Also brilliantly locating a big story in a domestic space (and with another role vividly played by Bethan Mary-James) was Diana Nneka Atuona's latest play Trouble in Butetown at the Donmar, an absorbing WWII drama, set in a racially mixed household in multicultural Tiger Bay. Tinuke Craig's production had a beautiful tenderness and warmth but also gave the drama the drive of a thriller. And also at the Donmar, Michael Longhurst directed a not very popular but pleasingly tough-minded Private Lives that dispensed with any sentiment in conveying the play's vision of love as a battlefield.

Finally, beginning the year on a high note was the glorious touring production of Fisherman's Friends: The Musical, and ending it on one that captured all the joy, craziness and sadness of the season was Barb Jungr and Dillie Keane's wonderful Christmas show, Two Turtle Doves

Here's to 2024! 

Tuesday 12 December 2023

Best Films of 2023

The full set of ballots for this year's Sight and Sound Best Films of 2023 list are now up; you can read them here

These are the films I voted for: 

Sight and Sound (Winter 2023/24)


The Sight and Sound Winter issue is out now, including the Best Films of 2033 feature. I wrote about Harry Belafonte for the "In Memoriam" feature of this issue. More details here.

Thursday 30 November 2023

Harry Belafonte: 10 Essential Performances (BFI online)


As the Harry Belafonte season gets underway at BFI Southbank, I wrote about some of his best screen performances here

Sunday 5 November 2023

Sight and Sound (December 2023)

December's Sight and Sound is out now. I wrote about James Harvey's new book on John Akomfrah for this issue. More details here

Monday 30 October 2023

Where to Begin with Horace Ové (BFI online)



As the "Power to the People: Horace Ové's Radical Vision" retrospective continues at BFI Southbank, and Pressure is re-released in cinemas, I wrote a guide to some of Ové's screen work. You can read it here

Monday 9 October 2023

November 2023 issue of Sight and Sound

November's Sight and Sound is just out out now, including Ashley Clark's beautiful Horace Ové obituary. 

I had fun revisiting Ken Russell's Gothic (just out on Blu-ray) for the "Rediscovery" column, and found the film - made more poignant by time and the premature deaths of Natasha Richardson and Julian Sands - a surprisingly moving experience today, as well.

More details on the issue here

Thursday 28 September 2023

Theatre Review: Infamous (Jermyn Street Theatre)

Always among the most accessible and least pretentious of contemporary British playwrights, April De Angelis has also demonstrated a stealth subversiveness and wide range in her work. As Dominic Dromgoole writes in The Full Room: "Her imagination can encompass and reproduce worlds very distant from her own, and she has an ease with non-naturalistic dialogue that carries the audience with her... There is a central coarseness, a vitality, a rudeness that keeps it fresh and alive." 

De Angelis brings those qualities to her latest historical play, Infamous, which focuses on Emma Hamilton. The scandalous life story of "that Hamilton woman," wife of Sir William and lover of Lord Nelson, has, of course, often been dramatised - including in Susan Sontag's great The Volcano Lover (1992) which filtered the events mostly through Sir William's perspective. 

But where Sontag's novel constantly expanded outwards through rich allusions and digressions, De Angelis play is distilled, intimate and interior - particularly so in Michael Oakley's production on the tiny Jermyn Street stage. Pointedly, William and Nelson are nowhere to be seen here: the only male characters are an Italian servant and a French Mayor's son, both played with gusto by Riad Richie. 

Instead, De Angelis makes Infamous a mother/daughter story, and one that's much enhanced in Oakley's production by the casting of real-life mother and daughter Caroline and Rose Quentin. 

The play opens in 1798 in Naples, with Rose as the young Emma, married to William, the English Ambassador, but already plotting the seduction of Nelson fresh off the boat. She receives her mother, who's been visiting the daughter that Emma's abandoned in England, and who has a secret of her own to share.

In the second half, the scene shifts to Calais in 1815. Nelson is dead and the ageing, drink-dependant Emma (now played by Caroline) is living in decidedly straitened circumstances with Nelson's daughter Horatia, dwelling on memories of her illustrious past. 

As in her last play - last year's unfairly critically-mauled (but audience-pleasing) Kerry Jackson -  De Angelis deceptively packs quite a lot into a small, unassuming space in Infamous. Exceptionally clear, the historical context is lightly sketched but felt - weaving a sense of Emma's history into the sometimes sparky, sometimes painful exchanges between her and her mother, and then between her and Horatia. 

Oakley's no-frills production places the emphasis firmly on the dialogue and the actors, who capture all the contours of the characters' dynamics in both time periods. 

From Jumpy to the hilariously excruciating memorial service mashup in Kerry, De Angelis loves to integrate a moment of full-on female performance into her plays, and here Caroline Quentin gets to deliver Emma's "Attitudes", the set of historical and mythological poses she persists in viewing as an artistic triumph. 

Equally good in their other role, the Quentins give marvellously complementary performances as Emma, the pertness, casual cruelty and self-regard of Rose's turn in the first half given its distorted mirror image in Caroline's very physical portrayal of the character's decline in the second. Neither demonising nor romanticising its heroine, yet subtly casting her in a fresh light, De Angelis' funny, touching play finally places the emphasis on female fortitude. 

Infamous is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 7 October. 

Production photos by Steve Gregson. 

Tuesday 26 September 2023

A Change of Energy? on 48th Polish Film Festival in Gdynia (18-23 September 2023)

2023 at Polish Film Festival in Gdynia (FPFF) sees the arrival of a new Artistic Director, following the departure of Tomasz Kolankiewicz after three turbulent but generally stellar years. (I think back with special fondness on the festival's "post-pandemic" edition of 2021.) A veteran of New Horizons (2002-2016) and Transatlantyk (2016-2020) festivals, Joanna Łapińska now makes history as the first female to hold the role. While acknowledging the "symbolic significance" of her appointment, Łapińska also noted the strong presence of many "wonderful, experienced women" in the festival team for years, influencing and "creating the character of this event."

Leszek Kopeć and Joanna Łapińska
(Fot. Sylvia Olszewska)

In addition to this generous assessment, Łapińska is realistic in her appraisal of the particular challenges that FPFF poses for an Artistic Director, ones that Kolankiewicz has been vocal about in a recent interview. "Many elements of the Festival are dictated by rules and regulations," Łapińska admitted. "When it comes to the whole programme, I prepare it, propose it, but in the end I need the Organising Committee’s acceptance... This is an environment in which we must demonstrate great diplomacy, but also the ability to compromise."

The notable absence in the Main Competition of at least two of the year's major Polish releases - Agnieszka Holland's government-derided, Venice-premiered migrant drama The Green Border (Zielona Granica), which  opened in Polish cinemas on the very weekend that the Festival closed, and Małgorzata Szumowska's Woman Of..., which also debuted at Venice - clearly speaks to those challenges and compromises. 

But Łapińska, though appointed late, has nonetheless succeeded in creating a very solid programme for her first FPFF, one that retained the same structure as the last years' editions - a Main Competition, a Microbudget Competition, a Short Film Competition, and other established strands - while incorporating a few fresh touches, such as "The Big Five," a section inviting iconic figures of Polish cinema to screen a favourite Polish film and discuss it with the Festival audience. The 15 new films I saw during my stay - 13 from the Main Competition and 2 from the Microbudget one - naturally varied in quality but included enough diversity, highlights and surprises to make for a memorable, satisfying 48th edition of Poland's Cannes. 

Doppelgänger. Sobowtór 

Doppelgänger. Sobowtór (Doppelgänger. The Double) was this year's opening film, and proved a belter. Jan Holoubek, director of 25 lat niewinności. Sprawa Tomka Komendy (25 Years of Innocence. The Case of Tomek Komenda) (2020) and the Wielka Woda TV series (2022) and screenwriter Andrzej Gołda fashion a tense, absorbing spy drama, inspired by various real life cases, which parallels the experiences of two protagonists, played by Jakub Gierszał and Tomasz Schuchardt, on either side of the Iron Curtain, unknown to each other yet intimately linked. Essentially a story of identity theft and its political/personal consequences in a Cold War context, Doppelgänger is technically accomplished, with terrific production design  by Marek Warszewski evoking place and period in a tactile way, and superb cinematography by Bartłomiej Kaczmarek that subtly ramps up the tension with some delicious slow zooms. 

Though Schuchardt's role feels underdeveloped compared to Gierszał's, the transitions between the two locations are elegantly managed, and the protagonists' eventual encounter both understated and oddly touching. A rather rushed conclusion brings a slight sense of a let-down, but the stylish Doppelgänger still takes its place alongside superior latter-day spy dramas like Billy Ray's Breach (2007) and Christian Carion's Farewell (2009), a well-judged James Bond allusion highlighting its difference in terms of intimacy and moral unease.

Ultima Thule

In an entirely different  mode, Gierszał also gave a fine performance in Ultima Thule - a deserved winner of the Microbudget Competition. Klaudiusz Chrostowski's lovely, quietly restorative, low-key drama is about a young man seeking escape and solitude on Shetland and gradually making a new kind of life there. 

Indeed, films focusing on adrift, highly strung or under-pressure males - or what one might more generously call themes of "masculinity in crisis" - made up a substantial part of the Festival programme this year. A fresh addition to Polish cinema in 2012 when Leszek David burst onto the scene with Jesteś Bogiem, about hip hop group Paktofonika, the Polish rap film has since become cliche-ridden and  irresistibly susceptible to parody,  inevitably featuring appearances by real-life artists and plots that find baseball cap-sporting protagonists swaggering around the streets, getting involved in crime or drugs, and endlessly greeting each other as "mordo" or "stary."

Życie w błocie się złoci

While last year's Zadra brought some new energy to the genre by focusing on a female rapper, this year's Festival offered up two such examples. Życie w błocie się złoci (Life in the Mud is Golden), directed by Piotr Kujawiński, centred on the travails of an aspiring hip hop star contending with an alcoholic father, the care of his young sister, and a drugs-related arrest. Narratively shaky, the film is notable for a couple of vibrant music sequences and the last screen appearance by veteran Jan Nowicki. 


At once slicker and sillier, Maciek Bochniak's Freestyle (in the Main Competition) ends up somewhere between Uncut Gems (2019) and a Guy Ritchie caper in its focus on a young rapper (Maciej Musiałowskiforever kicking something in frustration) trying to outsmart adversaries that include gangsters, drug dealers, loan sharks, and his lover's boyfriend. I started out taking Freestyle quite seriously but gradually found myself giggling helplessly as ever-more-unlikely plot twists piled up. Already available on Netflix, Bochniak's film is terrible trash but great fun - best experienced with some pals and plenty of booze on hand.

Horror Story

Anxieties of urban and country experience received contrasting treatments in two fine debut features. A stylised Gothic comedy of Gen Z job-seeking and cohabitation woes, Adrian Apanel's enjoyable Horror Story throws away several promising ideas but still lands some big laughs as it relishes putting its young protagonist (superb  Jakub Zając), an initially eager, increasingly beleaguered graduate in "business and finance," through a series of Coenesque humiliations. 

Tyle co nic

The most overtly political film that I saw at the Festival, Grzegorz Dębowski's Tyle co Nic (Next to Nothing) uses familiar but still potent means of realist social cinema to highlight the difficulties of a group of farmers, screwed over by a local MP, one of whom ends up dead. Despite some heavy-handed symbolism, Dębowski creates an involving drama, and a worthy addition to the growing canon of flawed but interesting contemporary Polish provincial films, including Wszystkie nasze strachy (Fearsand Po miłość/Pour l'amour (both 2021). The film particularly shows its intelligence in a well-written late scene between the MP and the hero (Artur Paczesny).  Paczesny was the winner of the Festival's lead male acting prize, and the film itself took the Visions Apart "Golden Claw" award. 


Two highly anticipated Main Competition films sought to add something fresh to Polish historical drama, with mixed results. Arriving on a wave of acclaim from TIFF, and about to screen at LFF, Chłopi (The Peasants) finds DK and Hugh Welchman applying the same process of hand-drawn animation to live action footage that proved attention-grabbing in their Loving Vincent (2017) to an adaptation of Władysław Reymont's four-volume epic. 

Notwithstanding a couple of standout dancing sequences - enhanced by the film's rousing score - it's hard to see what the painstaking animation process contributes this time around. Zoning in on the text's themes of female transgression and victimhood (the final scenes are practically Lars von Trier-worthy), the adaptation undoubtedly has a modish quality - "a stark portrait of old-school misogyny," noted Nick Schager, approvingly, in his rave review - that will probably make it an international hit. (It's already announced as Poland's Oscar candidate.) But if you don't respond to the visuals then Chłopi simply feels neither fish nor fowl, suspended in a limbo between live action and animation that finally diminishes the expressive power of both.


Having delivered one of the splashiest debut films in recent Polish cinema with 2017's Atak Paniki - a part-Wild Tales, part-11 Minutes multi-stranded dark comedy of contemporary anxieties - Paweł Maślona returns with Kos (unfortunate English title: Scarborn) which won the Festival's top Golden Lions prize. Kos centres on another return: that of General Tadeusz Kościuszko from the American War of Independence to Poland where, with the freed African American slave Domingo, he's intent on mobilising the Polish peasantry and gentry against their Russian invaders.

Part pageant, part pantomime, influences from Shakespeare to Tarantino are discernible in Kos but I'd expected a weirder, wilder ride from this film. In fact, it feels straitjacketed - a semi-postmodern historical drama that becomes weirdly static in its second half, confined to chat in interior locations, before a final bloodbath.


The film is quite bold in drawing parallels between the experiences of African slaves and Polish peasants - yes, there's a scene of scars comparison - and the presence of Jason Mitchell as Domingo is welcome, though the development of the character rather less so. Too self-consciously, Maślona makes Domingo a transplant from contemporary American cinema rather than a freshly imagined character - he's a fish-out-of-water comic sidekick constantly cussing and cracking wise. (Notably, he's the first to burst through the stately historical ambience of the film's opening with an f-bomb.) 

Having remarked on non-white representation in the Festival's programme over the last years - from Kler (2018)'s moment of racist caricaturing through the Senegalese scammer portrayed in Po miłość/Pour l'amour to the undeveloped migrant characters in Silent Land (2021) and Bread and Salt (2022) - it would be tempting to see Kos as an advance. It is - but only in part, since, through Domingo's contemporary colloquialisms, the film appears to imply that a Black character can only exist in a period context as an anachronism. 

Luckily, the charismatic Mitchell succeeds in bringing a touch of grit to the limited characterisation. In contrast, Jacek Braciak as Kos himself seems muted, an afterthought; one might charitably consider this a deliberate choice made to undercut national myth-making but it still leaves a gaping hole at the centre of the film. Ultimately, the greatest pleasures in Kos come from the juicy work of the supporting cast: Robert Więckiewicz as the Russian cavalry captain, forever reminding everyone just how much Poland needs "Mother Russia"; Agnieszka Grochowska's sharp-witted widow; and a barnstorming Piotr Pacek, gleefully building on his repertoire of sadistic siblings after Król (2020)

Święto ognia

A film by Kinga Dębska is always a welcome, friendly prospect; I count myself a fan of the writer-director's brand of warm but tart comedy-drama since the Gdynia screening of Moje córki krowy back in 2015. In Święto ognia (Feast of Fire) Dębska adapts Jakub Małecki's novel in a way that fits perfectly with her own sensibilities, focusing on two teenage sisters dealing with body issues: the first pursuing her career as a ballet dancer, the second (the film's narrator) born with cerebral palsy and dedicated to observing the world from her balcony. The film was a worthy winner of two acting prizes, with Paulina Pytlak honoured as best newcomer and the venerable Kinga Preis as supporting actress for her glowing performance as the sisters' neighbour. 


A tougher proposition as a sibling drama, also much centred around the body, is Sławomir Fabicki's Lęk (Anxiety), which reunites Magdalena Cielecka and Marta Nieradkiewicz from Tomasz Wasilewski's United States of Love (2016), again cast as sisters here. This time the pair are on the road, driving Cielecka's terminally ill Małgorzata to a Swiss clinic to end her life. Nieradkiewicz's Lucja still has serious doubts about her sister's decision, though, viewing it as a definitive example of the control freakery with which Małgorzata has always set about managing her own and others' experiences. 

As well as the two actresses, Fabicki brings something of Wasilewski's "transgressive" spirit to these proceedings, especially in a humiliating scene of an aborted tryst over a car bonnet, and a distinctly icky moment of sisterly sexual healing. But, working from Monika Sobień-Górska's screenplay, he also modulates the tone more effectively, keeping the proceedings fluid with some mordant humour and unexpected developments. Lęk is at its best when least straining, avoiding pathos or polemic in its most well-observed intimate scenes. The actresses both deliver, achieving a Bergman-worthy intensity of feeling at times. 

Sny pełne dymu

Apart from Piotr Dumała's typically eccentric (if far from fully realised) Fin del Mundo?, the most daring films I saw at this year's Festival both came from female filmmakers. Dorota Kędzierzawska surprised with Sny pełne dymu (Dreams Full of Smoke), an intimate two-hander for Krzysztof Globisz and Żaneta Łabudzka-Grzesiuk. (A fond nod to Kędzierzawska's regular, now late, collaborator Danuta Szaflarska is also included.) By turns lyrical, smutty, soulful and hilarious, the dialogue-rich film prompted more walkouts than any other I saw at the Festival but proved a hypnotic experience for those on its wavelength: a true film poem, given wings by its actors' perfectly calibrated duet. (When Łabudzka-Grzesiuk tells Globisz "Nikt nie mówi „kurwa” piękniej niż Ty" - "No-one says 'fuck' more beautifully than you" - we can only agree.)

My favourite film of this year's Festival, however, was Olga Chajdas's Imago - winner of the Silver Lions and leading actress prizes. A deeply personal project for its fearless co-writer/star Lena Góra (known for her role as the transgressive daughter in Król, and as the star and writer of last year's great Roving Woman), Imago finds the actress playing her own mother, Ela (Malwina) Góra, a singer in several '80s alternative bands. 

The film's perfect, psychologically-savvy title and poster design suggest Bergman. But Imago is very much its own unruly, lurching, restless and beautiful beast. At once an expressionistic portrait of the emotional ups-and-downs of its heroine and a vibrant evocation of the post-punk Tri-City artistic scene - you've never seen an '80s Poland quite like this on screen before - the film  moves to its own innovative, jagged rhythms, with great, edgy editing and  cinematography (by Pavel Hrdlička and Tomasz Naumiak, respectively) and a fantastic soundtrack.  

One of Ela's tics involves moving her single earring from one ear to the other - resulting in what she describes as "a change of energy." Imago itself boasts multiple "changes of energy"; the film is a rich and immersive ride with a gorgeous ending. Despite such exciting wildcards in its Main Competition, FPFF 2023 itself tended more towards continuity than change, overall. But all positive indications are that Łapińska is the right Artistic Director to balance both elements, as the Festival heads towards its 50th anniversary in two years' time. 

The 48th Polish Film Festival in Gdynia took place from 18-23 September. Full programme details here. 

Thursday 14 September 2023

10 Great Films about Novelists piece (BFI online)

I wrote a piece on 10 Great Films about Novelists for BFI. You can read it here.

Wednesday 30 August 2023

'Generations' Said...: A Report on the 12th Retroperspektywy International Theatre Festival, Łódź, 18-27 August 2023

Among the most joyous screenings at this year's New Horizons Film Festival  last month was that of Agnieszka Zwiefka's Vika! (2023), a documentary dedicated to the life and work of the Warsaw-based octogenarian Wirginia Szmyt, a former teacher and correctional facility director turned Poland's (and, let's face it, probably the world's) oldest DJ. 

Combining stylised music video-inspired sequences with footage of Vika on the decks at Pride marches and parties in Poland and abroad, plus intimate  reflections on her complicated family relations, lockdown isolation (and bonus appearances from her hilariously troublesome cat), Zwiefka's film celebrated Vika as a figure whose energy and zest for life not only challenge ageist stereotyping but who also unites diverse demographics - groups that many (not least the mainstream media) prefer to present as irredeemably polarised right now. 

Vika! (2023)

As usual taking place at Fabryka Sztuki and other venues in Łódź across 10 days in August, Teatr CHOREA's Retroperspektywy International Theatre Festival (RPS) this year took as its theme the subject of "Generations," exploring conflicts, correspondences, and, in the words of Artistic Director Tomasz Rodowicz, "attempts to find oneself in intergenerational relationships." (Evidently the topic is of particular concern to Polish creatives and curators at present, since this year's Hommage a Kieślowski festival, which happened in Sokołowsko concurrently with RPS, also chose "Generations" as its theme.) Given the festival's focus, the appearance of DJ Vika at the RPS final Friday party was perfect; the DJ brought the youngest and oldest attendees to the dance floor with a fun, eclectic set that spanned styles and decades. 

I've attended Retroperspektywy for the past 5 years, always finding it among the most multifaceted, inclusive and carefully curated of festivals. If anything, those qualities seemed enhanced this year - perhaps appropriately, given the festival's theme. This 12th edition was one of the strongest yet, as the programme encompassed plays, puppetry, concerts, dance, an  exhibition of work by young artists from Jola Kró­lic­ka's studio at the MSK Art Centre, a series of intergenerational ecological workshops, and meetings with creatives after each event. (Sadly, one much anticipated performance, Łukasz Kos's new take on An-ski's Dybuk, had to be cancelled due to an accident.)

Księ­gi nie­po­ko­ju.
Sta­ni­sław / An­to­ni / Fer­nan­do

The opening premiere, Księ­gi nie­po­ko­ju. Sta­ni­sław / An­to­ni / Fer­nan­do (Books of Disquiet. Stanislaw / Antoni / Fernando), directed by and starring Rodowicz alongside two charismatic young performers, An­to­ni Wój­cik-Urba­niak and Sta­ni­sław Gi­nal­ski, perfectly established the Festival theme, using a sustained chess metaphor to dramatise intergenerational tensions and moments of complicity. 

Księ­gi nie­po­ko­ju.
Sta­ni­sław / An­to­ni / Fer­nan­do

Lower-keyed and more distilled than some CHOREA opening shows, the piece nonetheless proved stimulating, incorporating translated text by Fer­nan­do Pes­soa, clever set and costume design by Kró­lic­ka, and - perhaps inevitably - a Seventh Seal homage, as well as benefiting hugely from Rodowicz,  Wój­cik-Urba­niak and Gi­nal­ski's evident rapport. 

I am OK

Like last year's edition, the Festival again boasted a significant Ukrainian presence, presenting two shows by Khar­kiv Sta­te Aca­de­mic Pup­pet The­atre. These productions were both directed by Oksana Dmitrieva, and each was finely attuned to the very different demands of the material.

I am OK was raw, direct and immediate in its focus on the diverging fates of four teenage friends (played by Li­liia Osie­ichuk, Ser­hii Sme­re­chuk, Olek­san­dra Ko­le­sni­chen­ko, and Yakiv Oze­rovin) in  Bucha from the first days of the Russian invasion; it wasn't surprising to see some audience members openly weeping by the show's climax.


Vertep, by contrast, tapped into a deep well of ritual and tradition. Named in reference to the  Ukrainian portable puppet theatre which presents the nativity story and mystery plays, and which was suppressed by the Soviet state, the performance was full of rich symbolism, soulful singing and creative design. 

Ścia­na z wi­do­kiem

Teenage experience in a contemporary context was also explored in Grupa Coincidentia's Ścia­na z wi­do­kiem (Wall with a View), an idiosyncratic, wild but tender portrait of teenage lockdown loneliness. The pri­ze-win­ner of the Ar­ti­stic Event for Chil­dren and Youth Pro­ject, the show was undertaken in  collaboration with Chil­dren's Art Cen­tre in Po­znań un­der the au­spi­ces of the 23rd Bien­na­le of the Art for Chil­dren, but doesn't shy away from darker emotions. Still, the show placed emphasis on the saving possibilities of creativity and imagination.

Staged in traverse, with well-incorporated multimedia elements, and director and designer Kon­rad Dwo­ra­kow­ski on stage to add musical accompaniment alongside composer Ro­bert Jur­čo, the performance boasted a great central "duet" by the briskly multi-roling Dag­ma­ra Sowa and by Pa­weł Chom­czyk as the troubled teen. 

IV RP Snów

Several ambitious pieces in the programme used dance to express and meditate on existential anxieties. I wasn't convinced by Sto­wa­rzy­sze­nie Sztu­ka Nowa's IV RP Snów (4th Republic of Dreams), directed by Da­wid Ża­kow­ski and choreographed by Woj­ciech Gru­dziń­ski. Despite the clear commitment of its supple trio of performers (Ewe­li­na So­bie­raj, Bo­rys Jaź­nic­ki, Mi­chał To­kar­ski), the production teetered between arresting and risible, and succumbed to the latter in a key section scored to Diana Krall's uniquely painful rendition of "Cry Me a River." 

(Photo: Øystein Haara)*

On the other hand, BUD, presented on the large stage at Teatr Pinokio by the Bergen-based Carte Blanche - Norwegian National Company of Contemporary Dance as part of the ongoing ACT IN_OUT collaborative project, was explosively effective. 

Directed and choreographed by Roza Moshtagi, the gripping piece combined elements of dance and installation art to explore the condition of waiting and suspended time - its performers (Ire­ne Ve­ster­hus The­isen, Ole Mar­tin Me­land, Aslak Aune Ny­gård, Anne Lise Røn­ne, Tri­ne Lise Moe) variously sitting, laying, convulsing, or racing in the space. Enhanced by a soundscape that veered from otherworldly chants to pounding industrial noise (mu­sic is by Ly­kor­go­us Por­fy­ris), BUD is a major, original piece of work that deserves wide international attention. 

Full Measures

Also highly distinctive was Full Measures by Finland's Li­vsme­dlet director/ choreographer/puppeteer/performer duo San­dri­na Lind­gren and Ish­ma­el Fal­ke, which examined the human compulsion to quantify and measure sundry aspects of life experience as a form of control. 

Initially I was reminded a bit of the great central section of Martin Crimp's unloved play In the Republic of Happiness, as Lind­gren and Fal­ke communicated through a volley of exchanged averages, stats and percentages, delivered in an amusingly deadpan fashion that gestured at social critique.  But the piece evolves into something quite other in its frenzied, frantic later section. Throughout, a multitude of measuring sticks are employed as versatile and expressive aids and props, finally forming a forest that might, perhaps, be a space for our beleaguered protagonists to begin anew. 

Mo­rze ∞ moż­li­wo­ści

Generally exploring darker themes, puppetry has indeed often been a vital component of the festival over the years, testifying to Poland's exceptional creativity in this field. But this year's standout puppet performance, Fundacja Gra/nice's Mo­rze ∞ moż­li­wo­ści  (Sea of ∞  Possibilities), proved a bewitchingly gentle affair.

Mo­rze ∞ moż­li­wo­ści

Freely adapted from Kobi Yamada's book Maybe, this was a calming, beautiful family show that offered pure Sunday lunchtime enchantment, following its enterprising, wide-eyed protagonist (designed by Ju­sty­na Ber­na­det­ta Ba­na­siak) through various tasks and attempts, as they learn the value of trying again, and develop their potential. With a twinkling soundscape, and a simple video camera projecting elements of the set, the design conjures forest, ocean and mountainside up to to a final flight, and the show charmed audience members of all ages from beginning to end. 


Two outstanding ensemble concerts book-ended this year's festival, both comprised of music composed and arranged by the esteemable Piotr Klimek - one of the undisputed heroes of this year's event. (Another hero would be the festival's tireless General Coordinator, Anna Maszewska.) Written, directed and conceived by Dworkowski, the first concert, Rejs (Cruise), brought together a diverse crew of performers as the MUR/BE­TON & Ga­da­ją­cy Pies (CONCRETE/WALL & Talking Dog) collective to take the audience on a journey through the courtyards of Łódź history as a wider metaphor for human experience. 


Unpredictable weather forced the concert from its intended outdoor location on to a smaller inside stage that made the set-up seem slightly cramped. But the exhilarating, ramshackle energy of the piece still steamed through, with brilliantly sung contributions from CHOREA regulars Joanna Chmielecka and Mi­chał Jóź­wik, among others. 

Marja Mortenssen in
Li­vet. Su­ita dla Zie­mi 

Chmielecka and Jóź­wik were also among the exceptional company assembled for the premiere performance of Li­vet. Su­ita dla Zie­mi (Life. Suite for the Earth), which was the Festival's soul-shakingly great culmination at the University of Music Concert Hall on Sunday night. 

Also part of the ACT IN_OUT project, and produced by Ola Shaya, this concert united Polish, Norwegian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian artists in an evening of song, with narration and spoken word interludes by the great Norwegian actress Juni Dahr, appearing throughout like a particularly graceful woodland spirit to delivery the poetry. (Alongside Erik Hil­le­stad and Tomasz Rodowicz, Dahr was also co-director of the piece.)

Li­vet. Su­ita dla Zie­mi 

Indeed, themes of human connection to nature were central, in a work dedicated to celebrating the uniqueness of the planet and all that lives on it.  The evening opened with the elegantly black-clad, barefoot ensemble of singers sitting in a circle before rising to take their places alongside a band comprised of Tord Gustavsen (piano), Eivind Aarset (guitar), Tore Brunborg (tenor sax), Hubert Zemler (percussion) and Piotr Rodowicz (double bass). 

Juni Dahr in
Li­vet. Su­ita dla Zie­mi 

Inspired by traditional music from all four countries, the show had a beautiful, seamless flow, placing tradition and modernity in dynamic dialogue through a fusion of folk, jazz and rock elements, supported by the amazing harmonies of the 13-strong choir.

Piotr Klimek in
Li­vet. Su­ita dla Zie­mi 

The all-female soloists brought different yet complementary energies to the evening - from the extraordinary, ebullient Saami joiks of Marja Mortenssen, embodying aspects of the natural world, to the heart-piercing tone of Elina Toneva, specialist in Bulgarian folk-singing, and the theatrical, impassioned style of Zoriana Dybovska, reaching back with intensity and pride into Ukrainian roots. 

Zoriana Dybovska in
Li­vet. Su­ita dla Zie­mi 

With voices soaring in lament or exaltation, complemented by some atmospheric lighting design, the effect was overwhelmingly powerful; the performers also radiated a mutual warmth, respect and love that was heart-warming to witness. As Dahr remarked in an interview: "We are in a very difficult moment in Europe. This is the right moment to join forces, create music, poetry, art together and thus give each other a little faith in the future."

Elina Toneva in
Li­vet. Su­ita dla Zie­mi 

A profound and transformative spiritual experience, Livet bestowed precisely that kind of faith. The concert represents art-making at the highest level, and deserves the widest possible international exposure. (October will see a second performance of the piece in Oslo, and an audio recording will be available soon.) It was an exquisite and unforgettable conclusion to a festival that creatively approached the theme of generations in all manner of resonant ways, adding up to an essential edition of Retroperspektywy that can best be described as one for the ages. 

Li­vet. Su­ita dla Zie­mi 

The 12th Retroperspektywy Festival took place between 18 - 27 August 2023.

With the exception of the image of BUD by Øystein Haara, all performance photos are by AGNIESZKA CYTACKA FOTOGRAFIA