Teatr Powszechny: Frljić’s theatre playground

Agnieszka Jakimiak


Mohsen Makhmalbaf in Salaam Cinema (1995). Reproduced under fair use from http://worldscinema.org/2013/03/mohsen-makhmalbaf-salaam-cinema-1995/.

A man enters the hall. He stops just in front of the stairs and looks in the direction of the film crew. He is wearing dark glasses, so dark that it is obvious that he must be blind. He is also walking with a stick.

– Are you Mr MakhmaIbaf? he asks the void in front of him.

– I’m in front of you. says Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who is sitting in the back. Lift your head up. What’s your name?

– Hadi Mokhtarian.

– Why are you wearing glasses? asks Makhmalbaf.

– Isn’t it better with the glasses? replies the man.

– Sure it is. Have you acted before?

– I did some theatre for a few years with my friend.

– Are you ready to act for us now?

–  Yes.

– Go on then.

– Am I near anything?

– No, but don’t move more than one step in any direction or you won’t be in the light.

– Can I act whatever I want?

– Yes, just act.

The man starts a monologue:

– All my life,
all my love was just that.
True, my eyes do not see,
but I can see with my heart.
It can see and feel things.

–  Have you ever been to the cinema? asks Makhmalbaf.

–  A few times with my friend. I’ve seen your films too. He explains to me some scenes I can’t understand, when there’s no sound.

–  Why do you want to be an actor?

– I want to play the part of someone with emotions, someone positive.

– But what if this part called for a sighted person? Excuse me for asking.

– That’s okay.

– Will you answer me honestly? You’ve never seen a film. How can you like film? Does the sound interest you? What is cinema for you?

– There’s all sorts of emotions going on in cinema. I can understand that. Someone cries over his mother’s death.

– If I ask you to take off your glasses and cry to see if you can act, are you willing to do it?

– Is it really necessary?

– Take off your glasses. Lift your head up and open your eyes.

–  Do I have to?

– Didn’t you say you’d do anything for cinema?

– Lift your head up and open your eyes for a second. Don’t Iower your head. Look me straight in the eyes. Tell me about your Iove of cinema, about your emotions… Keep your eyes open so we can see you’ve never seen a movie.

– I love cinema. I’d do anything for it.

– If I asked you to open your eyes and show us you’re not bIind, wouId you do it for cinema?

The man opens his eyes and we can see that he is not blind at all. Just the contrary, he could see everything from the very beginning.

–  Why did you lie to us?

– Because of my love for cinema?

– You thought you’d have more chance if you pretended to be blind?

– No, I was only acting. It’s what you asked me to do. So I started to act before I arrived.

– What if cinema was just this, this reality you chose to act out, wouId you be happy?

–  You mean that was my part?

–  Yes. That’s all there was to it.

–  My part was just that?

– Put your glasses back on. You can go now. That’s what cinema’s all about.

This is a scene from Salaam Cinema (1995) by Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The plot of this movie bears similarities to a labyrinth, where everything starts and ends with the same figure – of a director – but this character is not performed by one person. Salaam Cinema is not a classical movie about making a movie, it does not even fulfil a premise of being a feature film. Salaam Cinema is a movie about organising a casting for a movie: at this stage of production nothing of what is performed has to be real, though everything turns out to be more genuine than planned. Thousands of actors and amateurs show up and fight for a part in Makhmalbaf’s picture, driven by a variety of motivations – they need a visa, they want to travel abroad, they have to support their families – but the trickiest element of this challenge remains invisible for a long time. This is not a story of wannabe stars, but of a much more dangerous race in which everything is about preserving a vulnerable position, somewhere between being a victimiser and a victim. People who seek a role in reality express a desire to find themselves in the director’s shoes. At the end, this is what remains both the challenge and the main prize in the casting: everyone wants to be in charge and tries to take over the position of power. Directing becomes about controlling others and this need is never transparent or neutral.

If I were to say what the stakes of Oliver Frljić’s theatre is, I would claim that it contains the potential to become aware of this state of things and the attempt to dismantle it. Frljić is concerned that representation is always complicit, dependent on those who manage and represent institutions and microinstitutions of power. One of these is the institution of theatre, especially repertory theatre, with its structural divisions, hierarchies, network of influences, and submissions. This microorganism, with its ensemble, administration, PR, technicians, dramaturgs, intendants, public money, and audience, contains everything that is needed when one wants to deal with a lack of institutional transparency, or relations of power. The discrepancy between actors, who have limited responsibility, choice, and freedom within the institutional frames, and the director, who is often expected to avoid destabilising existent hierarchies, marks the edges of Frljić’s theatre playground. Within this field everything can happen, as institutional critique determines the starting point of each project, but does not necessarily signify its destination. Sometimes this structural self-reflectiveness is an excuse for a ruthless attack on another institution or ideological mythology, such as national identity, the Church, cultural virtues, the preservation of chauvinism or so called traditional values that cherish the homogenous imaginary of a community that is united, undivided, and established via exclusion and discrimination. More often these mechanisms of critique interact and work together. Following Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s statement, Frljić indicates how much violence and oppression exercised on a small scale or within private relationships validate and justify the brutality of the state apparatus or the reproduction of abuse.

In Oliver’s work context is everything. Together with Joanna Wichowska and Goran Injac, I worked with Frljić three times as dramaturgs in different Polish cities and with different expectations concerning the result. The first work started in October 2013 in National Old Theatre in Kraków, where the production was suspended 10 days before the opening by the artistic director Jan Klata. Frljić was supposed to direct Un-Divine Comedy by Zygmunt Krasiński, an infamous ‘damaged’ masterpiece that is stained by its anti-Semitism. Similarly to Makhmalbaf’s movie, the cast was supposed to manoeuvre between their personal beliefs and the play’s fictionality. Frljić provided the dramaturgical framework for these shifts. We were deeply involved in the discussions concerning Polish antisemitism, which at their boiling point supported us with material for the scenes. The debates, during which all the cast members were supposed to switch their ideological standpoints and use a variety of arguments from different sides of the barricade, often turned into actual rows. Different perspectives on Polish/Jewish relations resulted in the loss of tempers and impassioned fights over historical truths, lies, and myths, as well as the reproduction of stereotypes and attempts to abolish them. Never before have I seen people in a theatre rehearsal being so open and radical when talking about ideology and politics. Neither have I experienced a real fight between actors over their political beliefs. Two weeks before the opening one of the conservative daily newspapers in Cracow was tipped with a leak from the rehearsals: they described the upcoming outrageous performance, caused public scandal and frightened the intendant so much that he decided to withdraw his support towards a project he had never truly endorsed anyway.

Our work on Klątwa (The Curse) in Teatr Powszechny in Warsaw seemed to proceed in a much calmer and more balanced way. The creative team, the ensemble, the management, and the administration of the theatre were all working on the same side and even if someone did not agree with the critique of the Catholic Church the performance was exercising, he or she did not sabotage the work. It may sound obvious, but after Un-Divine nothing was predictable. What is more, the practice of inviting theatre makers from abroad to realise a performance in a public theatre in Poland is not widespread. Although Warsaw theatres have in their repertoires performances by Marcus Öhrn, Yana Ross, Rene Pollesch, and Konstantin Bogomołow, it is not very common for a foreign director to deal with a classic Polish play. This is largely due to the hermetic language of Polish classics, often not fully comprehensible even to local theatre audiences. This also stems from a rather conservative approach towards staging Polish literature and even more conservative expectations concerning the artists who are ‘entitled’ to put it on stage. Therefore, the choice to employ Oliver Frljić to stage a canonical Polish play from the beginning of the twentieth century, written by one of the most important and renowned Polish playwrights, was not an obvious decision. What should be noted is the fact that the play itself is not widely known nor read by Polish theatre audiences.

The plot is simple: in a small village near Cracow a Catholic priest has a relationship with a young woman. They have two children. Once the village suffers from draught, the community blames the priest and the woman for the catastrophe. The priest feels that she should be the one who carries the responsibility. When the woman overhears his conversation with his mother, she decides to burn herself and her children at the stake.

Frljić’s performance is loosely based on the text of the original play. It consists mainly of sequences derived from the topics and problems sketched by Stanisław Wyspiański, such as the position of women in Catholic societies and the construction of community through hierarchy and then moves to the realm of undermining the power of theatre representation and the possibility of taking a stand or an action within the frame dictated by the theatre. The first part of The Curse is a variation on the original text, but it includes sequences that are not derived from the play: actors tell stories of how they were molested by priests, one actress revolts against the author’s and director’s approach towards women, another admits in front of the audience that she is planning to have an abortion, just to prove she has the right to decide, contrary to what politicians are trying to impose upon women. The second part is a series of monologues: an actor claims that theatre makers always expect transgressions from him and to be offered a monologue he was forced to masturbate with the picture of the director (which he does); a desperate actress retells the story of her failed idea – she was supposed to collect money for the assassination of the leader of Law and Justice Party, but as it is forbidden by the law, she lacks a monologue and cannot perform her only spoken part in the production.

The day after the opening somebody recorded fragments of the performance and sent them to a public television channel. Though the broadcasting of these fragments did not trigger any debate, we did not to have to wait for the storm to begin. Jacek Kurski, the head of Public Television, publicly announced that the actress who performed fellatio on a statue of Pope John Paul II in one of the opening scenes would be banned from television, although she had not been working in that medium for several months. Polish bishops published a statement in which they criticised the strategies and content of the performance. In churches, priests organised masses asking for the redemption of the sins of people involved in the production; public prosecutors were drowning under petitions for offences against religious feelings; and the mayor of Warsaw was accused of approving the scandal. As we know now, we could not have imagined better publicity. But one year ago the whole theatre was in a panic. Someone broke the window of a car belonging to the mother of of one of the actors, Julia Wyszyńska; someone called the theatre with a bomb threat; somebody was fired from public television for broadcasting material about The Curse; members of the Radical National Front spilled butyric acid in the foyer.

This case proved that theatre in Poland remains a powerful political tool that can exercise influence and provoke a debate or generate a conflict. One year after the opening, however, Agata Adamiecka-Sitek, a Polish academic and researcher, expressed her pessimism about sustained and significant change. She described the Frljić-effect in following words: “As I see it, this performance was not focused on evoking a rational debate about the position or actions of the Catholic Church, or – in a broader meaning – the state of our democracy. What Frljić recognised and showed with no mercy is our incapacity to do it. With The Curse he wanted to attack structural censorship, ideological obedience, and the state of affective paralysis. (…) No one before has succeeded in portraying the society of molested children in such a tremendous way – a society brutally obedient, infantile, victimised, and therefore meant to be nourished by ressentiment. (…) The Church is an institution that has completely colonised Polish public space.”1

Resetting the stage and the spectrum of events that accompany the theatre field is an arduous challenge. Though most of the theatre makers who are dealing with political theatre expect a revolution to happen, the results and aftermaths of their actions are usually contradictory to what they had planned, searched for or calculated. In case of political theatre, we learn more from our misconceptions, false judgments, and wrong-headed expectations concerning the reactions of the audience, publicity or criticism than from immediate ‘success’ and recognition. In the case of The Curse it soon became obvious that the performance is not about mocking or criticising the Catholic Church, but about deeply rooted limitations that disable us from making a move forward. We are the colonised ones – those who are afraid of breaking the rules, behaving outrageously, cutting the cord. We are the ones who want to remain blind for the sake of an uninterrupted social performance.


Agnieszka Jakimiak is a dramaturg, playwright, film critic, essayist and theatre director. She worked with Oliver Frljić as a dramaturg on two productions in Poland: Un-Divine Comedy. Remains (National Stary Theatre in Cracow, 2013) and The Curse (Teatr Powszechny, 2017). Her stage adaptation of Fassbinder’s Strach zżerać duszę (Fear Eats the Soul) opened at Teatr Powszechny in 2018.

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  1. In 2017, Agata Adamiecka-Sitek and Marta Keil edited a special edition of Polish Theatre Journal on the impact of Frljić’s work in Poland.

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