Krzysztof Warlikowski

Krzysztof Warlikowski in conversation with Rivka Jacobson

There is something of a bohemian philosopher look in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s appearance. He smokes his e-pipe and stares with his piercing and thoughtful dark eyes. His lips filter measured thoughts.

Warlikowski is one of the most prominent European directors of the 21st century. In his productions he wants people to go for a trip with him and be confronted with questions.

His approach to directing plays and operas is consistent with the regietheatre ‘school’ which places the director’s ideas at the heart of the production more so than even the playwright’s. The director’s role is akin to a master puppeteer – he directs the actors as well as the text of the play itself. No text is sacred; taboos are challenged and broken. For the last 25 years Warlikowski has been ploughing through texts with the ravenous appetite of a liberator, interjecting them with the ideas that he hungers to explore. Shakespeare, the Greek Classics, Sarah Kane, Hanoch Levin, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, J M Coetzee, to name but a few—they’re all fodder to his artistic process.

Our meeting was at the Barbican’s foyer, interrupted by well-wishers keen to congratulate one of the most prominent European directors on the wonderful production of Phaedra(s) just staged at the Barbican. Seeing the final performance at the Barbican, where the standing ovation vibrated for a long minute. ‘Tonight’s performance made it visible to me to see how Sara Kane is close to the British audience and how her strength is in her words and thoughts’.

Rivka Jacobson: You are the artistic director of Nowy Teatr in Warsaw. Is it a new building?

Krzysztof Warlikowski: No. This is a completely new theatre. It was an industrial site, like a cleansing house of the city, then we fought for the place for cultural and finally we got it.

RJ: How big?

KW: It is about 10 hectares square (100,000 square meters). It is now an International Culture Centre. It is a theatre but it can be an exhibition space, a movie place, festival place, for contemporary music, lots of cultural events can take place there. The theatre seats can disappear and the space can be used for other events.

RJ: Which play inaugurated the International Art Centre’s opening?

KW: It was the production of The French People.

RJ: A new Polish theatre opens with a play about the French?

KW: The play opened at Ruhrtriennale, in Germany, with my Polish ensemble and inspired by Proust it is called The French People It is for all – German, French, Polish and others.

Warlikowski employs video, dance and live music, in his theatrical search for present-day European mentality and identity. The production is a collaborative work, accomplished with the support of Germans, French, Poles and other European countries. This is a timely topic for the British to explore.

Occasionally he transmutes the classics into a near-new narrative. His adaptation of more than one text at a time and use of diverse linguistic, social and historical contexts allows him to explore themes well beyond the standard ones associated with the source materials.

RJ: What guides you when adapting a classic?

KW: You are familiar with a writer. Suddenly you feel he invites you on a trip and you follow that trip, you meet someone profound, and he becomes your master he is perfectly Hollywood at the same time. There are so many things you can learn from the classics and Shakespeare.

RJ: What about your personal input into interpretation of the characters? Let us take Hamlet as an example.

KW: There is no such a thing as a character because whatever is written needs flesh – the flesh is the actor and the director together, from that moment it becomes independent and you can see thousands interpretations possible to Hamlet. There is no such a thing like Hamlet; it is the thing of our imagination. It is for the director to give it life.

RJ: I understand that your Hamlet appears naked on stage.

KW: There is one scene with the mother when he is naked, so you see what it opens, such a situation in the relationship of a son and a mother.

Time is limited and the interruptions seem to affect concentration. We moved to discuss the production at hand- Phaedra(s). It is based on contemporary writers – Sarah Kane, Wajdi Mouawad and J M Coetzee. Isabelle Huppert outstandingly explores Warlikowski’s fusing and defusing Phaedra(s) in three distinct female characters.

RJ: Why Phaedra?

KW: You know this is a myth. You know behind this there is Racine’s Phèdre then Hippolytus by Euripides and Seneca’s Phaedra and then 1000 of contemporary writers. The nuances of the story change over time. In antiquity she cannot even say ‘I love you’: the Greeks could not imagine that she could talk to him in this way. Seneca put the couple into confrontation but she was still a background heroine. In Racine’s version she is in the title role – Phèdre – and here in the final act she clearly says that she is the guilty one, not Hippolytus. Then you have Phaedra by Sarah Kane. Not only does she talk to Hippolytus but she performs fellatio on him. In Wajdi’s Phaedra she feels like she must kill a dog in front of Hippolytus because she feels shame for being in love with her stepson.

RJ: The play opens with an Arabic song called ‘Ruins’. In the song it refers to love as ‘a castle of mirage’. How do you see love?

KW: As Sara Kane said ‘love is a concentration camp’.

RJ: Do you think it is a concentration camp?

KW: You know there is love and love. Love she knew was a concentration camp to her. Love when you are 50 or 60 is different. It may be less horrible than when you are young.

RJ: You mean enslaving?

KW: It is a lie in a way; it is protection from you, the world, and solitude.

RJ: Are sex and love interchangeable?

KW: I can imagine love without sex. When it goes together, it is perfect.

RJ: Your production of (A)Pollonia has much of a soul searching. How do Poles confront their recent history?

KW: We mostly come from the provinces. So when we arrived to Warsaw we understood that we are living in a kind of cemetery. It is like that. The best thing that can happen to all this memory is to be present and a message to people. The question how the young generation can keep it.

When staged at the prestigious Theatre de Chaillot the French media, including Le Monde and Le Figaro, valued (A)pollonia very highly.

Le Monde’s critic wrote of the production “it is aesthetically shocking and it deconstructs the common assumptions regarding the atrocities and sacrifices committed in the history of mankind.”.

Warlikowski challenges directed and conventional thinking, even taboos, drawing the audiences away from cultural restrictions, which may make uncomfortable viewing of some his shows.

He has directed over forty theatre and opera productions in Poland and abroad. Before we parted I wondered how he views conventional theatre space.

KW: I don’t like National theatres or red seats. Theatre places are rather disgusting. I don’t like all the ritual. I don’t like all this National theatres, stairs. I like the open space.

There was a great deal of deep warmth in his voice, which I only noticed when listening to the recording of the interview. Krzysztof Warlikowski is an extraordinary individual with a challenging mind.