Werner Schwab was an extraordinary figure in the German-speaking theatre world. During his brief 4-year-long career, he proved himself to be a true virtuoso of the grotesque and a sustainer of the Austrian tradition of black comedy. He unflinchingly suffused his dramatic work with the repulsive yet fascinating themes of human degradation, sexuality, and scatology. These themes already appeared in excess in his first play, Die Präsidentinnen (translated into English as First Ladies and into Polish as Prezydentki) which Burgtheater in Vienna refused to stage due to the blatant obscenity in both plot and dialogue. Regardless of the initial rejection and the difficulty of translating his German— saturated with word plays and neologisms—Schwab’s plays gained popularity worldwide, earning him a place as one of the most renowned Austrian playwrights.
Prezydentki shows a fragment of the lives of three women who, over the course of the play, go from discussing the TV broadcast of the mass said by the Pope to following their most disgusting instincts and committing murder. When we meet the protagonists, they do not seem to differ much from ordinary middle-aged women whom we might meet on a tram or at the market. Irenka (Bożena Borowska-Kropielnicka) hopes that self-denial and rejection of earthly goods will ensure salvation after death. Renata (Antonina Choroszy), on the other hand, tries to enjoy life to the fullest but finds out that she attracts the attention of no one but her dog. Finally, Maryjka (Małgorzata Łodej-Stachowiak) injects religious zeal into her work: cleaning other people’s lavatories.
Initially portraying themselves as lower-class matrons, the three women quite quickly unleash their true urge to humiliate others with cruel and vulgar reproaches. As they throw all their failures and flaws back in one another’s faces, Irenka’s flat begins to collapse. Soon they’re left with little more than a single wall with a window, and a fridge with a bottle of vodka in it. Each shot loosens their tongues more effectively, resulting in a flow of crude imaginary images spilling over the audience. Irena’s and Renata’s language makes their dreams sound almost vulgar; yet, their fantasies are nothing more than simple wishes for love and acceptance. In the end, the only vulgar (or even terrifying) vision is the one that Maryjka talks about: a vision of the whole world swamped with faeces and fury.
Prezydentki, directed by Piotr Kruszczyński, balances between black comedy and ribaldry. While one cannot help but laugh throughout the performance, the last scene definitely makes every spectator take a step back and take a closer look at the contemporary world’s ugliness and beauty. This reflection is even more encouraged by the names of Schwab’s characters which carry a Polish flavour, and the set design which brings to mind the slightly run down lower class interior that every Pole has seen at least once in their life. The titular first ladies are splendid. While it’s impossible to choose the one which stands out the most, I can assure you that all three actresses do their best to deliver seamless performance.
Schwab’s heroines are both tragic and comic, and their world is as dirty as one can imagine. But don’t let the filth and excrement that prevail here discourage you. In the end, aren’t all our consciences filthy?