Divine Kraków, Un-Divine Comedy: A talk with Croatian Director Oliver Frljić of Un-Divine Comedy at Narodowy Stary Theatre in Kraków. Oliver Frljić is a Croatian theatre director. Born in Travnik in 1976, Frljić is one of most eminent European theatre figures of recent years. His performances are known for being provocative, uneasy and spurring emotions and protests. Frljić is a Croat from Bosnia, growing up during the Bosnian War. The theme of nationalistic and religious fanaticisms, collective and family tragedies, complicated genealogies and hate is constantly present in his work
PAWEŁ SOSZYŃSKI: Lately, one specific, locally published right-wing newspaper, has been publishing a lot of rumors and gossip about your work here. So, my first question is very simple – if you could say what were you working on here in Kraków? What was your main idea?
OLIVIER FRLJIĆ: My main idea was not to stage Un-Divine Comedy as written by Zygmunt Krasiński, but rather to use the text and also documents that we have about Konrad Swinarski’s adaptation from 1965 to question Polish society today. My main focus was on this theatre because I think this theatre is a community that represents broader social contexts. I actually always work like this, I try to start from some form of creative conflict within the group and then to transpose it into a performative material. If someone has an ideological problem with the content or the methodology of this kind of artistic work, this is understandable, and I can understand that.
But I think now there has been some intentional misinterpretation of the fact that some actors left the project. First of all, this happens all the time in my productions because I present the actors with this possibility at the very beginning of our collaboration. Participation in my theatre comes as a result of understanding its nature. This theatre starts long before opening night. It is focused on the micro-community of its participants and how they can shift from being representatives of the director or the play’s author to establishing themselves as authentic political subjects on the stage. The fact that some actors left the production is now maliciously interpreted by right-wing newspapers as standing up for the theatre and tradition, and that’s simply just not true. What’s true is that they could not understand this kind of artistic procedure. And that’s not a problem, everybody has a right to not understand. The majority of actors stayed with the project and exhibited great enthusiasm and readiness to participate in this kind of artistic endeavor. I think it’s great, it actually showed that even in an institution like the Narodowy Stary Theatre there still are people who are able to step out of this pre-defined procedure of artistic production.
Did you know that the Narodowy Stary Theatre in Kraków is, in fact, a very specific environment? It’s very traditional compared with other theatres in Poland – many of its actors are also national legends, actively involved in the process of building Polish theatrical mythology, one very romantic in nature.
Yes, I knew that. I think it can be used as a sort of…
Yes. Collaborating with people coming from such backgrounds is very interesting, they actually think that they should defend some kind of tradition or theatre history. And that’s what I was hearing during our first rehearsal. All these people, they thought they should defend Krasiński, even though they knew that we’re going to tap into the realm of the symbolic and that everything we do on the stage, however, we are trying to make it real, will always be fictional. The theatrical framework provides the fictional framework in this context. So I didn’t exactly expect there to be problems, but I predicted some difficulties in this particular context. The thing with Narodowy Stary Theatre is that in the mind of, let’s call them normal people, regular theatergoers, there exists a kind of symbolic capital that can be operable in theatre. This capital is founded on a false idea of what theatre should be in certain national contexts, on a false idealization of the past, on this dangerous theatrical mythology that prevents us from asking rational questions about that past and the construction of that past.
You are referring to theatrical tradition, but I think that the initial problem here, in Kraków, was not confined to the aesthetic, so-called theatrical tradition, that is if we still can even talk about theatrical tradition as an issue. The main point of contention was the irrational sanctity of the national scene – in both press publications and actors’ statements, Polish national (nationalist?) values were identified with theatre as practiced by Swinarski. Of course linking these issues was absolutely paradoxical because Swinarski isn’t regarded in the history of Polish theatre as any sort of keeper of traditions. Actually, he was the one who transcended these traditions, his approach to Polish mythologies was marked with a large dose of irony, and the belief in these mythologies is very strong here in Kraków. In 1965 in his performance of Un-Divine Comedy, he pointed out that anti-Semitism is still fairly pervasive in Polish society. You wanted to focus – after Swinarski – on this very sensitive part of Polish identity. How did you want to approach it?
I actually wanted to use the theme of anti-Semitism to portray how, for example, a nation operates, how it can be used as a means towards achieving national homogenisation, and then how this national homogenisation disables our awareness of class divisions in our society. If we have something that unifies us, we tend to forget about social differences and economic exploitation which that concept of a nation also tries to hide and pacify those exploited. There is one other thing. When I read the Un-Divine Comedy for the first time, I was actually surprised with the amount of anti-Semitic sentiment in the text. I also realized that it is required reading in the schools, kids have to read this text, and I could not understand why nobody speaks with them about this layer, nobody analyses this layer of the text. People are not aware that this is a problem. I don’t think it should be banned from the curriculum, but I think we should not overlook this layer just because he is our national bard. Anti-Semitism operates on different levels in contemporary societies, it’s not as visible as it was in the past, but its effects are still devastating for those societies. Given Polish history, given what happened here in the past, I started to raise some questions that were quite logical for me. For example, I questioned the lack of a more pronounced solidarity with Jewish people during the Second World War. Then, I also asked myself about the role of the Polish nation in the Holocaust. And I mean active role, not just being passive observers, like, for example, in Jedwabne. This was the moment when I activated some actors, some of them in a positive way, and they started to think about this problem. I gave them Hannah Arendt’s Organized guilt and universal responsibility to further distinguish between collective responsibility, something that exists and can be defended as a concept, and collective guilt, which can’t really exist because you can’t be guilty of something you did not take part in. But we can be held responsible for acts perpetrated by the community we belong to.
Like in the category of post-memory?
Yes! It was really interesting to hear all their discussions, the ways they were starting to attack or defend social values and beliefs produced through the ideological status apparatus of which theatre in Poland is not the least important one. I also tried to show them that we should not reaffirm the already existing social consensus. We should talk about differences, different interests that the big narratives, the official narratives, are trying to hide or diminish. When I realized what has happened in that last phase of our work, with the right-wing attacks, I thought that on some level this has to be a good thing, because we managed to establish communication with the audience we were interested in. We are not interested in talking to people who already share our system of values, our doubts about the existing social system, the way it was historically developed and so on. Instead, we want to reach people who don’t have all these doubts and questions, people who think there is no problem with the majority’s rights being limited in the name of some abstract concept of nation. These people are not usually interested in the theatre all that much. They are interested in theatre insofar as it remains a field where exclusion as a constitutive principle of national unification can be exercised. And we thought that our goal is to communicate with them. Now, after our performance happened in fields of media, we managed to establish a channel of communication with this audience. Personally, I would be gladder if this communication was not mediatised in that way, I’d prefer the opportunity of meeting that particular audience in the theatre.
The idea of using one of our national bards and Swinarski’s historical performance was brilliant. How did you want to refer to Swinarski in this project?
I think what Swinarski did with his adaptation of Un-Divine Comedy is very interesting and provocative given the period it was done in. He put the Jewish question on stage, a question which most Polish audiences and critics were ignoring. Although present in the work of Grotowski and Kantor as well, it was usually overlooked. In the beginning, I didn’t really know how to interpret the way Swinarski portrayed the Jews in his Un-Divine Comedy, as it was a very stereotypical representation of the devil, with horns, and so on. Now, with the experience that I have, I think that the idea was to overemphasize the…
The Polish perspective?
The Polish perspective and stereotypical ideas about the Jew. Swinarski wanted to hyperbolise latent anti-Semitism present in popular representation of Jews. This could also be read as an ironic comment on the anti-Semitic layer of Krasiński’s text. And we should not forget that his adaptation premiered three years before the events of 1968 which resulted in the exile of Jews from Poland.
So, actually, by doing Un-Divine Comedy. Remains, you wanted to take something that Swinarski did and try to make it even stronger.
We had to understand what Swinarski had been trying to do. It was not easy because of the noise in communication with his work that was constantly produced by all these attempts to make a saint out of him. But when I think now about the whole process, we actually used similar strategies in radically different contexts.
Two versions of Swinarski now coexist in Polish culture. One was the keeper of Polish traditions and the sanctity of the Polish scene, the Anna-Polony-kind of Swinarski, while the other one is critical towards social life and national constructs. How would you interpret this dual view of Swinarski?
I think that there is a tendency, conscious or non-conscious, to idealize of the past in accordance with contemporary dominant social norms, and that’s what happened in the case of actresses who see Swinarski as a genuine representative of Polish theatre culture. I think that this perception is utterly wrong. Swinarski was trying to undertake a transgression in the sense of his theatrical language, as well as in the sense of the concept of national identity. Un-Divine Comedy is a good example of both of these. You cannot use somebody who was trying to transgress social norms with his theatrical work to determine norms that must not be transgressed.
I’d also like to ask you about the function of actors in your performances.
When I start to work with the actors, I always try to create some kind of community. And I always try, instead of making them repeat the words of the author of the play, or mine, or whoever’s, to create a situation through which they can become a political subject on the stage. This is very hard, primarily because of the education system, the theatre, and all these other institutions. Actually, I’m very interested in actors who are able to think for themselves and then to articulate it on the stage.
By “institutions” and “theatre” you mean Polish ones or in general?
No, I think that all theatrical institutions have this in their very nature as a theatrical institution. Of course, with more or less effort some of them manage to emancipate themselves from that and start to question the social distribution of power that is executed through them, unquestioned hierarchies of theatrical production, and so on. But education is a much bigger problem. Educational institutions in the field of theatre are also quite problematic because they serve as the backbone of this system. The school usually prepares actors to be an object for something else. Of course, they don’t say it openly, but this is their hidden curriculum. Nobody teaches these young people in their formative years to question power – in theatre as well as in society. How then can we expect them to see theatre as an instrument for social change or their self-emancipation? Emancipation happens through conflict. That’s why I always insist on conflict in my work. Not conflict between fictional characters in fictional situations, but a conflict between real people in real shared time and space. First, it’s a conflict between different ideological positions of the participants of a given project. Later, this tension is transposed into performative material that drives conflict between the actors as a micro-community and audience as a representative of all social consensuses that we have to accept unquestionably. This is the methodology.
In your performances, you are always questioning the director’s position of power in theatre. Was it also an important theme in your Polish performance?
I invite the actors to deconstruct my power as a director in the process. In the beginning, I don’t address this issue directly. Instead, I am trying to create the situation where they can start to think how the distribution of power in theatre is not something normal, although we treat it as such. These situations are set to create performative answers to theatrical normalization of power divisions. Sometimes I start from the text and I use it to demonstrate how Derridian theological stage operates. When this is clear, we go to higher levels and other questions. How can we make our work efficient outside the theatrical realm of symbolic exchange? How can we start to produce real effects in broader social contexts? The basic question is the question of performativity? In the words of Jon McKenzie, perform or else.
What do you think about Jan Klata’s decision to cut the play two weeks before the premiere?
I see this as fear and a mostly irrational decision, that does not exclude people who made this from bearing responsibility, as the consequences of this decision are much bigger than these people in charge of the Narodowy Stary Theatre are aware at the moment. It is like trying to stop the escalation of violence by limiting someone’s artistic and civil freedoms, in this case, freedom of actors and authors of Un-Divine Comedy. And I can’t accept this, I think that the theatre had a lot of legal instruments to protect its authors and actors. Censorship cannot be the solution. My theatre will always try to transgress social norms, so, according to the thinking of theatre’s management, it should always be forbidden.
There were also voices that Klata’s decision should serve as an alarm call for Polish society which severely underestimates the radical, nationalist movements which are currently engaged in an aggressive campaign against democratic values.
Klata’s decision demonstrates a basic disbelief in civil institutions that are supposed to protect us and our right to express things and beliefs that might not be praised by the majority of society or some of its parts. So, he decided to violate our artistic and civic freedoms in order to please those who cannot accept them. That’s quite problematic. It is an alarm call for Polish society because it seems that one of the most important national theatrical institutions is currently a hostage of a right-wing movement.
Did it happen before in your work?
Yeah, in Split, when I did a show about Croatian war crimes perpetrated on Serbians. And it happened in Bosnia as well, in Serbia with the production about the assassinated Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić. A lot of pressures were put on this production, and it was even stopped at one moment, but in the end, I finished it because I had the support of the director of the Atelje 212 theatre, Kokan Mladenović. The play won the Grand Prix at this year’s BITEF International Theatre Festival, the same festival where the Narodowy Stary Theatre had performed Swinarski’s adaptation of Wyspiański’s Liberation.
So that’s the first time you didn’t even finish the play?
Yes, this is the first time. We also had a lot of problems with right-wing organizations in Serbia, they were coming and still are coming to every show to just sit there and make actors uncomfortable. They buy tickets for the front rows and actors can see them all the time because we play with the lights and often turn them on the audience. And they just sit there and observe them make it unbearable for them. But until now we managed to avoid any kind of physical accidents.
And if Klata were to tell you, in a hypothetical situation, in two months time: “It’s okay, I’m sorry, come back, please”?
I would like to come back, but I can’t because I’m booked for the next two and a half years. When I come to work somewhere I really try to be efficient. I don’t fool around, I am really focused on my work. We had more than enough time here to finish this. With all these problems, I would like to come, but in that case, I would really have to fuck up other commissions, which I can’t do.
What are your plans for the next two years?
I start in Zagreb with Hamlet, and then I’m going to Rijeka to do a production about Aleksandra Zec, a 12-year-old Serbian girl assassinated by the Croatian army. Soldiers who perpetrated the crime were never put on trial. Then I will be working in Zagreb again, then in Serbia, and later in Graz, then in Munich, and I’m still waiting on confirmation from Lyon. Did I mention everything? I think so.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.