One of my intentions when I came to Warsaw for a year was to explore its cultural offerings, music, ballet and opera mainly because they are language-neutral arts. It’s taken me eight months, but I’m finally exploring with a vengeance.

I began with Chopin in a photographic gallery in part of the Royal Castle. As soon as the repertoire changed, I went for a second time – a complimentary ticket, as it turned out, because I’d written a review on Trip Advisor and commented on the Facebook page.

Then I tracked down National Theatre Live, screen versions of staged plays from England, in a blingy theatre so unlike the sober 30-seater in Narooma that shows the same programs.

“Cymbeline” was performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and a stunning performance it was. The director spoke before it began and hedged the play around with so many provisos and problems and incoherences I wondered whether I’d make any sense of it. She triumphed, untangling its contortions into perfect clarity. Cymbeline is no longer a king, but a queen who has one daughter married to an unsuitable man, and twins stolen in childhood. The settings are Britain and Rome, modernised, even futurised. There’s plenty of male posturing, and bets about a woman’s virtue; an evil poisoner; a headless body; mistaken identity; and a happy ending.  Somehow the actors expanded the characters into something powerfully believable. I don’t watch horror and I found some bits of it quite challenging as I tried to work out a way to keep my imagination from being colonised by bloodiness. 

At “Cymbeline” I saw a preview of a Bolshoi ballet performances on screen. So I headed off on a gloomy Sunday afternoon to see “Bright stream”, music by Shostakovich, a ballet Stalin hated in spite of its tractors, giant vegetables and rural setting. I was amused by my translation app’s version: it insisted on a ballet called “light pipe.” The setting was very soviet, and I enjoyed women ganging up on a philandering male. But my favourite sequence was a dance of renewed friendship, two women reconnecting after a long separation.


Poking around online, I came across Mazowsze. I had no idea what it was, except for some vague notion that it involved folk dancing and folk music. I bought the second last seat, as I did with the Moscow Ballet. I arrived in rain at the grand opera building, and walked through the grand entrance and up the grand staircase, and into the grand theatre and my grand seat in the second row. What an extravaganza! It turns out that Mazowsze is a group of dancers and singers who perform all over the world. The spectacle began with the overture and screen images of whirls and poppies evoking the countryside. The costumes alone were riveting: swirling skirts, lace aprons, embroidered waistcoats, hats with ribbons and feathers, elegant scarves, red and white striped trousers, black capes flaring into red. Then there was the movement: the liveliness of feet in fast motion; the stomping and tumbling; No photography allowed of course, but plenty on YouTube, if you’re interested: a short version here, and a longer one here.

Shakespeare now seems to require faces dripping with blood for at least ten minutes of stage time as characters deliver passionate speeches: powerful mothers too, in this case glorying in her son’s savage wounds and falling to pieces when he’s exiled. “Coriolanus” is a case study of the war hero becoming a petulant civilian hoping for a political life but with no idea how to court the support of the people. His petulance gets him exiled and requires vengeance – he attacks Rome in cahoots with an erstwhile enemy. His sense of aristocratic entitlement rides roughshod over reason. All this is sparingly and dramatically staged in the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, an old banana drying factory , with the soaring ceilings of its former life enabling a kind of sparse grandeur.

An evening with a failed king in the New Globe Theatre. First critical comment: minimal blood. The big surprise was the slapstick humour: a particularly ridiculous scene of gauntlet chucking,  and another one of three aristocratic pleaders walking on their knees in pursuit of Bolingbroke’s forgiveness. Richard struck me as a man of inane expression like Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia”. The staging was beautiful and the ending polished: the band playing as the actors danced off the stage during curtain calls. Note to myself: if I go to the Globe, sit far away from the actors, or risk being pulled into the action: even the balcony wasn’t safe from a gardener with a ladder. Themes? The nature of kinghood; the realignments behind power; entitlement; the little men who commit vital acts and get punished for it – the Australian political scene over the last few years, with all its betrayals and deposings. 

“The entertainer”

After a diet is Shakespeare, John Osborne was a bit of a change, not all for the good. It’s more exhausting watching a dysfunctional family in a society that’s failing a lot of people than it is watching the fall of successful soldiers or kings or husbands or kingdoms. There is absolutely no grandeur in the characters or the setting of 1956, the year of the Suez crisis. The main character is a man of emptiness, neither redeemed nor killed: I was left with an appalling sadness and no sense of catharsis.

“Mother Courage”

Now there’s an experiment I probably won’t repeat! I thought I knew what I was doing, going to a play in a language I don’t understand. No subtitles in the theatre! I did prepare. I read the play beforehand, so at least I had a framework. My intention was to pay particular attention to the staging and to treat the action as mime. The set was sparse, and Courage’s cart was a beat up rusted car, manoeuvred round the stage with ropes. The back-drop was a large screen with scenes of a landscape ruined by war – Warsaw in fact – and a large model of the city with recognisable modern buildings. We were sitting high up on the balcony so we had a bird’s eye view of the action. Something I had expected was very obvious: Brecht’s strength is words rather than action. There was a lot of what on the page was a cynical and bitterly amusing take on war, but which on stage without the words was mere declamation. The staging seemed to me overly intricate, with a lot of business getting the car where it needed to be.

Terence Rattigan’s play, courtesy of National Theatre Live and the British Council in Warsaw, was an extraordinarily powerful look at love, obsession and suicide. The power came in large part from the acting of Helen McCrory in the role of Hester. In conversation, the director Carrie Cracknell attributed the power of the script to Rattigan’s own experience with a lover who suicided after their separation. The play begins with Hester lying overdosed and gassed on the floor in her apartment living room. It ends with her eating a piece of bread with a fried egg on it, biting into it slowly and methodically: a strange indicator of a will to live. I found the end of the first half almost unbearable as Hester sobs after Freddie has left. I remembered in visceral detail my howl as J disappeared up the hill into the bush when he was leaving me. The only other thing that has ever touched me so deeply and personally was Germaine Greer’s account of menopausal rage in “The change”.

Music in the Szustra Palace

This time I don’t venture out into darkness, merely around the corner at midday to the neighbourhood palace, a small unassuming building of great charm which I pass every day on the way to pre-school. I join about fifty people of my demographic or older for an hour of Chopin, Wieniawski, and, a first for me, Paderewski, a fascinating figure in Polish history – politician, signatory to the 1919 peace treaty that dissolved the Austro-Hungarian empire, and world famous pianist. The pianist on this occasion, Maria Korecka-Soszkowska,  wore a red layered dress, a black cardigan and silver and black high heels. But the most notable thing about her, apart from powerful playing, was the way she mouthed the music, something I have not seen a pianist do before.

This ballet is the beginning – one of my first bookings – and the end of my cultural adventures until 2017, as Christmas intervenes. It was staged in a huge barn of a place and I was sitting towards the front at the side with two very tall men in front of me. The action was filmed and projected onto a very larger screen and my  eyes were irresistibly drawn to that rather than the stage. I’m pretty sure the music was recorded. My comfort is I hardly had a choice of seats – I bought the second last one – and I’m not sorry I did. In the quiet patches of music I could actually hear the thumping of feet to remind me that I was watching it live. The dancing was spectacular: how many twirls before a pause? And each sequence drew enthusiastic applause. I’m not sure I’m a fan of classical ballet – far too much formality and set moves for my taste – but I don’t know enough to pass sensible judgement. If I had to choose, I’d choose Masowsze.

And so ends a flurry of pleasures that I will never encounter in such density from Potato Point. The closest there are a 50 kilometre return trip along the highway and through kangaroo alley. If I need to go to Canberra it means more than 400 kilometres there and back, and staying overnight. Here, the bus or tram leaves from my door and the trip each way is 20 minutes maximum, with an occasional wait in icy wind at a tram stop. I’m already beginning to regret what I won’t see next year.

About morselsandscraps

A retired Australian who spends a lot of time in Warsaw, and blogs as a way of life.
This entry was posted in theatre and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Entertainment

  1. Tish Farrell says:

    Goodness, Meg. So much sensation and of so many sorts. You’ve made me feel the lack of theatre-going, though we could of course go to our local arts centre to see the film performances you describe. Must gear ourselves up to go. Thanks for the prod.


    • A pity Christmas is slowing me down! I am no night owl, but I was enjoying the night life. How far are you from the local arts centre?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tish Farrell says:

        About a 2 minute walk! Shameful that we don’t go there these days. It’s attached to the secondary school, so it got rebuilt along with the school, and they wrecked the cinema space by turning it into a seminar room with a screen, and stopped the world-class live jazz performances (new headmaster didn’t like jazz despite sell-out shows). So we got a bit huffy. Time we got over it.


        • Oh, I know about huff! It took me about five years to go into the shopping centre over the road from work when it replaced a school with some wonderful old peppercorns. A very tragic day when I discovered I had shares (inherited) in the company that had wreaked the havoc. And like the arrogance of your principal to abort jazz just because he didn’t like it.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Tish Farrell says:

            Yes, silly head. I don’t think he realized the calibre and international fame of the musicians his head of performing arts had managed to repeatedly attract. We were so blessed for three or four years.


  2. Rosemary Barnard says:

    We must discuss some of these impressions and reactions at our leisure once you are back in Australia.


    • Ballet specifically? I’d love to. I was thinking of you as I wrote that review, and I’ve been eager to discuss it before, seeing through your knowledgeable eye. The leisure of a stretch of time in Melbourne will give us an opportunity.


      • Rosemary Barnard says:

        Ballet, yes, but across the spectrum of the art form. I wish that you had access to the variety I see in Australia. Mother Courage as performed by an Aboriginal group in Brisbane, though I am a bit hazy now on the details. No declamation there, just relentless tragedy. And classical music, for which I have planned a double dose of concerts next year. Re the ballet, I might be able to swing a visit to the Australian Ballet’s wardrobe department in Melbourne if you were interested, as I know someone of influence through AB’s Peggy van Praagh Leadership Group and she has suggested that such a visit would be possible. Her idea actually.


        • I suspect I do have access to variety in Australia: for some of it, I just have to travel a bit further than you, although you travel to Canberra and Brisbane, but I suspect the main thing is lack of forethought. You’re booked well ahead for next year, and you’re in the loop for knowing about things.

          I have a surprising amount pretty well on my doorstep at home too: Four Winds festival for a start – that’s amazing world class music, and they’ve just begun expanding their offerings. There are also regular Musica Viva concerts in Batemans Bay, and some pretty amazing house concerts very close by: a few weeks ago Joseph Tawadros at Congo, and jazz with a jazzman who also performs in London at the Nerrigundah Ag Bureau where Stevo used to jam (and where I, many years ago, helped to render the walls with cow shit): apparently the acoustics are very good. So access I have – I just need to access the access! Over the years, I’ve often caught exhibitions at the NGA or the AGNSW, when they’ve tickled my fancy. I may well be more systematic next year, after the run of pleasures here: I may take lessons from you!

          As for Brecht and “mere declamation”, that was the effect of not understanding the language. When I saw the “Threepenny Opera” in English the words, long streams of them, were very powerful and provocative. I can imagine that there would have been a whole extra layer to “Mother Courage” performed by an Aboriginal group.

          The wardrobe department? That sounds like an amazing treat.


          • Rosemary Barnard says:

            I meant a variety of ballet offerings. We don’t get much in Newcastle either, just an occasional Russian troupe performing the old warhorses like Swan Lake or the Nutcracker, which in my view have be done very well to justify another viewing. We used to get the Sydney Dance Company which has a modern repertoire through and through. Part of the problem for the regions is that audiences are not receptive to anything new or innovative. I have noticed it a bit even among Sydney audiences. By the way, Tawadros is marvellous. He has been to Newcastle a couple of times with the Australian Chamber Orchestra who are popular despite their propensity for innovative programming.


  3. Lucid Gypsy says:

    What a cultural immersion Meg, your head must be buzzing with it all! I don’t know Cymbeline, but like you I don’t do horror at all, so it probably wouldn’t be my cup of tea. Shostakovich I studied as part of an arts module and I loved his dissonant, chaotic music. thanks for the link to Bright Stream, more harmonious than I’ve heard of his work. I think I’d like Mazowsze and that dear little palace must have been delightful for a performance. Good on you for making the most of the choices while you’re there 🙂


    • I took my time didn’t I? I think you’d have loved Masowsze: energy and vitality and colour. I remember a dance group you. Featured on one of your posts way back. “KIng Lear” early next year, and a ballet called “Persona”, premiered her in 2011. It looks as if it could be interesting – or incomprehensible – “To what extent, then, are we autonomous, unique beings, or just a reflection of the society and other people?” The palace inside wasn’t very exciting, but it was small, and small I like.


    • Rosemary Barnard says:

      Hello Lucid Gypsy, I was interested that you like Shostakovich as I have booked for a Shostakovich concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by a real Shostakovich exponent, Vladimir Ashkenazy, next year. I am so lucky to have these opportunities to indulge myself with love of the arts.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. restlessjo says:

    Heavens, woman! I don’t know how you fit it all in 🙂 Thank you for the lovely YouTube snippets. I tapped my toes and twirled my skirts. And I was amazed that you review for Trip Advisor and like on Facebook too. 🙂 These dark evenings I’ve become a couch potato but I do have a magic lantern festival in Leeds on Saturday night. That’s about the height of my cultural activity. Stay warm and recover soon, hon. Very gentle hugs 🙂


  5. Paula says:

    You won’t have it at Potato Point but you’ll have warmth and sunshine. Have a very merry Christmas, Meg!


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