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.
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.
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”.
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.