ARTicles vol.4 i.2b: Shadowland

NOV 1, 2005

Gideon Lester introduces the theatre of Krystian Lupa

A.R.T.’s new production of Three Sistershas been six years in the making. It was in 1999 that we first asked the Polish director Krystian Lupa to visit the A.R.T., with a view to directing his first English-language production. That was also the year in which I first saw Lupa’s work; the Edinburgh International Festival was presenting his adaptation of the Sleepwalkerstrilogy by the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch.

Even before seeing Sleepwalkers, Lupa’s theatre was the stuff of legend for me. Rob Orchard, the A.R.T.’s Executive Director, and Alvin Epstein, a member of our resident acting company, had seen a production of his in Krakow a year earlier, and both had spoken with awe about the virtuosity and originality of his stagecraft. It later turned out that Robert Woodruff, now the A.R.T.’s Artistic Director, was also one of the very few Americans to have seen Krystian’s work – a theatre in Israel had invited the two directors to stage productions concurrently – so Lupa and the A.R.T. have been traveling in the same orbit for more than a decade.

Sleepwalkerswas unlike anything I’d ever encountered in the theatre. The production was in every sense vast, its enormous narrative unfolding in three installments and more than ten hours of stage time. The show was mysterious and beautiful, and veered in style from episodes of epic theatricality in which scores of performers, singing and dancing, filled the stage, to scenes of exquisite domestic realism, often conducted in silence. The set, at first glance nothing more than roughly painted walls that housed ordinary doors, windows, and bed-frames all contained within a square outlined in duct tape, soon acquired a fluid, poetic quality, as if the spaces they described were not literal rooms, but representations of the characters’ interior landscapes. And what characters! The actors created performances of such nuance and complexity that it hardly mattered they were speaking Polish; though we couldn’t understand a word they spoke, we understood them exactly as human beings.

Over the ensuing years I’ve seen several of Lupa’s productions, and now recognize that, although he reinvents his artistic signature with each new project, the qualities that made Sleepwalkers such an unforgettable experience are the hallmarks of his theatre. The intricate, layered performances, the scenes of intense, concentrated silence, the abstract square of tape delineating the stage, the brightly-colored, deceptively simple sets of walls, windows, and doors – all these are common to Krystian’s work, and yet they barely begin to describe the experience of watching – I’d rather say of living through – one of his productions. For Krystian is a profoundly spiritual, philosophical director, and his theatre is effectively a laboratory in which he and his audience scrutinize aspects of the human psyche. The audience is a vital part of this process, indeed Lupa often insists on our mental and emotional participation by having his actors address us directly. His recent production of Chekhov’s Seagullopened with a row of empty chairs facing away from us at the edge of the stage; they were filled slowly by the characters who had come to see Konstantin Treplev’s play-within-the-play, but that fictional audience and we, the real audience, were bound together for the whole production, and the actors would often turn to us at particularly charged moments and stare at us, as if to say, “What do you make of all this?” The auditorium itself became an extension of the set, and we were acutely aware that the performance existed both on the stage and in the theatre – the one room occupied jointly by actors and audience. Lupa’s great insight is that The Seagullis a meditation on the nature of theatre itself, and the production demonstrated that brilliantly.

Lupa has often said that he owes his greatest artistic debt to the philosopher and psychologist Carl Jung. His theatre is indeed Jungian, for Lupa’s major preoccupation is with the human subconscious – the realm of dreams, mania, magic, and unspeakable terror and desire. Over the past decade he has staged works by many authors whose work inhabits the same territory, including Thomas Bernhard, Mikhail Bulgakov, Robert Musil, and Friedrich Nietzsche. It is no surprise that Lupa finds great affinity with Chekhov, perhaps the greatest playwright of the unconscious and inexpressible. Chekhov’s characters are famously unable to give voice to their true feelings; as Lupa told the Three Sisterscast during a workshop this summer, “between what they say and what lies inside them there is an abyss.”

This breach between consciousness and articulation can be powerfully theatrical. Lupa’s characters often live in silence because words fail them, and these silent scenes are among the most extraordinary sequences in his productions. Two years ago I saw his adaptation of Bulgakov’s allegorical masterpiece The Master and Margarita, in which the Devil visits Moscow in the guise of the magician Woland, who begins his reign of chaos by occupying a theatre and staging a macabre cabaret. The evening before the performance the theatre manager is at home, and finds himself seized with an inchoate, prescient terror of what is to follow. Lupa staged the scene by placing the manager at one end of a dining table, in a room enclosed by his signature walls, windows, and doors, beyond which Woland and his supernatural retinue crouched and watched, silent and unnoticed. The manager’s wife entered with a tureen of soup, which she served her husband. For five minutes we watched him eat, and although man and wife never spoke, it was as if we occupied space inside their minds, so clearly could we read their thoughts. The effect was unforgettably theatrical, and the performances so present and alive that all of us in the audience were collectively holding our breath.

The stage for Lupa occupies a borderland between the conscious and unconscious worlds. The simple elements of his set designs enhance this effect; at first sight they may seem realistic, but as the production unfolds, the scenic environment becomes increasingly poetic. “Sometimes in life we are in a room, but our mind wanders, and soon we’re somewhere quite different,” Lupa told the Three Sisterscast. “I can be in a hotel room, but suddenly I feel as though I’m at a train station. The reality of space is questioned. I’m always trying to reveal different, hidden spaces contained within the set. The more a design pretends to be true to life, the more I’m aware of its falsity.” Lupa’s design for Three Sistersis a fine example; the Prozorovs’ house at first seems “true to life,” but grows more and more unrealistic to reflect the sisters’ interior state. Along with many of Lupas’s rooms, the Prozorov dwelling also contains shadows of its former occupants. “A house always retains elements of its own history, remnants of the life of its previous owners,” he says. Lupa cites another major influence, the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who noted that while walking through a city, traces of former buildings and lives remained visible – a bricked-in window, the footprint of a house destroyed by fire, the shape of a staircase on a half-demolished wall.

More than six years after seeing Sleepwalkers, it’s extraordinary to think that Krystian Lupa is about to open a production at the A.R.T. The journey has presented both him and us with great challenges – in Poland, for example, Krystian can effectively rehearse a production indefinitely, opening it only when he feels ready. In the case of his major adaptations, this often takes more than a year. We’ve managed to provide Krystian with ten weeks in which to rehearse Three Sisters– double the time we usually give a production and a great financial investment for an American theatre, but a very short period indeed for a Polish director. Likewise, in Poland Krystian always creates his set design during the rehearsal period, but the compression of our production calendar meant that he needed to complete his scenic plans far earlier than usual. These adjustments seem insignificant, though, compared with the pleasure of bringing Krystian’s magnificent theatre to this country for the first time. I hope that you are as stunned by his Three Sistersas I was by Sleepwalkersin Edinburgh. Now, indeed, the wheel has come full circle; Lupa, the A.R.T., and Three Sistershave been invited to perform the closing production of the 2007 Edinburgh International Festival.

Gideon Lester is the A.R.T.’s Associate Artistic Director.


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