Art is part of a crisis that has affected us all – and the two-thousand-year-old paradigm may collapse before our very eyes. Is it possible to build the world on Christian principles, or is it better to abandon the thought of Christianity, since it has not yet succeeded? It might be better, but what in return? Director Krzysztof Prus speaks before the premiere of “Oleanna” at the Jaracz Theater in ód.
Photo by Artur Wacławek
Jaraz Theatre: The script for the play “Uliana” was written in 1992 and presented by many famous people. There was also a movie adapted from the same author. Where did you come up with the idea to present it today, thirty years after it was written?
Krzysztof Prus: That’s a question for the director of Teatr im. Jaris who decided to accept my offer and I am very grateful to him. You can also ask the relatively large number of theater directors Oleanna has been showing for twenty-eight years why they didn’t make up their mind. A Polish translation of the play appeared in print in 1994. I was close to graduating from drama school at the time, and Ulyana was at my first show. Fourteen years later, she was able to give a play at the Nowy Theater in Zabrze in the form of a play, although at that time its theme was still a little strange.
TJ: That feeling was with you then, and how is it today?
KB: Today, after another fourteen years, perhaps the subject and the way it is presented will no longer surprise anyone, and I can only sadly nod and say: “Didn’t I tell you?” – I assure you that I am not satisfied. Mamet warned us that a pendulum swinging dangerously in one direction is beginning to swing the other way, and it’s time to face the consequences.
TJ: The text of “Oleanna” tells about the relationship between a university professor and his student, while the title itself is taken from the name of the settlement founded by Norwegian violinist Ole Bull.
KP: Ole Paul had a wife, Anna, hence the name of the village, Ulyana. It was supposed to be a perfect realm, a second utopia, or rather the first world that was first realized in practice. as always
With a utopia, it failed. The compromise in which everyone was supposed to live on fraternal lines turned out to be a fiasco.
TJ: That was in 1852 in Pennsylvania, America. How, then, does the title combine with those events in connection with the play, which tell us something quite different?
KB: In Polish, art can be called “Utopia”, “City of the Sun”, “Brave New World” – referring to something more in the field of our associations. Mamet is an American and the first recipients of “Oleanna” were his countrymen – they urgently think about the unsuccessful experience of Ole Bull, there is even a song about it. I realize that, unfortunately, without knowing the settlement date, the title of the performance may be incomprehensible and the viewer will likely wait when the title Oleanna enters the stage, wondering why the main character’s name is Carol. It is difficult, we must leave the question of the meaning of the title in the puzzle world, which is relatively easy to solve compared to all the psychological and social puzzles in which the text of David Mamet’s play abounds.
TJ: You’ve directed great authors like Shakespeare, Moliere, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Beckett, Jumprovich or Suacki. Why exactly has “Ulyana” Mamita been following the Lord for so long?
KB: Art is part of a crisis that has affected us all – a 2,000-year-old paradigm that could collapse before our very eyes. Is it possible to build the world on Christian principles, or is it better to abandon the thought of Christianity, since it has not yet succeeded? It might be better, but what in return? Left movements remove the dogma of the existence of God, but they assume essentially the same thing in the Bible – the equality of all human beings – and take it out with just a little bit. From this thinking, too was born democracy, that described by Winston Churchill – the best of the worst systems. People are human – that’s what “Oleanna” tells us. People will do anything until the apparent equality is shown to be a glorification of them, and a servitude to their neighbour. Also when it comes to teaching. To insist that education implies a rigid relationship between master and student, and to make this infusion of little power of value is undoubtedly wrong. But what in return?
TC: So we have Carol, John, but is there anyone else in the play that you might not see, who is also important?
K.B.: There is also a third hero – a group, a group of students to which Carol belongs. In chapter one, this group, referred to in chapter two as “my group”, doesn’t mean anything yet, it’s extraneous. In the second, he becomes a person of great value to the group, because thanks to Carol, “my group” can humiliate a professor who seems to have endangered his group. And here we come to the unsolvable problem, but that is probably what I love most about this play. Well, I well remember the times when the first secretary was always right, so those who disagreed with the first secretary’s reason had to flee under the wing of the bishop, who of course was always right, and he who did not quite accept it could only return to the field of the first secretary. This situation seems to have come to an end when I regained my freedom thirty years ago, but where there–over and over I bump into my head with the absolute right of a group and again see terribly boring plays on stage, her thesis is to convince me that one thing is true. Ulyana’s genius lies in the fact that we won’t know exactly which of the two heroes is right. Yes, we can see the manipulation used by both sides of the conflict, but also every now and then the masks open, and then human faces emerge from under the masks. We see sensitivity, suffering, need for acceptance, dreams of a better life – all that is human. It is up to us, as viewers, to decide who we take our due and, more importantly, to what extent we accept it.
TJ: So depending on who is going to watch the play, they might see it differently?
KP: Absolutely. And I hope the art will encourage you to try to listen to the arguments of both sides rather than looking at the world through the prism of the only valid reason. Besides, not just arguments. The most important thing is not the words that often deceive us – it is the feelings. Until we feel the feelings of the characters, we will not understand their causes.
TJ: So what is art’s greatest asset?
K.B.: What is always the greatest asset in theatre, that is, the opportunity to see roles that are beautifully played. The actors come out of rehearsals drenched in sweat, but I get the impression that they are satisfied because they got the chance to play so complex, mysterious, and at the same time strong characters, they got the actors flesh. The second feature of this art is that it has a beginning, a middle and an end. I know it sounds a little funny, but a lot of times I see performances on stage that only have a long beginning, and a lot of times I read PhDs explaining that it has to be that way, otherwise it won’t be “postmodern”.
In “Oleanna” each of the three acts is slightly different, forces are distributed differently in it, and the problem is presented from a slightly different perspective, which we try to imagine through both acting and acting. The latter, though important and I hope aesthetically pleasing, is of course subject to the word and what the word signifies. Actors are often admired by audiences outside the industry for having to learn a lot of scripts. Of course, he is right, because it is impressive, but it is also impossible not to smile, because you have to bear in mind that people, at least some of them, not only talk, but sometimes feel and think, and that is what actors should play in the first place . This emotional and mental landscape is a very strong asset of Mamet’s art and generates dialogue from it, very perverted, stylized as slang with all the repetition, commentary, etc., although in fact it is deeply considered by the author.
TJ: So what can viewers expect?
KB: I will not answer this question very precisely, because I believe that each viewer can and should see this play in their own unique way. And whether she will laugh or watch
Terrified, or both, a matter of individual reception. I just hope there are a lot of feelings.