In 1985 and 1990, director Janusz Wisniewski's company Teatr Nowy caused sensations with their visually dense and whirling productions of, respectively, The End Of Europe and Olsnienie (Dazzle). Invited back after such a long absence for the Assembly Rooms' 25th-anniversary season, they have sadly failed so far to garner the wild acclaim of their previous visits. In comparison, Wisniewski's version of Goethe's Faust is merely very good indeed, rather than outright phenomenal.
In the intervening fifteen years, the director seems to have discovered the power of stillness onstage. In this 80-minute version, the trademark sequences of bustle and babel (from a cast of almost 20) alternate with soliloquies or duologues from Faust, Mephistopheles and Gretchen, and occasionally subsidiary characters. This is where the difficulty sets in for most spectators: the play is presented in Polish, without surtitles and with only the barest scene-by-scene printed synopsis, which is itself often bewilderingly oblique. Where the spectacle of the earlier shows could sustain us through our verbal incomprehension, it's very obvious here that we are missing a great deal of Wisniewski's devoutly Catholic interpretation of the tale of selling one's soul.
Such speech-heavy segments seldom last more than two or three minutes at a time, and the central trio of performances possess a piercing emotional clarity. Whatever details we may miss, it's not hard to piece together a potent vision of some kind of world in the moral/theological vacuum between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Devotees such as myself can even discern possible "callbacks" to those earlier shows: the grimly yomping infantryman from The End Of Europe, here transformed into the centurion at the Cross, or the simple remark "I am the master"uttered by Mephistopheles... just about the only Polish sentence I recognise, because it was the principal refrain in Olsnienie. But, grimly ravishing as it is to the eye (Wisniewski is a visual artist as well as a theatre director), one can't help feeling the want of a matching textual understanding. The experience took me back half a lifetime to my first revelation (watching several of the very same actors) of how viscerally powerful theatre could be, but it's not quite the second coming I had hoped for.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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