The Right to Let Live

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s “(A)pollonia” is five hours long and can be viewed in one breath. 

Euripides, Aeschylus, Hanna Krall, Jonathan Littell, John Maxwell Coetzee, Rabindranath Tagore, the Trojan War, and World War II all rhyme very nicely. 

Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Iphigénie and Alcestis, Admetus and Heracles, the little Orestes and the little boy from Janusz Korczak’s “Orphan’s Home”, the perpetrators of the Holocaust and its victims (including a Polish woman named Apolonia Machczyńska, the play’s protagonist), and, last but not least, their modern day descendants, whose souls are still ravaged by war, all meet in the common space of a myth that is being created.  And this myth is bleeding real blood.     

Warlikowski is one of those directors, who doesn't create simple interpretations, but rather his own worlds.   He raises irresolvable questions about the limits of one’s own guilt.  He forces the audience to stand in the shoes of a surgeon who must inform the family of their loved one’s death or choose which of the dying patients to help first.

It is as though the antique myth was pulled off its buskins and thrown into the aesthetics of Visconti’s “The Fall of the Gods” or even that of a television show.  There is a family sitting down ceremoniously for a farewell dinner.  Iphigénie (Magdalena Popławska) – a thin girl in a white dress – is running circles around the room.  She executes forward rolls, unconcerned that her dress is riding up – she is in a hurry to feel alive.   She pulls a pack of cigarettes out of her panties (her only sin) and lights up demonstratively in front of her parents – today she can do anything she wants.  Today she has made a choice – to give her life for the sake of an Achaean victory at Troy, as her father demanded.  She clings to her father, who is so strong and unshakeable, and recoils from her mother, whose mind is incapable of comprehending the situation.   At this point, she finds it easier to deal with her father.  Her brother and sister (in this play, Orestes and Electra, same as all the other children, are represented by slightly creepy-looking big-eyed dolls) are not yet aware that their future is being decided right now at this very dinner, that they are doomed to kill.  The father's gentle embrace turns into a death grip -- otherwise, his daughter would break free, overcome by animal fear...

Agamemnon (Maciej Stuhr) returns victorious ten years later.  He comes back to the woman, who became his destiny, his sickness, his guiding star, and his guilt.   Clytemnestra allows herself an unforgivable luxury – snuggling up to their daughter’s killer.  But the red color and the red anthem (the anthem of the USSR and Russia, one of Polish nightmares) makes them freeze.  The Russian audience freezes, too – a couple of spectators demonstratively stand up.  And Agamemnon launches into a discussion about the degree of his guilt, which has become the focal point in his consciousness.  It is matter of simple arithmetic – in wartime someone is killed every 4.6 seconds. With so great many deaths, when man is deprived of his right to live and let live, any sense of responsibility for what is happening loses its meaning.  But does it, really? 

...Alcestis and Admetus – a beautiful, stylish couple – are giving a blitz-interview (both are answering the same questions but separately).   The lovely chirping of the perfect couple with identical tastes dies down when confronted with the question: “Would you die for him (her)?"  One day the gods will demand an answer to this question in earnest, and Alcestis will be the only one who will agree to give her life for Admetus.   

Another family dinner, and once again it is a farewell one.  Sitting at the table are Admetus’ elderly parents (not long ago, they both refused to die for him – a silly thing, really), a doctor and master of ceremonies from the office of Thanatos, a pitiful-looking Admetus, crushed by the sacrifice made for his sake (unable, however, to refuse it, for the cost of the sacrifice is his own life), and the pregnant Alcestis (Magdalena Cielecka).   Every now and again she gets up from the table to go to her room and change -- it is as if she is in a hurry to try on all the dresses that she hasn't had a chance to wear yet and to reassure herself of her husband's admiration.  The agent of Thanatos gets up -- it is time.  Using the blood from her slashed wrists Alcestis draws a picture of a cozy little house – the synonym of happiness – on the see-through walls.    Admetus wastes the last minutes of his beloved wife’s life on the eternal argument with his imperious mother for the right to be a man.   

Agamemnon, Admetus, Orestes – man in general – all start out with the feeling of guilt and shame, the realization of an irreparable loss, the unbearable weight of individual responsibility for what is happening, the ability to relate to those, who are suffering.   And they all end with the loss of those feelings. Warlikowski’s “(A)pollonia” throws the gauntlet of accusation at “Polonia”, Poland, who dared to turn its back on the ovens of Auschwitz and Treblinka, wrinkle its nose at the smell and express its indignation that “our cabbage is covered with ash”.  Poland, who, by finding solutions to the issues of basic survival, dared to forget how to think about the essential. 

Although, admittedly, there are those who can pick up the gauntlet.  Magdalena Cielecka moves from the role of Alcestis into the role of Apolonia, as if she were changing into yet another dress.  A woman, pregnant with a new life, wades over and over again into the same water of self-sacrifice: something that is beyond comprehension and control of the iron logic of the self-preservation instinct.   This action by Apolonia Machczyńska, who hid Jewish families, thus risking her own life and the lives of her children, has no explanation other than a deep-rooted need to save another even at the cost of one’s own life.   The final and most important chapter of this enormous production completely destroys the laws of the stage.  Warlikowski seemingly no longer cares about the threshold of the audience’s perception and throws at them much more than they are able to take in.   Two separate points in time are compressed into one: at one end of the stage Apolonia, who was just betrayed by her own father, is being raped and shot.  At the other end Apolonia’s only surviving son – an aged and insecure loser, who was never quite able to shake the feeling that his mother betrayed him, traded him for others – is refusing his mother’s posthumous award.  Warlikowski’s play does not provide a single proof that Apolonia's sacrifice was not in vain; yet it still leaves the audience with a glorious feeling of liberation, of finding a way out.

Olga Foux



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