Review: Ja, bóg (Festiwal Retroperspektywy, Łódź)

Tomasz Rodowicz, and Joanna Chmielecka in “Ja, bóg”. Photograph: Courtesy of Rami Shaya.

Ja, bóg opens the “Festiwal Retroperspektywy”. Translating as “I, god”, it pits two seemingly polarised characters, an old man and a young woman, against each other in a battle of introspection and meaning. But there can only be one winner.

Tomasz Rodowicz, and Joanna Chmielecka in “Ja, bóg”. Photograph: Courtesy of Rami Shaya.

Tekst / Writing

This year’s festival, celebrating Teatr Chorea’s 15th year, opens with the premiere of a brand new work. Based on the writings of Polish theatre practitioner, Jerzy Grotowski, the whole idea about the show is an essay on duality and meaning. Or, at least that’s what I think it’s about from what I could grasp of the all-Polish text.

So, having established that, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this does sound like the premise for a rather dull and wordy play. But Chorea haven’t survived 15 years by producing boring high-minded work. Indeed, Ja, bóg is the culmination of their matured finesse for outstanding theatrical storytelling.

How do they do it?

Well, not with text alone. The direction and production are certainly what engages you the most in this 90-minute tirade of words and thoughts.

Yet, the text itself, put together by Dariusz Kosiński, Tomasz Rodowicz, and Joanna Chmielecka, as complex and myriad as its ideas are, keeps you engaged by activating your mind and not just your ears.

You see, it’s not just about young vs old. It’s also about god vs godlessness, tradition vs new customs, man vs woman, and peace vs war. That’s just to name but a few of the main polar opposites bounced about in this theatrical philosophy lecture.

After letting it run and filter through your mind as you watch it, you’re left wondering who is a worshiper and who is being worshiped? Who represents religious devotion and who embodies free-thinking? The fact that you can never quite answer these questions, because of the cross-overs and contradictions of the characters, means your curiosity and intelligence are left begging for more of this playfully ambiguous debate.

But the most engrossing question is whether the characters are divine or demented. Perhaps, like the best of the old gods, it’s both.

Tomasz Rodowicz, and Joanna Chmielecka in “Ja, bóg”. Photograph: Courtesy of Rami Shaya.

Reżyseria / Direction

It’s here, in Rodowicz and Chmielecka’s direction that Ja, bóg really comes to life. It’s through the bursts of physical theatre and what they represent that catches your attention and pulls you deeper into the show.

This is because the direction adds even more tantalizing layers to the text.

There is always something physically or visually happening that leaves you not being merely satisfied with the mere skin of the subject. You hanker to get to the very bone, whetted by this constant force of brilliant, unexpected, and often striking physical theatre that prompts you to become so unexpectedly involved.

As for the physical theatre itself, what’s superb about Rodowicz and Chmielecka’s use of it is that it so astonishingly reserved. We don’t have bodies constantly convulsing here. Instead, among the tsunami of dialogue, we’re treated to little jaw-dropping flits and full-on passages of movement that always wow.

A chase over and under a table during one war of words is breathtaking when you realise it seems to symbolize ying and yang, whilst simultaneously adding vivid energy to the scene and text. Then, the simple act of delicately balancing an apple on a foot whilst a softer, deeper conversation ensues, flips the energy and tone around to create a stupyfying juxtaposition.

There is always something to look at, something to read deeper into, and something to surprise.

Tomasz Rodowicz, and Joanna Chmielecka in “Ja, bóg”. Photograph: Courtesy of Rami Shaya.

Produkcja / Production

The production for Ja, bóg is as detailed and deliberate as the direction. Rodowicz and Andrzej Dworakowski’s scene design, Anna Przybyt’s costume design, Tomasz Krukowski’s lighting design, and Dobijański’s sound design, each have a pivotal role to play.

For example, the scene design’s focus on the apples on the table could hint as the fruit of knowledge. Then, regarding costume, the elder’s arsenal of red trousers and white shirts, representing Poland and tradition, are contrasted against the younger’s constantly changing array of colorful dresses. It’s a fizzing piece of visual counterpoint.

Krukowski’s lighting, from cyclorama-washes to dramatic square spotlights on characters, ushers in defined moods that complement the show’s energy and tone. Whilst Dobijański’s sound baptizes you in currents of atmosphere.

Not a trick is missed, nor a piece of the production out of place or superfluous.

Even what seems like a bog-standard wooden table and some seats made out of crates and wicker baskets are actually custom-made props that transform into several wonderful things.

This is a production that is so clearly and deeply part of the show that it feels incredibly organic.

Ja, bóg - Festiwal Retroperspektywy 2019

Tomasz Rodowicz, and Joanna Chmielecka in “Ja, bóg”. Photograph: Courtesy of Rami Shaya.

Występ / Performance

Rodowicz and Chmielecka are just as adept at performers as they are writers and directors. I swear I saw both of them age and become younger at several points in the show, as both the delivery of both their body and their words are as knowing and charged with meaning as the rest of Ja, bóg.

But it really is the symbiosis of them onstage together that strikes you. For a show that is about duality in so many of its forms, Rodowicz and Chmielecka are completely the physical manifestation of it. You simply cannot imagine the show with either of the performers swapped out. It just wouldn’t work. It would be like sawing off one of your arms and still trying to play the violin. You can make it work, but it wouldn’t be the same.

This is because each feeds off the other and amplifies their counterpart’s energy. Both know the story inside out and are of one mind when it comes to telling it and getting its vast range of ideas, both textual and visual, across to an audience.

Ostatni Słowa / Final Words

If the gods were watching Ja, bóg, they’d be cowed by this stunningly intelligent and heavenly show.

For more information about “Festiwal Restroperspektywy” and “Teatr Chorea”, please visit http://chorea.com.pl/

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About James Waygood

Half-Welsh, half-Chinese British writer living and working in Poland. Ex-theatre and film critic, and avid gamer, he has a passion for anything interesting. View all posts by James Waygood

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