Pam Gems has a reputation for work centring on strong, individualistic female characters: as well as writing plays such as Marlene, Piaf and Queen Christina, she has adapted the likes of A Doll's House and Ghosts. However, The Snow Palace – which arrives in London in Sphinx's production after winning this year's Barclays/TMA award for best touring show – focuses on a great figure neither of culture, history nor literature, but one distinguished primarily by her self-destructive obsession.
The "palace" of the title is, on a literal level, the small, virtually unheated school hut in Gdansk in which Stanislawa Przybyszewska lived for several years in the 1920s and 1930s, turning out 600-odd pages of drama about the French Revolution (the source material both for Andrzej Wajda's film Danton and for Gems's own adaptation several years ago) and shutting herself off from the rest of the world save for her mother, aunt and the drunken, predatory writer who fathered her out of wedlock. Figuratively, the title could refer to Stanislawa's own splendid, passionate isolation or that of her idolised Robespierre: the solitude of commitment, be it to an artistic ideal or a political ideology. Robespierre's sensual, self-aggrandising antagonist Danton is explicitly paralleled with Stanislawa's father; she is attracted to the force of personality of each, but more intensely repelled by their brutal, arrogant natures.
As Stanislawa tries to muddle through the interweaving depredations of her life and the Terror of which she is writing, not to mention morphine addiction and malnutrition, the various strands of her life and consciousness become more entangled and her hermetic, eremitic withdrawal into her obsession ever greater. By the end of the second act, Kathryn Pogson's jittery, staring, occasionally bass-booming Stanislawa is both conducting and participating in the events of 1794 as they unfold before her eyes.
I used the term "muddle" above; it is harsh, but truthful. The problem is not that Gems, Pogson or director Janet Suzman lack control of their material – they ably stitch together what one presumes are scenes from Przybyszewska's work and what sound like extracts from her letters; rather, it is simply that Stanislawa's own life and work seem to form a single unruly mass. We can see the parallels between her father and Danton, and appreciate her various, cross-cutting inner conflicts of commitment, but they are too inextricably personal to her for us to derive general comments upon such themes, or to treat this as more than a single, complex case study.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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