At the turn of the decade, Polish director Tadeusz Kantor's company took his last show to the Edinburgh Festival. Kantor had died during the rehearsal process, and the company preserved the show as it had been at that point, representing him onstage by an empty chair and the use of audio recordings. It was both a haunting, poignant symbol in itself, and an emblem of the visual and emotional approach of the finest of such Polish theatre. Now "Polish theatre" has finally come to London's West End.
Although Théâtre de Complicité is a Cambridge-born, London-based international company, The Street Of Crocodiles (first seen in the National's Cottesloe Theatre in 1992) is quintessentially a Polish experience. Not simply because it is based upon the life and short stories of Bruno Schulz (a Galician Jew shot by the Gestapo in 1942), but because it concerns itself with ghosts and losses, absences and yearning; because it is a piece in which the natural and the supernatural, the physical and the metaphysical, whirl across the stage in passionate embrace; because the dreamlike, non-linear chain of events and the use of ordinary objects to achieve surreal and often grotesque visual effects is as characteristically "Polish" as it is "Complicité".
Protagonist Joseph (brilliantly played with gaunt distraction by Cesar Sarachu) is a distant cousin of Kafka's K., but one entangled less in the arbitrariness of earthly authority than the shifting webs of existence itself. Peering into books, he conjures up the family of his childhood: Annabel Arden's matriarchal linchpin, Bronagh Gallagher's domestically and sexually dominant housemaid, Matthew Scurfield as the draper father too fascinated by his own ethereal cosmology to bother with anything as grossly material as actually selling stuff to people. A flock of flapping books become the rare birds in the attic, crapping on the family dining table – itself a row of classroom desks. Joseph's memory-quest for his father sees the latter reappear firstly as a gigantic wooden puppet which is sawn into pieces, then as a ghost dripping sawdust. In the opening minutes, a man walks casually down the back wall of the stage.
Simon McBurney directs with his skilled, sensitive eye not on narrative coherence, but rather on the magic and emotional power both of the script (adapted by himself and Mark Wheatley) and of the capacities of theatre itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the closing moments: Schulz/Joseph, shot in the head, slowly undresses and is passed, huddled foetally, from the arms of one family member to another, at once infant and Holocaust victim. Having attended this wonderful evening first as "work", I shall be returning to it for pleasure, just as I did a decade ago to those first captivating Polish productions I encountered. I can do little more than echo the final word of one of The Street Of Crocodiles' 1992 reviews: unforgettable.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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