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REVIEWS

How Was Your Day?

12.01.2017

‚Harper Regan’ is Simon Stephens’s drama that was staged in two Polish theatres. We are going to refer to one of them at the end of the season.

Closer to the finishing passages of Stephens’s text, there is a sentence which happens to be essential for the whole play, even though it really is not certain who should utter it. In fact, the background of a conversation between Harper and her mother Alison is really strange. It is and unexpected summary of her life, giving the truth to the daughter straight, right after the quarrel. Yet, these words could have been uttered by Harper as well. ‚I look back and I think — those moments I didn’t think about. (…) That wasn’t me waiting for my life. (…).’ Indeed, no one has even started to live the way they would like to live.

The play is surprising, even though the English author has almost nothing in common with let’s call it a well-tailored realism which is often linked with the tradition of drama about social issues. Nevertheless, Stephens is clearly interested in this kind of topics. What can be considered here are British drama pieces created in recent years as a point of reference after the tradition of the classical American drama of the 40s., 50s. and even 60s. The British scene deals with the topics of social issues, very often involved in social actions, yet the structure of this genre explores some unexpected dimensions.

On the other hand, the features which may bring, e.g. Stephens and Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams (who is perhaps the closest to him) together is the emotional load in the language. Moreover, you could add intransigence to it. What is important is the context which surrounds all of us, even though nowadays for such dramaturges as Stephens himself the foreground is occupied by an individual, it is their world which stores all of the modern world problems encountered by us. The illness of the spirit becomes a visual proof of the illness that ravages the society.

In case of the ‚Harper Regan’s’ author it went way further than in case of David Hare, and artist who is a generation older than Stephens. Hare is a screenwriter, both movie and theatre director. Today he is perceived as a classic writer of the plays which criticize contemporary social systems.

It must be admitted that in recent years Simon Stephens has really achieved a success. In the greatest London theatres the premiere stagings of his plays are a necessity. Moreover, in Germany they are staged surprisingly often, similarly to the dramas of Stephens’s peer, Dennis Kelly, a dramaturge who in terms of structure and topics is very close to the English writer. These theatres quickly verify the new dramaturgy trends in the UK and guarantee a ‚pass’ to the further theatre career on the European stages.

However, let’s go back to the surprise at ‚Harper Regan.’ Actually, from the very beginning nothing is certain in this play. Is Harper only recalling and episode from her life, which becomes a symbolic moment for her—a ritual of coming to terms with her own life? Her life in which in the course of time nothing much can be changed and what is left is only the agreement upon its poor outcome.

This play tells the story of an attempt to make a decision at any cost, even if it involves humiliation of the kind that may end up in catharsis; even though it is not worth much. The most it can offer is a bit of relief at the end. On the other hand, Stephens’s drama can be a sped up record of a dream about what would happen if Harper had left her family and set off to meet her dying father so as to reconcile with him. Of course this dream turns into and emotional trigger, because while dreaming all of us indulge ourselves in more, way more than we would plan in the burst of courage.

This is why during her odd odyssey Harper comes across something which one could call symbols of the lost humanity. It is by using them that she makes and effort to bring the order to the outside world. In fact, in one of the best scenes in the play, after getting involved in and ambiguous flirtation with two youngsters, she will end the game by plunging a wine glass into one of the men’s throat, and stealing his fashionable jacket. Later she will give it away to the guy whom she had met during and online chat. Highly supposedly, all of this happened mainly to make her shake off the emotions after her father’s death, which she did not manage to witness. Or maybe all of this was so as to ascertain herself how it feels to be dirty with lie until the very end? Harper’s husband has committed quite a socially shameful crime, however whether he is guilty is still not sure. The one who is guilty in Stephens’s text is first and foremost the world behind the door of family home. People, on the other hand, have no place to escape—they are always victims. Even though she will even the score with herself, no matter how many decisions would Harper make during these several dozen hours,she will not re-evaluate the reality.

I realize that in my case talking about the ambiguity of perspectives in Stephens’s story equals commenting on the Kielce staging created by GrzegorzWiśniewski. Even though for sure it is not the case that I perceive this play through the lens of its director’s imagination. I just think that while reading this textWiśniewski reaches to its core and agrees to be led on this path which stretches to those theatre areas where there are no certain answers. May each and every spectator explain Harper’s behaviour to him or herself.

Especially as Magdalena Grąziowska in her role turns Harper into and even more affecting woman. The actress, who had her debut in 2008, takes her character into a different dimension. After all, Stephens’s Harper is 41 years old. When it comes to the Żeromski Theatre’s staging, from its very beginning Grąziowska looks like a rather pert girl who shouldered too many responsibilities in her life. However, what is even more terrifying, her life will disillusion her even earlier, which will end up being even more painful. She is subtle, but in the moments of truth she is unpredictable, because this is what is expected from her when the danger is lurking over her head every step she makes.

I have already mentioned the shocking way in which the conversation with the youngsters has ended. The outstanding Magdalena Grąziowska is heating up the scene to red-hot. She is someone whom we considered essentially innocent and who is forced to act paradoxically by giving in to the craziness on an ordinary day. I have a feeling that Wiśniewski’s play is deeply rooted in a specific type of irony. Every gesture and reaction has hidden double meanings, unclear intentions. It reminds a bit of a situation from the worst nightmare in which the face of someone we trust suddenly changes into a different  shape. Its best example is another scene in which Haper talks with a nurse after her father’s death (an excellent role of Joanna Kasperek, who also performs a role of the main character’s aloof mother). It follows the principle of counterpoint, which stays in our memory as a glimpse of an important day of our life. Isn’t it the case that rather than of separated episodes, our memory consists of such slides that come back to us? This is how GrzegorzWiśniewski’s play is constructed. For sure it is his time as a the most intriguing director of psychological theatre. I know that he is planning on at least two new, intense undertakings for the next year.

However, the Warsaw staging of ‚Harper’ also deserves a couple words of comment. Mainly a mention of what went wrong in Dramatyczny Theatre’s production. Swedish director Natalie Ringler, who over a year ago staged and interesting ‚Bent’ by Martin Sherman here, this time did not even manage to find the tools which may help herinterpret Stephens’s play. In her staging there are moments which unintentionally slip into genre scenes. Agnieszka Warchulska, in turn, gets completely lost and confused though it is not her fault. She is not sure why Harper would even want to change anything. One could think that she is a perfect match for this role, yet she did not get any hints from the director. No information whether Harper is supposed to be a mature woman or still a dreamer. In effect, the great actress is trying to save the situation in many different ways. After all, everything falls apart at the seams, for instance when during the scenes with a random lover (Marcin Sztabiński) there appears a taste of an unintended comedy and misreading the interlocutor’s intentions. Such a waste of a well-matched team. It is because also Adam Ferency comes onstage as someone who is forced to do the job. But let me underline it once again—it does not matter whether it is because of lack of communication or because of approaching Stephens’s play as if it was a set of psychodramatic episodes to play out—the most basic responsibility for this failure is borne by Natalie Ringler. The play represents the actors who really want to understand the reasons why they perform, but they were left alone with this desire. That is sad.

In the repertoire of Dramatyczny Theatre there is still a different Stephens’s text, namely ‚The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,’ which was staged there by Jakub Krofta in 2015. Hence, it is worth keeping the author on the poster, yet in this case it is also necessary to see his other works since there is a possibility to do this.

Przemysław Skrzydelski, Polish weekly magazine “W sieci”

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