Letter from Warsaw: Somewhere under the Rainbow

Letter from Warsaw: Somewhere under the Rainbow

In the years after communism, Polish artists fought for gay rights and then moved on to other matters. But turbulent times in Eastern Europe have given Amy Conroy's play I Alice I a striking new relevance. Its translator, Joanna Derkaczew, reports on the premiere of a gentle Irish play in a damaged Warsaw.

“They won’t burn us all!”

Those words, and many like them, screamed helplessly from the walls of Polish Facebook accounts on the day when an angry crowd of neo-Nazis and radical nationalists was busy trying to demolish Warsaw. It was the 11th of November, Polish Independence Day, and the centre of the capital was in flames. Young males in balaclavas, inspired by the incendiary rhetoric of right-wing politicians, moved through the city destroying everything that they considered to be not truly Polish: the guard’s post at the Russian Embassy, two squat houses inhabited by emigrants and leftists, cars, pavement slabs and newly planted ash trees. But first of all: the Rainbow.

A multicolour installation, prepared by the artist Julita Wójcik in June, 2012 to celebrate the Parade of Equality (Poland’s equivalent of Gay Pride) during the Euro Cup tournament, it was supposed to be temporary decoration on the Savior Square, popularly named “Hipster Square” for its surrounding vibrant club life. But after its first, second, third, fourth and finally fifth arson attack, the Rainbow had become nothing less than a symbol of tolerance under threat. Constantly attacked, constantly reconstructed, this kitschy monument has grown to be a national issue. On the 11th November nothing was attracting more attention. “Faggot rainbow is finally burning,” tweeted one of the conservative MPs.

“I call my state to take actions against those who spread homophobia, fascism, violence, anti-Semitism, extremism…” – responded the left-wing columnist and theatre critic, Witold Mrozek, collecting thousands of signatures under an open letter of demands.

On the same evening, Aleksandra Domańska and Aleksandra Grzelak were finishing rehearsals for Amy Conroy’s I Alice I in Warsaw’s OCH-Teatr. The production was scheduled to open in five days, delivered into a country that looked nothing like it had before Independence Day.

When I began translating this play one year ago, I thought that I was dealing with the wittiest and most kind-hearted play ever written. I woke up smiling every morning, eager to return to two characters with a home life of mispronounced “jalapeños”, terrible driving, horrible holy pictures and ten cushions that need to stay on the sofa in perfect order.

My only worry was that for Polish viewers Conroy’s text might seem slightly sentimental. After all, what was the last decade in Poland about if not the fight for gay rights, tolerance, equality? Gay love was not just suggested in metaphors but shouted out from the stages with passion, anger and graphic directness. On Polish stages, audiences had seen queer Hamlets, Dionysuses, Petruchios, zombies, Werters, mobsters, Solidarity heroes, hobos, soldiers fighting in Iraq. In preparation for the play Rainbow Stand 2012, its creators had even organised a campaign for giving gay football fans a special seating section for Euro Cup matches in Warsaw. When it came to Krzysztof Warlikowski’s spectacular Angels in America, in 2007, there was nothing particularly shocking about its subject. Ideas that had been articulated in theatres had already entered the public debate. Tolerance felt like a natural condition for society and artists addressed themselves to more urgent issues: the religious fanatics who gathered around charismatic priest, millionaire and hardline conservative radio broadcaster, Tadeusz Rydzyk. The murders of activists defending tenants of privatised estates from eviction. The conspiracy theories that followed the 2010 aircrash killing 96 people, including president Lech Kaczyński, his wife Maria, and several military commanders, cabinet ministers and members of parliament.

How could a simple play about two harmless ladies compare to the scandalous stories of the previous years?

Aleksandra Domańska and Aleksandra Grzelak in Och-Teatr's production of Alicja [Heart] Alicja by Amy Conroy. Photo: Ola Grochowska

On the first preview, that Wednesday, the audience applauded wildly after almost every sentence. When one of the Alices (Aleksandra Grzelak) dragged an appalling picture of the Virgin Mary appearing in a rainbow onstage the room erupted in anger. On that evening there was no symbol more powerful than a rainbow. Everything felt too close to home.

The director of the Warsaw premiere, Maria Seweryn, didn’t follow all the author’s suggestions. Her Alices were not born in the 1940s but in the 1980s. Giving the roles to two gorgeous young girls while altering very few sentences from the original script, Seweryn placed the play in a completely new context.

It’s still a story of two women who were caught kissing in a shopping centre and who were then persuaded by a theatre maker to give a public testimony about their relationship. But suddenly it spoke again to a generation of people who believed they didn’t need these kinds of testimonies anymore. People who had grown up in a Poland that was not part of the Soviet Bloc but a member of the EU. People who had thought that all the sensitive issues of sexual identity and equality had already been sorted out. All the constraints that these young, independent Alices were now describing sounded depressingly realistic: their worries about public displays of affection, their fears and inhibitions were unpleasantly familiar and magnified after the march of hatred that had taken over the city only a few days before.

The actresses bravely played with the show’s conceit of “non-professional performers forced to make a public confession”. Trembling, embarrassed, slightly too elegant, they hesitated and came back every so often to the script left on the high table behind them. Hardly ever did they retreat to two barstools on which they could sit if they felt uncomfortable. Instead, they stayed for most of the time at the edge of the narrow platform, as close to the audience as possible. Bit by bit, they kept going through the matters of their life together, their words answered with laughter, occasional claps and some screams of support from the audience. One of the Alices left the stage in distress when the other retold the story of her promiscuous youth. One had tears in her eyes as she confessed to the feelings of anger and premature grief connected to her partner’s cancer. They were almost hammering home the message, “We are human in every kind of wonderful and horrible way.”

The makers of the performance did not reveal anything surprising about either love or sexuality. They did not attempt to agitate or shock. It seems, though, that in the moment when sexual equality in Poland has again become a battleground that simple approaches are the most effective.

Kindness, simplicity and sincerity turned out to be the best strategy with which to approach questions of a love that, once again, might dare not speak its name. “We believe that sharing our story is important,” repeated the Alices with bitter determination and the audience responded with an approving hum.

Amy Conroy’s play landed in Poland just on time to show that certain matters are not won in loud battles but in everyday, mundane struggle.

In the meantime Warsovians bring fresh flowers everyday to cover the bare skeleton of the Rainbow installation. Some of them have even begun a defiant movement: “Unintimidated. We kiss under the rainbow”. Young couples of all sexual identities gather everyday at Hipster Square to kiss and to remind themselves that a rainbow is a symbol of love.

If you never saw a rainbow burning slowly on a chilly autumn night, I tell you, it’s a potent picture. But seeing crowds of people of all ages kissing under a steel arch makes you believe that the candid, everyday revolution has begun. And that it will be invincible.


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