VdR 2016. Review of “The Great Theatre” by Sławomir Batyra

Opening with the following quote by Spanish 17th Century playwright Calderón de la Barca, “Open, Earth, to thy very deep ends, a stage shall fit into the centre of your sphere” from his play “The Great Theatre of the World”, Polish theatre director Sławomir Batyra’s first foray into (documentary) filmmaking stems from an age-old yet innovative idea that takes us on an exploration of the behind-the-scenes of Warsaw’s Grand Theatre. “The Great Theatre” premiered in the short Competition section of the Visions du Réel Film Festival in Nyon, Switzerland.

The Grand Theatre in Warsaw (Teatr Wielki w Warszawie) is one of the largest theatres in the world. It was inaugurated on 24 February 1833 with a production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”. It was built on the Theatre Square and replaced the former building of Marywil of Polish classicist designs by the Italian architect Antonio Corazzi. The idea was to provide a new performance venue for existing opera, ballet and drama companies active in Warsaw. The building was remodeled several times and, in the period of Poland’s political eclipse from 1795 to 1918, it performed an important cultural and political role in producing many works by Polish composers and choreographers. After the building’s bombing and near-complete destruction in World War II, the theatre was rebuilt and expanded considerably according to a design by Bohdan Pniewski who put large and elegant dressing rooms on the ground floor and spacious foyer on the first floor, the audience now sitting where the stage originally stood. The modern stage – one with great facilities and the world’s largest – was built on the square, which is adjacent to the theatre. The opening of the rebuilt Grand Theatre took place twenty years later, on 19 November 1965 with a production of Stanisław Moniuszko’s “The Haunted Manor” that was commissioned for the inauguration. For over a hundred seventy years, the Grand Theatre has been Poland’s grandest opera and ballet institution. Today, the Polish National Opera at the Grand Theatre continues its two hundred-year old tradition, producing works by Polish composers from Karol Kurpiński, through Stanisław Moniuszko, to Krzysztof Penderecki. Classic operas are also well represented as the company’s repertoire includes the best operas by the major figures of opera, past and present.

But, what happens in the shadows of the Teatr Wielki? While maestro Mariusz Treliński sets the stage for Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, director Sławomir Batyra glides unseen behind the curtains. A look beyond the scenes of a gigantic theatre allows us to experience the theatre as one living and breathing organism. A documentary about what goes on behind the scenes when people begin to think about how to create another world on stage. The film gives us an opportunity to discover an unknown, remarkable and invisible world, which is just as fascinating as the one presented on stage. “The Great Theatre” prompts a metaphorical understanding of how art is created with the Theatrum mundi topos. Between observational information and abstract framing, the film becomes an eerie philosophical thriller. Reality is relative here.

Sławomir Batyra spent a semester at the Grand Theatre within the framework of the “Technology of Theatre” course during his directing studies at the National Academy of Dramatic Arts in Warsaw. He would spend two hours a week walking around the theatre and getting to know it, discovering new parts of it. But, while shooting his film, he learnt many more things as well, just like us, the viewers…

The film begins with the production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” and the director intersects it with footage of rehearsals and behind-the-scenes activities going on at the theatre. Indeed, we see the technical team at work: men working on the stage design, seamstresses working on the costumes and shoemakers confectioning footwear for the production. We see the rehearsal through a screen and, all supervised by Ms. Krastodemaska. It is a well-oiled machinery, a whole secret world – a hidden factory.

A hidden world that is, in fact, refreshing and rehearsing the production of “Madama Butterfly” that had its premiere on 29 May 1999. The show constitutes the first and instantly brilliant flash of Mariusz Treliński and Boris Kudlička director/designer duo talent. It was created in collaboration with the choreographer Emil Wesołowski, and following its Polish premiere in 1999 has been staged almost every year in various theatres in Italy, Spain, Russia, United States and Israel.

We cannot really fathom the scale of it nor the number of people involved in a production. This large-scale human workforce is absolutely irreplaceable. Everything depends on this collective synergy. In choosing to focus solely on the technical part of the theatre and the behind-the-scenes of the production of “Madama Butterfly”, the film shows how a grand, overwhelming, intimidating and lonely place the Grand Theatre ultimately is. In fact, the film does not focus on the artistic approach of behind-the-scenes (like directing for instance); indeed, rarely do we see the stage. It is really, really BEHIND THE SCENES in its purest definition, and some of its corners are extremely creepy too. The remu-ménage inside the Grand Theatre must indeed be picturesque but here, it is rather eerie, serious, solemn, austere. The music, sinister, experimental, almost ominous, heightens the uncanny nature of the explored space. In that sense, Verdi’s music that can sometimes be heard is ever so transporting and always a welcome atmosphere changer. We imagine that life there must be very repetitive, the everyday routine at the Grand Theatre almost feels like Groundhog Day, which adds an extra layer of eeriness to the film.

Moreover, as the documentary focuses solely on the technical parts of the production in question, we do not really get a sense of what the play is like. In that regard, it succeeds in awakening our curiosity. As it also provides no context on the theatre and no accompanying commentary, being merely observational, another more conventional documentary approach would have perhaps satisfied better our curiosity to know more about it, but this, however, does not seem to be the director’s aim.

Using space as the inspiration for his first documentary, Sławomir Batyra crafts an interesting look at the behind-the-scenes and epicentre of the Grand Theatre’s sphere, whose greatness on many levels cannot be grasped. In spite of his idea to choose the already chewed Theatrum mundi topos, he succeeds not only in making us stop and think about the immense effort that goes in to a theatre production, the importance of the human factor with its art and know-how, but also in making us want to go see the opera in question.




O.T. : Wielki Teatr

Production: DeLord Sp. z o.o. (Poland 2016)

Producer: Adam Sokołowski

Director: Sławomir Batyra

Screenplay: Fabienne Abramovich and Michel Coulon

Photography: Krzysztof Gromek

Music: Giacomo Puccini

Editing: Daniel Sokołowski

Color – 30 min

Premiere: 19-IV-2016 (Visions du Réel)


Note: This review was originally published on Yellow Bread’s sister publication, The Film Prospector, in April 2016.

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