Edinburgh Festival: The horror of war walks tall

Teatr Biuro Podrozy has swept all before it with its nightmarish outdoor extravaganza, Carmen Funebre.
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Pawel Szkotak is having difficulty expressing himself in words. At least, what he says, when translated into English, has an alarming tendency to sound generalised and repetitive. When asked about his artistic credo, the matchstick-thin 34-year-old director says "I try to choose subjects that are important to me" or "The actor must identify with the subject". His company is called Teatr Biuro Podrozy - "travel agency" in Polish. If he were selling you a summer holiday, you'd probably go elsewhere. His work is rather more eloquent, however. Szkotak is responsible for probably the most successful piece of outdoor theatre yet staged at the Edinburgh Festival.

Since it received its first performance outside Poland in an Edinburgh school playground in 1995, Carmen Funebre ("Funeral Song") has toured to 29 countries. Through a handful of well-chosen images, inspired in part by the testimonies of Bosnian refugees, it communicated the senseless horrors of war on an epic scale. Five people in everyday clothing are plucked from the audience's midst by masked, whip-wielding figures on stilts, terrorised, stripped, defiled, made homeless and finally incinerated - on paper, it sounds like crude agit-prop; live, it could choke the most detached bystander. When it was performed last month outside the National Theatre in London, the sight of a 12ft-high Death wielding a scythe stopped the traffic on Waterloo Bridge.

The show is being performed for the last time tomorrow night in Edinburgh in aid of Kosovan refugees. Teatr Biuro Podrozy wants to counter any idea that it is a one-export wonder. Drink Vinegar Gentlemen, running from next week, might be described as a complete contrast: based on the work of the Russian writer Daniil Kharms, it has an abundance of text (translated), certifiable humour, and is being staged indoors. Together with Carmen Funebre, though, it shows the company grappling with the problem of having something to say in fin-de-siecle Poland.

A decade ago, before the 1989 elections consigned Communist rule to the trash-can of history, mounting Kharms's short, ludicrous sketches would have carried a much stronger whiff of subversion. This eccentric St Petersburg author - a great admirer of Sherlock Holmes, whose surname he borrowed and fashion sense he imitated - starved to death in 1942, having been imprisoned for spreading "defeatist propaganda". The authorities were irritated by the nonsensicality of his writings, which answered the precarious absurdities of Stalinist Russia.

Although the era of martial law was a pale imitation of the Russian police state, Poles, says Szkotak "could often feel a similar pressure. We could identify with Kharms's characters, who suddenly disappear without explanation". Szkotak, a psychology student, set up his company in 1988, when "people had lost hope. We called the company Biuro Podrozy because, at that time, the only travels allowed were those in the imagination".

Within a year, things began to change rapidly and theatre - once a forum for national issues, often expressed through poetic metaphor and allusion - was out in the cold. "People stopped going to the theatre, the buildings became deserted," Szkotak explains. "This was one of main reasons why we decided to work in the open air - because we wanted to seek out the audience." They had already conducted a number of street happenings - including building a replica flat in a busy subway in their hometown of Posnan - but the breakthrough came in 1992 with Giordano Bruno, a work about the trial of the Italian astronomer and philosopher who was burned as a heretic by the Inquisition in 1600. A full-scale spectacular, involving masked, stilt-walking personifications of Death, Love and angels, it ended with the lead actor being tortured in front of the audience, then dragged to a flaming stake.

For Malgorzata Szum, head of theatre at the Ministry of Culture and Arts in Warsaw, it was the moment at which Polish theatre seemed to regain its stride: "Teatr Biuro Podrozy brought a new dimension to street theatre. They showed it could be serious. They were also creating a language of poetic realism, which could talk in general rather than political terms. The aesthetics of the alternative theatre scene that had dominated since the Fifties were shown to be tired."

A leading Polish critic, Roman Pawlowski, saw the piece as recasting medieval Mystery plays for the 20th century: "At the centre of the new Mystery play sits a man instead of God," he wrote. Both Carmen Funebre and its successor, Not of Us, about the brutal punishment of two young church vandals, continued in this vein - making use of Poland's visually rich religious rituals to bring into sharp relief a large-scale spiritual crisis. Few companies in the UK would dare to paint on such a broad canvas. Small wonder that Teatr Biuro Podrozy has been asked to stage a Mystery cycle next year at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.

"Before 1989, Polish independent theatre focussed on our own society," Szkotak says. "We were cut off from outside problems. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the country opened up, psychologically as well as economically - we could see the whole world." And he appears as light- headed as an astronaut at the prospect.

Whether or not the company makes Kharms's black humour work without stressing the political context in which it bubbled forth, it is confident that its star will continue to rise. Next year, it's bringing over a large outdoor show about a trip to the Moon. Truly, the entrepreneurial spirit of Poland's new avant-garde knows no bounds.

`Carmen Funebre', Old College Quad, South Bridge (Venue 192), Friday 10pm (0131-662 8740); `Drink Vinegar Gentlemen', Theatre Workshop, Hamilton Place (Venue 20) (0131-226 5425) 17-29 Aug