‘Inspirational’ unseen film of Tadeusz Kantor’s last show before he died to be shown for first time
Film of Tadeusz Kantor that has lain unseen for decades is set to give modern audiences a new perspective on the life and work of one of the most mercurial and revolutionary theatre directors Poland has ever produced.
The film, shot between 1984 and 1990, also highlights the relationship between the South African man behind the camera and Kantor, which was formed while the Cold War was still raging and Poland remained locked behind the Iron Curtain.
The footage is the work of Duncan Ward, a filmmaker originally from Southern Africa who has lived in the UK since the early 1980s. It was not long after his arrival in Britain that he first learnt about Kantor.
At the time Kantor was working in Kraków having established himself as a leading name in the country’s artistic community through his creative and ground-breaking approach to theatre.
Born in 1915, Kantor had pioneered avant-garde theatre in the 1950s, and in the 60s he established his own theatre, Cricot 2.
The theatre and its company soon developed an international reputation for the power and creativity of its “happenings”, which often dived into the world of absurdism.
A 1972 performance of its play ‘The Water Hen’, for example, was described as "the least-publicised, most talked-about event at the Edinburgh Festival.”
“Intrigued” by what Kantor was doing in Kraków, Ward set off to Poland to track him down.
“The Cold War was still on,” he told TFN. “I came from South Africa to England in the early 1980s, so I escaped apartheid South Africa and ended up in Soviet Cold War Poland.
“I was familiar with the territory of government management of terror, and seeing it in Kantor’s work so succinctly demonstrated and mocked was an interesting kind of inversion of escape from a nationalist regime.
“I ended up being part of a caravan of people that started turning up at his events,” he continued. “There were always full houses. Sometimes the applause would last for 10 minutes. It was fantastic.”
Ward was also filming Kantor during his frequent trips to Poland, and eventually had enough video to put together for a 1986 documentary about him.
But he carried on filming, and it this unseen footage that is due to go be screened in London later this month at an event called “European: Tadeusz Kantor”.
“I recorded him rehearsing the last show he did before he died and then the show itself; it is very unique material,” said Ward.
“There is also a montage of that, which Kantor was very keen on that I put to bed when he died [in 1990], and I have resurrected that.”
Although Kantor himself is long dead and the film is from over 30 years ago, Ward believes that the Pole’s work can still inspire a modern audience.
“I think they will be intrigued by the intensity and the expressiveness of his work,” says the filmmaker. “He is still visually arresting and from the start I think he can galvanise the imagination and charge people into looking more at his material.
“I think any bright and sensitive soul will be shocked at the detail and the expressiveness of it,” he added. “It should enliven them.”
The resurrection of the film, which Ward says has been lying in a draw for the best part of three decades, has allowed him to look back on the unusual bond between a great of Polish theatre and a young South-African filmmaker.
“Kantor was a mercurial character,” reflected Ward. “He could be absolutely charming but then if was in a black mood he could be dictatorial.
“He could threaten and cajole. I’ve even seen him throw all the media out but then he would look at me and say, ‘You can stay,’.”