Patrice Chéreau & Michał BorczuchThe master and the iconoclast

Published in October 2013clockTime to read: 4m40s
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The late Patrice Chéreau was interested in watching Michał Borczuch forge his own path, letting their numerous encounters of the mentoring year develop naturally into a conversation that thrived on their differences. They closely observed and discussed each other’s work as it was rehearsed in Cracow and Aix-en-Provence, and met in Paris and Milan for their intense, year-long dialogue about the nature and purpose of theatre.

by Stephen Moss October 2013
  • Patrice Chéreau
    The Mentor
  • Michał Borczuch
    The Protégé

One follows the script, the other pushes the writer aside. For young Polish director Michał Borczuch, his mentor, legendary French director of stage, screen and opera Patrice Chéreau, offers a challenging but vital conversation on the nature and purpose of theatre.

“I try to avoid seeing the young me in Michał. Of course, I can see similarities, but I want to judge him as he is now. I am not very interested in the past. It’s a relation we have to create in the present. I don’t want to give him the speech of the old man saying, “Be careful. I made the same mistakes a long time ago.” First of all, because he has to make mistakes. It’s useless to say “You are wrong,” totally useless. You learn your job by making mistakes. When you succeed, it’s a plus, but it’s not so relevant as a big mistake. He has to discover in his own way. I can only push him slowly to ask me the right questions. I can convince him only on something about which he is already convinced. You put your finger on something that is wrong, and he says, 'Yes, I knew it was wrong.”
Patrice Chéreau

Michał Borczuch meets me for the first time in October 2012 in Cracow, his home town. The young Polish director chooses a bohemian cafe in the city’s old Jewish quarter for our initial conversation. At first he is diffident, a little unsure of his English. But, after a few minutes, the ice is broken by the intervention of an old gypsy, who is offering to read palms. She reads his, predicting success.

His response is fascinating: he greets her warmly, is interested in everything she says, gives her 20 zloty (about US$6), touches her on the arm affectionately. Gypsies are not popular in Cracow, but he takes her seriously. “I like gypsies,” he says. “I like them very much.” He sees her appearance as an augury; I see his response as the mark of a young man with an instinctive sympathy for the marginalized.

Borczuch appears sensitive, thoughtful, searching for something. He comes from a family of scientists and engineers, but always favoured the arts – his parents worried how he would make a living – and painted from an early age. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow, but became bored and transferred to the Ludwik Solski State School of Drama. He had doubts about moving into theatre – if anything, his interest in film was greater and he still hopes to make films – but his progress as a stage director has been rapid. His style is intense, iconoclastic, expressionistic. Polish critics have linked him with a group of emerging directors called the “Young Discontented”, though he resists such labelling.

Much of his work has involved adaptation. He is less happy working on classic plays. He directed Twelfth Night in 2010 – his innovation was to put the audience on stage and the actors in the auditorium – but found the process difficult. “The world Shakespeare created is so strong, so hermetically closed, so complete,” he says. “It’s like a stone. You have to go with the Shakespearean logic. If not, it’s impossible to make any move. To make this comedy was a fight.” Borczuch prefers work where he has to fill the gaps, such as Georg Buchner’s unclassifiable play Leonce and Lena and Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which he adapted for the stage. He needs to give himself space in which to work, even to make mistakes; he doesn’t want the writer to have resolved everything.

Patrice Chereau is “much more realistic, more classical”, says Borczuch. “He cares about the plot and the psychological logic of the story. When we talked about the libretto of Elektra [during the 12 months of the mentorship, Chereau was preparing a production of Richard Strauss’ opera for the 2013 Aix-en-Provence festival], we talked a lot about the Hofmannsthal play on which it is based. We talked about the psychology and the intensive inner logic of the text. This is something that is really interesting because it’s usually something I try to omit. For me, a performance is a space for much more surrealistic expression of characters and human relationships, and I try to say something about people in relationships that is sometimes out of psychological logic.”

Realist versus expressionist, textual exactitude versus rip-it-up-and-see-what-happens – it is the fact that their approaches are so different that makes the collaboration fascinating and unpredictable. Chereau says the divergence was the reason he selected Borczuch from the shortlist of potential protégés he was offered. He craved resistance. “I watched what Michał did on DVD and I thought he was funnier than the others. It was nothing to do with what I’m doing; nothing. Sometimes I don’t like it, but sometimes he dares something.”

“There is a kind of distance between the two of us and I like that,” says Borczuch. “Chereau said he didn’t want to be a mentor in the strict sense of the word – to make a pattern of how to make a movie or a piece of theatre. When he said it, I thought, ‘That’s wonderful.’ I look at it as a relationship where I can take a lot from him, but I don’t have him behind my back. I don’t feel his shadow.”

Rare trinity

Chereau has had a prodigious career in theatre, film and opera – a rare trinity. This is the man who, in 1976, when he was in his early 30s, revolutionized opera with a production of Wagner’s Ring cycle at Bayreuth that reimagined the world of gods and Nibelungs in terms of 19th-century industrial capitalism. Born in 1944, Chéreau was running his own theatre by his early 20s and produced his first opera in 1969. Much of the past 20 years has been taken up with films – La Reine Margot, Intimacy, Gabrielle, Son Frère, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, Persécution. It is Christmas 2012. Chéreau is in the Marais district of Paris, where he has an apartment. He is dressed as usual in a bluish-grey suit. He speaks slightly idiosyncratic English, and laughs at the thought of him and Borczuch conversing in what he calls “pidgin” – a sort of stripped-down global English. But what Chéreau says is both wise and beautiful. He talks about how to approach a production and wonders whether a young director such as Borczuch gets too excited too soon. “Before you start rehearsing,” explains Chéreau, “it’s always good to have lost any hope of doing something interesting. If you arrive at the rehearsal full of hope and expectation, of course you are disappointed. You have to be disappointed before rehearsals, not during them. Expect nothing, and then you can be free.”

Chéreau says his relationship with Borczuch is a conversation, not a seminar. “I don’t want to be a teacher,” he says. In early 2012, he had been to see Borczuch’s production of Ibsen’s Brand in Cracow – a characteristically bold interpretation that drew in elements of another Ibsen play, Little Eyolf. Chéreau disliked the production, and wrote a long email to Borczuch outlining its problems. This was a defining moment in the initial part of their relationship. Chéreau says he is not there to judge, but here he was passing judgment, questioning the fusion of two plays, the choice of lead actor, everything. How did Borczuch react?

“It was OK, I think,” says Chéreau. “I try to push as far as I can. If I feel he is reluctant or reacting badly, then I stop. You can criticize only with the agreement of the person; otherwise they don’t listen. I tried to say things quite carefully, not making any lessons, watching if he was ready to hear it or not. He belongs to a tradition that is not my tradition. The Polish theatre has evolved its own style. They have no problem in mixing two or three pieces. For me, it doesn’t work, though I can understand why you might want to do it. But as a mentor I shouldn’t say ‘no’. For me to say ‘You’re wrong’ is not a good method. I say, ‘Well, that’s what I have seen; that’s what I haven’t seen’.”

In April 2013, Borczuch joins Chéreau in Berlin as he rehearses the two principals in Elektra – Evelyn Herlitzius, who is playing the title part, and Waltraud Meier, singing the role of her murderous mother, Clytemnestra. Borczuch sits in on all five days of rehearsal, keeping a discreet distance from Chéreau, who talks about creating a “safe” environment for the performers. Borczuch, fascinated by the way Chéreau sets about building a relationship with Herlitzius, says he prefers a “more anarchistic space”.

To be in Berlin, Borczuch has had to take a break from a production of French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès’ Quai Ouest, which he is preparing in Wroclaw. It astonishes me when I discover that he and his mentor have not so far discussed the production, given that Chéreau worked closely with Koltes until the latter’s death in 1989 and staged many of his plays. Why have they deemed it a taboo? “It is Michał’s decision,” says Chereau. “He can talk to me whenever he wants, but I can understand if he doesn’t want to do that.” Borczuch says he would have felt in a “weak position” working on Quai Ouest with Chereau watching him.

Quai Ouest is “an impossible mixture, a melange of many different and contradictory things”, argues Chéreau, who says that, when he wrote it, Koltes was preoccupied with the idea that it should have no stars – the play was to be truly democratic. This notion offends Chereau, but appeals to Borczuch. Chereau plans to attend the opening night in Wroclaw, but fears what his reaction might be and warns his protégé to expect the worst.

Extreme reactions

Have the contrasts between them been greater than they imagined at the outset? “Probably yes,” admits Chéreau. “From what I have seen in Cracow, yes for sure. I wanted somebody totally different and I have it.” They both laugh. “That is the pleasure of it,” adds Borczuch. He describes a sensationalist play in Berlin he wants to see where the actors go among the audience and seek to provoke extreme reactions. Does that constitute theatre in Chéreau’s eyes? “Probably not,” he says. Even in the 1960s he had little interest in that decade’s “happenings”.

Borczuch says he has been overwhelmed by the precision with which the French master works. “With every passing year, the text for me is more and more important,” says Chéreau. “I am the slave of the text.” “What I saw during these five days,” Borczuch tells his mentor, “is that you tried to describe the situation on stage in a very realistic way in an attempt to create something metaphysical. That was a kind of lesson for me.”

“It has to be real,” explains Chéreau. “It has to be related to something in my life.”

In an interview earlier that day, Chéreau had said that he constantly asked himself why he made theatre. Later Borczuch said something similar. He was disillusioned working with bored ensemble actors in Polish state theatres and planned to do more in independent theatres, including a production in Poznań that combined professional actors and children from local orphanages. From their different starting points, they were both asking profound questions about the purpose of theatre. “I can only work if I have desire myself for a project, a story,” says Chéreau. “I created my own theatre more than 30 years ago. It was beautiful at first, but after eight years I said I should leave because it was becoming incredibly heavy. You are reproducing something you don’t want.”

Any observer would judge that Chéreau has enjoyed a brilliant career, yet he insists that building a career was never his objective. “I’ve never had any plans about a career,” he says. He moved from project to project and what happened, happened. Artists – especially successful artists – always say this, but in Chéreau’s case, one is inclined to believe it.

Borczuch exhibits a similar desire to put personal vision before public expectation. “It’s easy to make a career in theatre,” he says. “You need a good text, a good subject, and you have to push as much as possible, but I’m not doing this. I try to choose something that has some personal meaning for me, and I feel I lose by this in career terms. In Polish theatre, critics are waiting for material that is talking about important political and social questions.” He says some directors adopt a strategy to get the pundits onside, but he refuses to play that game. He will go on defiantly being his own man. For all their differences in their approaches to theatre, in that respect Borczuch and Chéreau are speaking from the same script.

Stephen Moss is a staff writer on London’s The Guardian newspaper, and has written widely about theatre, opera, film and literature.

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