Alchemy of Theatre

16 February 2023

At a time when theatre is largely driven by the spoken word, Materia Prima opens up an infinite world of the imagination where anything is possible!

Justyna Skalska
Kraków Culture

After the break forced by the pandemic, the International Festival of Form Theatre Materia Prima – a unique event on the national and international scale – makes a welcome return to Kraków. Performances will be staged at five locations: Ice Kraków, Kraków Opera, Ludowy Theatre, Nowa Huta Cultural Centre and the Groteska Theatre – organiser of the festival.

“During the 6th edition, we will present seven of the finest plays written in Europe in recent years. Most of them will be Polish premieres. We welcome guests from France, the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Three of the ensembles had been enthusiastically received in the past,” says Wojciech Graniczewski, member of the programme board of Materia Prima.

“Materia Prima is a theatre of the senses. It’s extremely attractive, since it’s addressed to a wide range of audiences. We welcome guests who are totally unprepared and unfamiliar with theatre. I promise they’ll be captivated and all their attention will turn to the stage,” adds Adolf Weltschek, founder and director of the festival.

Another dimension

What makes the festival unique? Critics have been saying for many years that the Polish scene is dominated by deeply engaged theatre rooted in words. Meanwhile, the event organised by the Groteska Theatre stresses the beauty of the form: the aesthetic aspect of performances and non-verbal forms of expression such as light, imagery, movement, sound, props and puppets. This genre is broadly described as theatre of form. In the 20th century, individual styles were developed in Poland by Tadeusz Kantor, Józef Szajna and Jerzy Grotowski. It may seem strange to think of these great directors as puppeteers, yet the Goplana made of tin, wood and fabric in Kantor’s Balladyna, the animated corpses in Szajna’s Replica and the stovepipe serving as the bride in Grotowski’s Acropolis are perfect examples of how theatre intertwines the living with that which only comes to life on stage. And that’s the magic of theatre we will admire at the Materia Prima festival.

Each edition of the event is an opportunity to ponder questions such as what is theatre of form, and what is form in theatre. The term “materia prima” is understood differently by alchemists, philosophers and psychologists, and differently again by people of theatre. On stage, we experience three kinds of matter: living (people), inanimate (props, costumes, stage sets) and animated (e.g. puppets). Contemporary theatre of form is active in creatively developing this matter, giving it new, sometimes surprising forms (!).

Great spectacles

This edition of the Materia Prima festival was preceded by a promotional campaign which brought a copy of the Adam Mickiewicz statue to different locations in Kraków, including… the Main Market Square. The campaign was inspired by the 200th anniversary of the publication of his Ballads and Romances, as well as the fact that the Polish bard was a great supporter of Cirque-Olympique performances, popular in 19th-century Paris. The theatre combined an Italian scene with an arena, making it possible to stage pantomime dramas as well as circus performances. Their main attraction were spectacular illusionary effects, favoured by theatre of Romanticism, such as simulated earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and sea storms.

“Adam Mickiewicz saw the Cirque-Olympique construction as the perfect space for staging Romantic dramas. He believed that the production capabilities were ideal for casting a fresh light on his work. Today, many years later, artists taking part in the Cracovian festival recall this sensual form of theatre,” say the organisers.

Dance of the imagination

In February, Kraków welcomes legendary ensembles and troupes from all over Europe, presenting spectacles abounding with imagination, masterly acting, precise stage settings and directions and grand metaphors and symbolism open to myriad interpretations.

“We’ve brought the finest ensembles and spectacles to Kraków. You can see these troupes at acclaimed festivals such as Edinburgh, Avignon, New York and London,” says Graniczewski.

They include the dance group Wanted Posse, bringing their latest spectacle Dance N' Speak Easy – an unpredictable cocktail of hip-hop dance, singing and burlesque, all steeped in the feverish atmosphere of New York of the prohibition. Light house dance flirts with wild Charleston, and spectacular breakdance arrangement with swinging Lindy hop.

And there’s more hip-hop to come! The choreographer Mourad Merzouki reaches for equipment designed by Compagnie Retouramont, specialising in vertical dance, to play with gravity. His lates production Vertikal, prepared with Compagnie Käfig, confronts hip-hop dance – heavily relying on a solid surface – with aerobatics. Dancers soar in the air, leap, jump and fly bringing weightlessness and poetry to hip-hop. By disrupting our reference points, Merzouki breaks genre boundaries.

Another ensemble to break genre boundaries is Kreatur. Choreographed by Sasha Waltz, the spectacle features extravagant costumes designed by Iris van Herpen – Dutch fashion designer known for her innovative projects intertwining traditional crafts with digital technologies.

The final stop will be Jungle Book Reimagined by the Akram Khan Company – their take on Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale follows the journey of Mowgli through the eyes of a refugee caught in a world devastated by the impact of climate change.

Pure magic

Materia Prima wouldn’t be the same without artists from Jakop Ahlbom Company from the Netherlands, this time presenting their spectacle Vielfalt. The audience will once again be captivated by their magic tricks and pure slapstick, straight from a surrealist film. We step into the world of imagination of a magician where all boundaries between reality and illusion are blurred.

The Sofie Krog Teater from Denmark presents a technically complex puppet performance. The House tells the story of the Warehouse Family Funeral Home. On her deathbed the undertaker changes her last will and testament, a secret begins to unravel and an evil plan is formed. This complex puppet performance takes place in a revolving set featuring intricate lighting, strange contraptions and scary sound effects; the perfect setting for this comically chilling journey.

The crème de la crème of the festival will be the breathtaking spectacle Nuda (Italian for “nude”), brought to Kraków by Daniele Finzi Pasca. Five extraordinary artists create a show in which theatrical power is combined with a poetic narrative with a dreamlike flavour, in absolute harmony with physical theatre and aerial dance. 

During the final days of the festival, the Groteska Theatre hosts the British ensemble Thick & Tight with their spectacle A Night with Thick & Tight. The performers bring to life cult personalities such as Andy Warhol, Sid Vicious, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana. Each character is created by forms reaching for elements of panto, distinctive movements and dance with elements of drag and acting combined with lip synching. The leaders of the ensemble are Eleanor Perry and Daniel Hay-Gordon, graduates from the acclaimed Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance, making their first appearance in Poland.


“A man who has no imagination has no wings,” according to Muhammad Ali. Even if that were true, the Materia Prima Festival will give wings to all and sundry who want to explore the alchemy of theatre and experience its most beautiful forms!

6th International Festival of Form Theatre Materia Prima
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