The Pleasure of New Challenges: An Interview With Andrzej Chyra
The acclaimed Polish actor talks about collaborating with Warlikowski and Skolimowski, and the pleasure of playing Hippolytus opposite Isabelle Huppert in Phaedra(s).
Andrzej Chyra greets me warmly in his dressing room at London’s Barbican Centre. In under a couple of hours, the actor will be taking to the stage in two roles: firstly, as Hippolytus in Sarah Kane’s Phaedra(s) Love, and later, as an academic interlocutor in the J.M. Coetzee-derived Elizabeth Costello. Along with the opening Wajdi Mouawad-authored section (in which Chyra doesn’t appear), these pieces constitute the three hour, 40 minutes triptych that is Phaedra(s), the latest multi-text theatrical extravaganza by Polish auteur Krzysztof Warlikowski, starring Isabelle Huppert in the lead role(s).
Hippolytus, in particular, is a challenging, exposing role for Chyra, but there are no signs of pre-performance nerves on display from the actor, who appears both relaxed and animated as we talk. Chyra thinks hard over his answers, which then tend to come in a rush of ideas and impressions. In short, he’s great company, and the 20 minutes allotted for the interview flies by all too quickly.
Chyra is one of the most recognisable and respected of Polish actors, known equally for his work in theatre as in cinema, where his key roles include his breakthrough, award-winning role as the blackmailer Gerard in Krzysztof Krause’s Debt (Dług) (1999); the tormented survivor in Andrzej Wajda’s Katyń (2007); and the priest, Father Adam, struggling with his sexuality in Małgorzata Szumowska’s In the Name of… (W imię...) (2012). Most recently, Chyra has appeared as the ex-con hotdog vendor in Jerzy Skolimowski’s stunning city symphony 11 Minutes (2015) and will be seen later this year in Tomasz Wasilewski’s highly anticipated United States of Love, which won the Best Screenplay award at the 2016 Berlinale.
A constant in Chyra’s career has been his collaborations with Warlikowski, the Artistic Director of Warsaw’s Nowy Teatr. Chrya’s roles for Warlikowski have ranged from Dionysus in Bacchae to Hanan in The Dybbuk to Roy Cohn in Angels in America. Premiered at Paris’s Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe, and now at the Barbican for nine performances, Phaedra(s) is the pair’s latest venture together.
I ask Chyra how he and Warlikowski first met, and what he finds particularly rewarding about working with the director. “After I graduated it took a while to get interesting work and I ended up directing TV quiz shows and things like that,” Chyra recalls. “But then Debt happened and things changed.
"I don’t know if Krzysztof had seen the film, but he heard about me and we met. I don’t think I’d seen any of his productions at that point, either. So we didn’t really know each other’s work so well, but there was a great connection between us, and it felt immediately like we were on the same wavelength. I felt energised again, inspired to act. Since then, it’s not like we’re working together on every production he does, but we always look forward to collaborating.”
Warlikowski’s productions are noted for their distinctive, highly stylised approach. Does the director allow much space for the actors? “Yes, he does,” Chyra affirms. “In fact, Krzysztof’s approach is very collaborative. He works closely with [designer] Małgorzata Szczęśniak and, in the last few productions, with a dramaturge, on the concepts. But as actors, we never feel that we’re simply there to slot into a pre-conceived design. He doesn’t treat his performers as puppets. Rather, he's always open to our input and our ideas. He also has a great sense of humour, which is necessary, working on texts that can be quite intense. He’s a very brave director.”
“Brave” is the adjective that Chyra uses to describe Huppert, too. The pair first worked together on Warlikowski’s A Streetcar in 2010 and Chyra’s deep admiration for the actress is clear. “She’s one of the greatest actresses. She has such intelligence, takes so many risks. Sharing the stage with her, those moments when I look into her eyes, or see her hands … there is a strong connection. It always feels fresh. We don’t get tired of each other. At least, I hope that she feels the same way!”
Touring the productions internationally is also something that he enjoys. “Again, it keeps things fresh. We’re in Europe so things are not so very different [a poignant comment, given Huppert’s unexpected reference to the EU referendum at the Phaedra(s) Press Night] but there are always little distinctions, country by country. That helps you to stay present as an actor.”
It soon becomes apparent that Chyra is an artist who seeks out novelty, challenge, the excitement of “keeping things fresh”. He mentions that he recently directed two operas, Shostakovich’s The Gamblers and Paweł Mykietyn’s The Magic Mountain, experiences which he found rewarding. He tells me that part of the attraction of working on A Streetcar was learning French for the part: “that was a great challenge.”
Chyra recalls that Phaedra(s) is not his first time performing in London theatre: he appeared here in Festen 14 years ago. He confesses, though, that he and the company had some apprehensions and “doubts” about performing Sarah Kane’s play in the UK. In fact, despite some negative reviews (a couple of which have offensively implied that a French /Polish production can’t hope to share British sensibilities about humour or its sensitivities about racial or gender politics), Chyra contends that the response to Phaedra(s) in London has been more positive than in France, and that the connection with the audience here is stronger.
“We had some great audiences in Paris, but, you know, in France, 'Phaedra' means Phèdre, it means Racine. So you have some people walking out at the interval, because this production is not what they anticipate. Different countries, different contexts, generate different expectations. "Performing here, in London, it feels … lighter in some way. Serious, yes, but not so heavy. It is a total pleasure to do the play here.”
He looks forward to continuing to tour the production, including to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in September. Why is the show not being presented in Poland, I ask. “Well, it got complicated with financing,” Chyra tells me. “And the political situation doesn’t help.”
Our conversation turns briefly to film and to his recent experience of working with Skolimowski. “What a guy, what a guy!” Chyra says admiringly. “He is very special. In fact, straight after we finish Phaedra(s) in London, I go with Skolimowski for a few days to Slovakia to present 11 Minutes [at Art Film Fest] . He wanted me to go to the premiere in Venice and the screening at Gdynia but I was busy on all those occasions. So I will finally get a chance to support the film at a festival.”
Does he have a preference for theatre over film? “No, no,” Chyra says emphatically. “It depends entirely upon the material and on your collaborators. After I’ve done a play, I often feel an urge to make a film, and then vice versa. Making movies, then a production every few years, a directing project… this feels like the right kind of rhythm.” He pauses.“Though I’m over 50 now so perhaps it’s time to rest.” His laughter as he says these words suggests, in fact, that there’s little danger of that.
Phaedra(s) is at the Barbican until 18 June.