The Water Hen: Kantor, Demarco and the Edinburgh Festival RSA

Publication: The Times.   
July 2015

Visual Art: Giles Sutherland

THE WATER HEN: Kantor, Demarco and the Edinburgh Festival


Until 5 September


In spring 1969, the gallery director, Richard Demarco, met the theatre director Tadeusz Kantor at his home in Kraków. Demarco was fascinated by the work of this most radical avant-gardist, a Polish Jew, who had run an underground theatre directly under the noses of the German occupiers during WWII. Demarco was determined to show Kantor’s work at the Edinburgh Festival.

Kantor and his group of actors Cricot 2, began a run of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s play Kurka Wodna (The Water Hen) in 1972. The venue was a disused plumber’s workshop, known as The Poorhouse in Edinburgh’s Forrest Hill.  Kantor’s interpretation of Witkiewicz’s text was what might be termed a ‘loose adaptation’. Witkiewicz described the play as a ‘spherical tragedy’ suggesting that humanity is somehow doomed to keep repeating its mistakes. The characters themselves express doubts about the effect they themselves can have upon their own lives.

The play challenges theatrical conventions, such as a chronological, linear narrative. Kantor’s interpretation introduced major dramaturgical innovation, breaching convention and rupturing long-held notions around the definition of what constitutes theatre. Kantor derided the idea that life and art were divided, and the corollary, that the audience, and the director, should be separated from the drama. 

The performances of The Waterhen were a layered, sometimes deliberately cacophonous, mixture of spoken word and movement, where different parts of the action were performed simultaneously. Kantor did away with a conventional stage (another barrier) and brought the action into the midst of the audience. At times, the audience is urged to move freely though the actors and their numerous props.

Over the years Demarco built up remarkable archive, part of which was sold to the National Galleries of Scotland and it was here that researchers from the University of Dundee discovered a hitherto forgotten film of the premier of The Waterhen, on 20 August 1972.  Fully aware of the historic importance of Kantor’s achievements, Demarco had the prescience to commission a professional film of the performance. The film is being shown publicly for the first time in 40 years, in the centenary of Kantor’s birth.

Despite the fact that it is filmed from a fixed point and parts of the action are not visible, the film gives a remarkably clear impression of the performance. It captures the chaotic, frenetic energy of the players, many of whom were not professional actors, but rather artists and others. They included the well-known Radicki twins, Kantor’s wife Maria Stangret-Kantor, and the director of the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw, Wiesław Borowski.

The audience, captured with the same professional attention as the rest of the film, shows such luminaries as Hamish Henderson, Cordelia Oliver and, possibly, the theatre critic Michael Billington.

The screening is accompanied by a series of films of short performance works by six artists from Scotland and Poland, which pay homage to Kantor and his legacy.  Zuzanna Janin’s Seven Fathers is a tribute to Kantor’s play Wielopole Wielopole. Here Janin whispers passionate letters, written in pencil, to various paternal figures in her life.  Karolina Kubik’s performance, ‘Magdalene, are you satisfied with the experiment?’

involved circumscribing the streets and alleyways of Edinburgh with chalk, which she held in her mouth, painstakingly, over several hours. Kubik suggests that her work is about a concept of free Europe, and that her performance was a symbolic act confirming this.

The Waterhen film is one of only a few extant recordings of a full Kantor/Cricot 2 performance. It records a major event, underlining Demarco’s remarkable foresight and the importance of his vast, under-researched archive.


Kantor as dramaturgical iconoclast