Pole position - Magdalena Cielecka interview

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Magdalena Cielecka's face is all over the glossies in her home country, and Edinburgh audiences are about to find out why as she takes on three challenging roles this month, writes Mark Fisher

GOOD news from Warsaw: the global village is a wee bit bigger than previously thought. The scene is a fashionable restaurant built in the basement kitchen of a former hotel where the chefs themselves serve you directly at your table. Our group includes Grzegorz Jarzyna, artistic director of TR Warszawa, the city's trendiest theatre, and several of his colleagues. The food is good, the atmosphere cordial, but there would be no way of predicting what happens next.

We're in the middle of our meal, chatting happily away, when in strolls Simon Callow. The Four Weddings And A Funeral star says hello and joins us at our table. It turns out his partner Daniel Kramer is directing a production of Hamlet for the acclaimed Polish company and he's in town for the weekend. How dizzying to discover a leading light of the British stage (now appearing in A Festival Dickens at the Assembly Rooms) in a downtown Warsaw restaurant. And how refreshing to realise most of the Polish contingent haven't a clue who he is.

More refreshing still is that it's the same in reverse. Magdalena Cielecka, the star of Jarzyna's 4.48 Psychosis, means nothing in the UK, but in Poland she's like an amalgam of Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett. She's a glossy magazine cover star, a fixture in the gossip columns and, thanks to her on-off relationship with Andrzej Chyra, her co-star in TR Warszawa's second Edinburgh International Festival play, The Dybbuk, the source of considerable media speculation.

Catching up with her the following day, I am oblivious to all this, although her beauty and intelligence are unmistakable. Sitting in an upstairs room of Teatr Rozmaitosci, a former variety theatre that has become the place to be seen for the city's young arty set, she is looking radiant with her broad smile, high cheekbones and blue eyes. Hard to believe that only last night she was tearing herself apart in the lead role of Sarah Kane's devastating play about depression, breakdown and suicide.

"It was emotionally tough to rehearse this play because it touched me quite personally," says the 36-year-old who starred with Chyra in last year's Oscar-nominated wartime tragedy Katy?. "I had to distil it from my own experience. It really affected me."

For a harrowing 60 minutes, the actress goes from elation to despair as she suffers the terrible swings of emotion of a young woman with a bipolar illness. She rages at her doctors, makes love to another woman, seeks refuge in red wine and pills, swears at the audience and stands naked before us.

"Magdalena is quite fragile and at the same time she can be externally strong," says Jarzyna, who made a close study of Sarah Kane's own life before her suicide in 1999 to bring clarity to this open-ended final play. "She understands the character's problem."

It is a brilliant performance that captures the passion, lust and recklessness of a woman in the grip of mental illness. At the end, the audience is stunned into shocked silence. Nobody feels like clapping. "It was very important for me not to take a bow at the end," she says. "I didn't want to destroy the illusion."

Rehearsing such a punishing play back in 2002 was tough, but in performance Cielecka has developed ways of escaping the depressing subject matter.

"It was difficult because I had to immerse myself in the subject for a long period of time," she says. "I was searching for this state of mind and searching in myself for other memories and recollections. I didn't get depressed but I shut down and stopped communicating. Eventually, I found ways to protect myself which are invisible to the audience so that I am not hurt by the performance. I have done the part so many times it is as if I use a certain software to do it. I use some memories and associations and it just happens. I am exhausted at the end, but after the many performances I have done, I can handle it."

It's demanding stuff but Cielecka, who also plays two roles in The Dybbuk, a Jewish myth infused with memories of the Warsaw ghetto, sometimes feels that fate was compelling her to do it. "Sarah Kane committed suicide on my birthday," she says. "I think of that as a sign. Also, by chance we opened the show on Sarah Kane's birthday. I think she directs things from above!"

• The Dybbuk, Saturday until August 11; 4.48 Psychosis, August 15-17, both King's Theatre, Edinburgh

• www.eif.co.uk

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