Poetry in motion:
The highlight of this year’s Edinburgh Festival will be Poland’s Song of the Goat Theatre:
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe can seem like a merry-go-round of disposable culture, dominated by controversialising stand-up comedians and penis puppeteers. However, every year at the festival, there is one show of such theatrical skill and emotional resonance that audiences feel compelled to give the sword swallowers a miss and buy a ticket.
In 2004, that show was Chronicles: a Lamentation, by the avant-garde Polish company Teatr Piesn Kozla, or “Song of the Goat Theatre”. This year, the group’s most recent show, Lacrimosa, is sure to attract similar accolades and audiences when it takes its place in the critically acclaimed visual theatre programme for Aurora Nova.
Song of the Goat was established in 1997 by Grzegorz Bral, a director, and the performer Anna Zubrzycki. The company is based in the south-western Polish city of Wroclaw, which was, until the postwar Potsdam Agreement of 1945, the German Breslau. Wroclaw is now rec ognised as the cultural centre of Poland, but much of its architecture is still distinctively Germanic. To walk around the cobbled streets of the city’s Island of Churches is to feel as if one has stepped into a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm.
There is also something timeless about the company’s theatre space, which resides within a wonderfully preserved 14th-century monastery building that sits somewhat incongruously by the major thoroughfare of Katarzyny Street. It seems somehow fitting that Song of the Goat’s modernist yet defiantly spiritual work should be created in an old religious haven in the midst of the traffic and bars of a thriving city.
Inspired by the great 20th-century Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, the company has produced just three complete shows in its ten-year existence. Bral explains that, in the manner of Grotowski, the members’ method is to ferment their productions slowly, until they find something which is “not banal”. That is a modest description of Song of the Goat’s artistic method. It has developed a unique process, relying upon lengthy research of the subject matter and the origins of particular forms of music and movement. This culminates in a short, intense and deeply memorable performance (Lacrimosa lasts less than an hour).
The starting point for the show is the harrowing story of one of a succession of plagues that ripped through the French city of Arras in the 15th century. The company researched this topic, and also studied the music of the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem. The third of the production’s disparate elements is the physical movement of practitioners of the ancient Greek fire-walking cult of Anastenaria. All three influences are connected, says Bral, by the idea of the human mind being “possessed”.
I saw the show at the Song of the Goat theatre, in the splendid auditorium with its arched ceilings, built in what was once the nuns’ refectory. It was truly unforgettable. Seven performers, dressed in modest gowns, played on a bare set under shimmering light. Their bodies were brilliantly synchronised in intense, deeply concentrated movements. Their voices, which at times burst into polyphonic song, combined in harmony or clashed in discord according to the demands of the performance. The reference to the Arras plague is largely metaphorical and poetic, although an outburst of sickening, vengeful anti-Semitism among the Catholics of the French city pierces the show’s anguished beauty. In defiance of the subject matter, the production is terrifying yet moving and ultimately exquisite.
“It is a non-literal, poetic theatre,” says Anna Zubrzycki. She explains that the company’s work always returns to the Grotowskian idea of a performance that grows, almost organically, from the company’s process of working: “The performance is immersed in the training, and vice versa. Every performance is different, because part of our method is to improvise elements of the production. It’s like playing jazz. Actually, it is jazz; it is improvised, but not chaotic. It is a way in which I, as a performer, can funnel all of my sensations, emotions and understandings at a given moment, but I know that I will never lose control.”
Song of the Goat is a leading company within a discernible group of eastern European troupes specialising in symbolic theatre. Others include Akhe, DOTheatre and Derevo from Russia, the Czech Republic’s Farm in the Cave studio and Fabrik, from Potsdam in eastern Germany. Bral explains that the roots of this trend lie in the Stalinist period. Forced to find ways of getting round the censor, artists became masters of metaphor. Indeed, there are striking parallels between the theatre that developed in eastern Europe under Stalin and the metaphor-laden cinema coming out of Iran today.
“The period of the 1970s and 1980s, during the communist time, was the golden age of Polish theatre,” says the director. “Because of the political repression, theatre could never be explicit. Everything had to be hidden. We continue to produce that kind of theatre. If you are intelligent or sensitive enough, you know what we are talking about. Theatre nowadays is often explicit, because it thinks it can change something. I don’t think theatre can change anything. Its power lies in symbolism. That is what interests me.”
Today, the need for metaphor in Polish theatre has nothing to do with censorship. Instead, Bral feels he is defending theatrical poetry from a new danger: “The very cheap American culture coming to Poland now – the cheap movies, cheap literature, cheap commercials, and so on – is a huge threat to metaphor, subtlety and symbolism. In some ways the enemy is still there. It’s just changed its face.”
This article was originally published in the New Statesman on 2 August 2007
© Mark Brown