The latest Edinburgh Fringe show by acclaimed Polish theatre company Song of the Goat is inspired by Scotland’s musical traditions, writes Mark Brown
The great Indian cultural theorist Homi Bhabha writes of “hybridity”, a cultural phenomenon in which artists bring together aesthetic influences from different times and different places to create new art forms. It is an idea which could almost have been created to describe Polish theatre company Song of the Goat.
The company hails from the western Polish city of Wrocław, where the famous theatre maker, and the Goats’ great inspiration, Jerzy Grotowski had his artistic “laboratory”. Like Grotowski, the Goats’ work is the product of intensive research and preparation.
So, when Rupert Thomson, artistic director of Edinburgh’s Summerhall venue, and Robert McDowell, the venue’s founder, proposed to Grzegorz Bral, director of Song of the Goat, that he consider making a work based upon Scotland’s ancient musical traditions, the Polish artist was, initially, reluctant. Although he had heard a lot of Scottish traditional music, Bral didn’t consider himself knowledgeable enough to pursue the project.
Chronicles – A Lamentation, the piece with which the company made their Edinburgh Fringe debut in 2004, is typical of Bral’s method. The Goats steeped themselves in the southern European music of lamentation. The result was a deeply emotionally resonating, beautifully sensuous production driven by the company’s extraordinary, original polyphonic song.
After some reflection, Bral decided to reconsider the Scottish project. “I have such a love and respect for Scotland, I decided that we should allow ourselves to be inspired by the Scottish tradition.”
For Bral, being inspired meant four “expeditions”. Two to the Isle of Skye, one to the islands of Harris and Lewis, and a fourth to the archives of the Edinburgh Music Library. These trips included working with the musicologist John Purser, who became, in Bral’s words, the Goats’ “ethnomusicology guru”.
Bral eventually selected 15 songs which the Goats would “take as an inspiration, a starting point for our own compositions and improvisations” in creating their latest work, Return to the Voice. This new piece will be performed in the appropriately sacred venue of St Giles Cathedral.
The work, which will, Bral says, be more like a concert than a theatre performance, is a hybrid of Scottish, mainly Gaelic, traditional musical forms (and, in one instance, Burns’s poem A Bard’s Epitaph) with Song of the Goat’s very particular style of theatre and polyphonic song.
What it is not, Bral emphasises, is an attempt to recreate Scotland’s ancient music. “Please express my apologies” he urges, “to anybody who may feel offended, because the music is not exactly like it should be.
“This is not my role. I am just a theatre director inspired by the profound experience of the Gaelic music.”
As theatregoers who have experienced Song of the Goat’s work at Edinburgh Festivals past will confirm, Bral’s apology is almost certain to be unnecessary. A very beautiful and deeply moving work of musical theatre seems to be in prospect.
Return to the Voice plays St Giles Cathedral, as part of the Summerhall Fringe programme, various dates between August 6 and 21. For further details, visit: festival14.summerhall.co.uk
This feature was originally published in The List magazine on July 31, 2014
© Mark Brown