Teatr ZAR’s Gospels of Childhood is a triptych of pieces which may well challenge some people’s ideas of what teatr is. The first piece Gospels of Childhood/The Overture, presented in St Giles’s Church across the pond from the Barbican’s non-Silk Street entrance, is a sung-through meditation on religious themes accompanied by dark, elliptical, visual theatre. The music is solemn Catholic or Orthodox polyphonic chant. It sounds unmistakably devotional. It is beautiful and serious; monastic; conjuring, inside the plain Protestant interior of St Giles’s, a medieval middle-Europe. There is a starkness about it, accentuated by the almost Middle-Eastern harsh edge to the women’s voices. It’s music that sounds ineffable and ancient, and yet within it you can hear the shifting of tribes, borders and empires across the mainland. Trade routes and religions cutting swathes through cultures. The combination of this music, Polish Catholicism, and the rough wooden stage on which sinewy figures contort in candlelight, or shovel earth in the darkness, is heady and powerful in the extreme. [It also serves as a perfect counterpoint to the appalling picture painted of Polish Catholicism in the National’s Our Class, the night before. Where the former pinpoints modern disgust with the crimes engendered and committed in the name of this faith, Gospels... reminds us why a rational subject might seek a sense of The Divine and how beautiful it can be.]
The second part Caesarean Section/Essays on Suicide, which takes the audience into the Barbican’s Pit Theatre, is enormously different. While the natural elements of the first piece were candlelight, wood, earth and the stone of the church walls, here they are wine, broken glass and cold electric light. Played in traverse, on another rough wooden stage, Essays... opens with the performers mostly dotted about the edge of the stage with string instruments, while another member of the ensemble sits at a piano. The lights go out and there is the amplified sound of smashing glass. You hope that it’s just pre-recorded, but it’s somehow too close and too recognisably real.
The stage is divided down the centre by a thin, shallow, underlit trough filled with broken glass. There is broken glass on the stage. A performer takes off her shoes, puts them on her hands and dances, violently. This is much more fully realised dancing than the movement of the first part. It is also intensely, jarringly difficult to watch. The dance itself is hard enough, underscored by pained strings and wailing voice, the body spasms and rips at itself. All the while, exposed skin flirts with shards of glass.
Essays...’s 50-minute length is divided into 18 fairly recognisable episodes. Most use similar strategies of discomfort. Broken glass remains a constant. The trough recurs as a feature in several sequences. Performers hold wine glasses in their teeth or hands while attempting feats that could easily see them fall and lacerate themselves. And self-laceration is the point; not literal, but spiritual or figurative. It’d be easy to categorise the piece more as contemporary dance or “dance theatre”, but as was pointed out to me afterwards, much of it is pure Grotowski – anguished, over-exaggerated facial contortion and emphatic physical movement.
For a largely abstracted form, by God does it communicate. I was assiduously not looking at the programme or the printed synopses sheet until afterwards to see what I got from the piece without being told what to think beyond the suggestive title. When I read it, it was one of those pleasing moments when you think: “Yup, that’s what I got, too”.
It’s not like it’s particularly oblique. In one section, one of the female performers strains toward a spotlight on the ceiling. Trying to reach out to it, to hold onto it. She uses a chair, and latterly one of the male performers – and all the while there’s that ever present danger; if she succeeds even on standing on his shoulders and reaching out as far as she can, there’s nothing within her reach to hold onto. She’ll simply fall a long way. Face first. The piece keeps up the dialogue with the divine, but here it is more like screaming at the unreachable, unanswering dead God of existentialism, rather than the living, breathing Christ of the Gospels.
The third section, for which I did happen to read the blurb beforehand, turned out to be the least affecting of the three. Although, after the nerve-jangling that Essays... had given me, I was pleased to be returned to the nave of St Giles and a tranquil looking stage overhung with a large canvas sail. Under soft-focussed lights, this gently rose and fell, like the opening of several minimalist productions of The Tempest. Aptly enough as the first episode in Anhelli/The Calling is named The Storm, and starts with an excerpt from Eliot’s Ash Wednesday (in Polish) to open a seafaring-based narrative that pays tribute to the Polish Romantic poet Juliusz Słowacki’s voyage from Naples to the Holy Land.
Reading the rest of the themes Teatr ZAR wanted to explore in this final piece afterwards (as I write this, in fact), it is remarkable how clearly they seemed to come across through the mixture of song/hymn and physical movement. The final piece is a synthesis of the heavy physical exertion of Essays... and the more reflective atmosphere of The Overture....
Gospels of Childhood is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen made by a British company. The best way of describing the whole is more as a choral concert illustrated by stage pictures, but this doesn’t capture the extent to which the songs had a dramaturgy, or how central the action was to the pieces. It was by turns, beautiful, fascinating, reflective, visceral, intensely sad and deeply moving. Here’s hoping for more of this company over here soon.
Photo - Ditte Berkeley, Kamila Klamut in Essays... Photographer: Lukasz Giza________________________________________
The below gives the vaguest impression of the sort of music I’m talking about, but this is the soft-focus, airbrushed version of what, live, sounded a whole lot more raw and intense.