By Mark Brown[1]

Mark_Brown

La compagnie théâtrale polonaise Teatr Pieśń Kozła (Théâtre du chant de la chèvre) est située à Wroclaw, la ville de Grotowski, et trouve son origine dans son œuvre et dans celle de la compagnie Gardzienice, dirigée par l’élève de Grotowski Włodimierz Stanieswski ; les fondateurs de TPK, Anna Zubrzycka et Grzegorz Bral, ont tous deux été membres de Gardzienice.

Comme l’œuvre de Grotowski, la compagnie Teatr Pieśń Kozła poursuit, au plus haut niveau esthétique, une « quête spirituelle » face aux puissants pouvoirs politique, social et culturel, qui sont foncièrement hostiles aux principes du théâtre tragique.

The greatest theatre (that is tragic theatre) is in pursuit of the unachievable. That is to say, it strives to express in live performance the spiritual essence of humanity. That is why tragedy survives all political and theological cataclysms, and all revolutions in cultural fashion. The “success” of tragic theatre can be measured only in the depth and profundity of the emotional, psychological and erotic experience which the work evokes as it fails in its attempts to express humanity’s essence. The greatest “failures” move us to a kind of ecstasy, they achieve effects which are, in the broadest and most profound sense, spiritual.

Peter Brook observed this spiritual dimension through his experience of the work of the great Polish dramatist Jerzy Grotowski:

Right from the first moment when one begins to explore the possibilities of man, whether one likes it or not, whether one is afraid of what this represents or not, one must face up squarely to the fact that this search is a spiritual search; I begin with an explosive word, which is very simple, but which creates misunderstandings. I mean “spiritual” in the sense that, as one goes towards the interiority of man, one passes from the known to the unknown, and that as the work of Grotowski’s successive groups has gradually become more essential, thanks to his personal evolution, the inner points that have been touched have become more and more unseizable, further and further from any normal definition. It may thus be said that in another epoch, this work would have been like the natural evolution of a great spiritual tradition.[2]

Brook’s identification of the “spiritual” in the work of Grotowski – and, by logical extension, his successors – is both profound and subversive. It is profound in the sense that it identifies in Grotowskian theatre an attempt to achieve the unachievable; namely, an expression of the essence of human experience (what Brook calls “the interiority of man”). Theatre artists have, since the days of antiquity, attempted to express that essence in tragedy, through a profound and fearless exploration of the seminal and unbreakable connection between sexual desire and death.

Brook’s observation is subversive because it reasserts the spiritual, sexual desire and death in the context of a late capitalism which attempts to expunge those elements from the human imagination. Late capitalism assaults the spiritual through a culture of instant gratification and hyper commercialism. That culture contains within it a negation of sexual desire, which it attempts to replace with a pornographic fixation upon a sexual pleasure which is merely mechanical (rather than spiritual) and the degradation of the human body. It also contains a negation, a refusal of death, through the faux optimism of a commercial culture which is sustained by the myth of “I’m gonna live forever”.[3]

In 2009, 10 years after Grotowski’s death, the “spiritual search” identified by Brook continues to be pursued by the remarkable theatre company Teatr Pieśń Kozła (Song of the Goat Theatre).[4] Based in Grotowski’s home city of Wrocław, Poland, Teatr Pieśń Kozła (TPK) has its origins in the work of Grotowski and in the Gardzienice company of Grotowski’s student Włodimierz Stanieswski;[5] TPK founders Anna Zubrzycka and Grzegorz Bral were both members of Gardzienice. Although credited widely with developing its own distinct aesthetic, TPK shares a number of key aesthetic predilections with Grotowski and Gardzienice.

In particular, TPK shares with Grotowski an insistence upon a highly concentrated and precise form of performance. Company director Bral explains that TPK’s method is to ferment their productions slowly, until they find something which is “not banal”.[6] As a consequence, although the company has existed for over a decade, it has only created four complete productions: Song of the Goat (after The Bacchae by Euripides), Chronicles: A Lamentation, Lacrimosa and Macbeth (in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company).

The company has a deep interest in ancient myth, surviving ancient cultures and the power of ritual; TPK runs the annual ‘Brave’ festival of endangered and surviving cultures in Wrocław.

Biel 4968: Macbeth, Teatr Pieśń Kozła, 2009 © Krzysztof Bielinski
Biel 4968: Macbeth, Teatr Pieśń Kozła, 2009 © Krzysztof Bielinski
Biel 5068: Macbeth, Teatr Pieśń Kozła, 2009 © Krzysztof Bielinski
Biel 5068: Macbeth, Teatr Pieśń Kozła, 2009 © Krzysztof Bielinski

As in the work of Grotowski and Gardzienice, there is, in the performances of TPK, a focus upon the possibilities of song, movement and image in theatre. There is a preference for the notion of ‘performer’, rather than ‘actor’.

The focus is upon a highly specific physical and vocal aesthetic and upon intense research, which a) means that no performer can simply join the company, they have to be trained in TPK’s techniques; and b) leads to a wider pedagogical programme; TPK runs an MA in Acting Techniques in association with Manchester Metropolitan University. The international nature of the company is partly a consequence of this programme.

Based in a 14th century monastery in Wrocław, in which they have their theatre, the company’s work sits on the cusp between ancient ritual and theatrical modernism; as can be seen if we consider the latter three of their productions.

Chronicles: A Lamentation is inspired by the 5,000 year old story of half-god, half-man Gilgamesh (the world’s oldest recorded folk story). The piece required two years of research into the traditional Balkan music of lamentation; particularly in the Epiros region of Greece and Albania. It culminated in a production which lasts less than one hour, in which the performers sing a polyphonic song continuously throughout the performance. The ultimate focus is upon the tragedy of Gilgamesh’s attempt to negate death (which long precedes Faust).

Lacrimosa is set in late 15th century, plague-infested Arras, France. Musically, it draws upon the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem. The performance is also less than an hour long, and combines movement, song and spoken texts. The physical aesthetic of the piece was partly inspired by the company’s study of the ancient Greek fire-walking cult of Anastenaria.

The ultimate subject of Lacrimosa is the tragedy of Man’s attempt, in conditions of crisis, to assume the powers of God, including the power of life and death over other human beings. In the case of 15thcentury Arras this tragedy found a particularly anti-Semitic outlet. The relevance of this to modern Poland is powerful and difficult.

BS mh 04: Macbeth, Teatr Pieśń Kozła, 2009 © Bartosz Sowa
BS mh 04: Macbeth, Teatr Pieśń Kozła, 2009 © Bartosz Sowa

In Macbeth we find, despite the truncated nature of the production, a much greater reliance on spoken text than in previous TPK works. The piece is not Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but, in shaping their own meditations upon the play into a specific Pieśń Kozła performance, the company has vocalised much of Shakespeare’s text.

The integration of Shakespeare’s language into TPK’s very particular, highly stylised physical and visual aesthetic is a fascinating Grotowskian experiment. Created initially as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Complete Works’ programme (initiated by the RSC’s then new artistic director Michael Boyd), the presentation is (as Boyd no doubt intended) very far from the tradition of British Shakespearean performance.

What we find in all three of these productions is that the body plays an equally important role with the voice in TPK’s tragic aesthetic. Great professionalism and precision is required to create such elegiac movement. The combination of live flame, darkness, subtle lighting and shadow, with the physical movement gives the performance a Caravagesque visual appearance.

The conscious, carefully constructed sensuousness of the performance combines with subject matter which focuses always on the sensuousness of death. Not all death is tragic – any fool can die, and, indeed, does – but TPK focus exclusively on tragic death. Howard Barker argues that human crisis and pain can be beautiful.[7] TPK place the human body at the core of tragic beauty.

There are those, not least in the British theatre tradition (which is, as Barker comments, obsessed with the “utility of works of art” and a requirement that art works serve a “liberal humanist” purpose)[8] who consider work such as TPK’s to be exemplary of what they deride as “art for art’s sake”; the implication is that there is no political or social weight attached to such work.

BS mh 24: Macbeth, Teatr Pieśń Kozła, 2009 © Bartosz Sowa
BS mh 24: Macbeth, Teatr Pieśń Kozła, 2009 © Bartosz Sowa

However, as Bral explains, not only does a spiritual theatre carry profound political and social implications (it is, as I have argued above, intrinsically subversive), but the theatre of TPK and other eastern European practitioners is rooted in a response to Stalinist repression, and continues to respond subversively to the demands of late capitalism:

The period of the 1970s and 1980s, during the communist time, was the golden age of Polish theatre. 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.

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.[9]

Like the work of Grotowski, Teatr Pieśń Kozła’s theatre pursues, at the highest aesthetic level, a “spiritual search” in the face of powerful political, social and cultural forces which are fundamentally hostile to the principles of tragic theatre. For that, world theatre owes this exceptional Polish company a profound debt of gratitude.


Mark_Brown

[1] Mark Brown is theatre critic of the Scottish national newspaper the Sunday Herald. He teaches in theatre studies at the University of Strathclyde and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. He is a member of the executive committee of the International Association of Theatre Critics.
[2] Peter Brook, With Grotowski: Theatre is Just a Form, (Wrocław: The Grotowski Institute, 2009), p.34.
[3] Lyric from ‘I’m Gonna Live Forever’, from the screen musical Fame (director Alan Parker, 1980).
[4] Tadeusz Kornaś, Between Anthropology and Politics: Two Strands of Polish Alternative Theatre(Warsaw: The Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre institute, 2007), pp. 23-25.
[5] Ibid, pp.14-19.
[6] From an interview I conducted with Bral in Wrocław in July 2007.
[7] From the symposium ‘The Theatre of Howard Barker’, Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Glasgow, May 24, 2008.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Quoted in Mark Brown, ‘Poetry in Motion’, New Statesman (London: August 2, 2007).

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Grotowski in the 21st century: Teatr Pieśń Kozła (Song of the Goat Theatre), Wrocław, Poland