Theatre for Sounds and Souls; or, The Polish Song of the Goat and Its Quest into the Impossible

Kalina Stefanova*

This text is an attempt to delve into the idiosyncratic theatre world of the Polish Song of the Goat Theatre. By focusing on their productions inspired by Shakespeare, it attempts to trace the formation and development of a special “vertical theatre reality”—something of urgent necessity in our time of horizontal, superficial modes of living. It finds this in the combination of the directorial style of Grzegorz Bral, which resembles conducting, the music of Jean-Claude Acquaviva and Maciej Rychly, the mighty poetry of Alicja Bral and the remarkably diverse talent of the acting cast.
Keywords: Song of the Goat Theatre, Grzegorz Bral, vertical theatre reality, resurrecting of intuition

Let me take my cue from the motto of the Song of the Goat company: “Together we aim at the impossible. Only the impossible is worth achieving.” One does not just watch their theatre, listen to it and relish its beauty, one breathes this theatre. It is not by chance that the word “air” has often been evoked by it: “air installations” created by actorsand “a sculpture of vibrating air,” for instance, are comparisons used to describe their show Island (inspired by The Tempest) (Pulka). Nor by chance, “Song of the Goat,” headed by the extraordinary director Grzegorz Bral, has since 2009 been one of the main nominees for the (New) Theatrical Realities Award—the leading recognition for originality and innovation on European stages and the second biggest theatre award on the continent. Indeed, this Wroclaw theatre has not only been proving that the immaterial could be made palpable in the most material of the arts. They have been creating an outstanding “vertical theatre reality” with a distinctly harmonizing effect—something of urgent necessity, in our time of horizontal, superficial modes of living.

Correspondingly, there is not much on the surface of their shows: they are about an hour long and involve few props and no other technique but spotlights, most of those only static. There is nothing new in the blend of live music (vocal and instrumental), text and movement that constitutes the basic alphabet of their stage language. However, the uncompromising striving to achieve harmony of the energies—down to the level of frequencies—that underlies all components of the shows and makes directing here equal to conducting, opens up amazing depths in the territory of the spirit.

Indeed, it was a biblical line that emerged in my mind when I first saw a show of Song of the Goat some ten years ago: “Do you not know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3.16). And it has been invariably evoked by their theatre, when I’ve had the chance to see it again. As a whiff of otherworldly wisdom, illuminating and elevating, as a mere reminder and a palpable lament for lost harmony, as a revelation, as compunction for our having neglected this pure spirit in us . . . Or all these connotations altogether, blended into something which could be deemed a very rare, if not again impossible, combination: a near-metaphysical experience with a strongly topical edge.

Video 1
Trailer of Island

Such is the case with Island and Hamlet—a Commentary, both of them the result of the very fruitful co-operation of Grzegorz Bral and the young, highly talented dramaturg and poetess Alicja Bral, who joined the company in 2015. Two shows that are, I dare say, true masterpieces. The Polish critic Leszek Pulka went even further, calling Island: “. . . a theatre masterpiece comparable to the legendary Apocalypsis cum Figuri” (Pulka).

The comparison with Grotowski is the most frequent the critics have come up with when writing about the work of Song of the Goat. Then, it’s with Gardzienice Theatre and Tadeusz Kantor. On a broader scale, the references have been with theatre anthropology. The spiritual genes of these Polish theatre masters are indeed there. Some members of the original company (founded by Bral and Anna Zubrzycki, in 1996) have worked with Gardzienice. Also, Song of the Goat was sheltered by the Grotowski Center for four years, before getting its own home, in 2002—a C14 monastery refectory with its own magnificent atmosphere. And the theatre does “use the tools of theatre anthropology and the lab attitude to the show preparation process,” as Agniezka Gornicka notes in her review of Island (Gornicka).

It has to be underlined, though, that the preparation doesn’t end with the premiere. Song of the Goat define their shows (on their web site) as “constantly evolving creative research projects.” I was lucky to witness a most striking result of this never-ending show-development approach on two consecutive evenings in early December 2017: Hamlet—a Commentary (premiered on July 2, the same year) was so heavily reworked, literarily overnight, that from just a good show with some obvious misses it became a breathtaking piece. This did not come about as a full surprise: on the second evening, before the show, Bral warned the audience that a lot of changes had been done. “For this is also a research,” he underlined.

Video 2
Hamlet—a Commentary

However, there is something in the language of Song of the Goat that gives the theatre reality they create a universal appeal, exceeding by far the range of the laboratory type of theatre. This, to me, comes from it being akin to the work of another famous Pole, Jan Kott, and to what underlies the wide and long-lasting impact of his pivotal work Shakespeare—Our Contemporary. Kott’s analyses of the Bard’s characters, situations and conflicts are undoubtedly brilliant, yet what’s more important is that he was, in the first place, interested in the art of life and only then in the art of theatre. He was peeling the layers off the Shakespearean plays, I believe, because he sensed that in them, as in the Bible, there are coded “entrances” to the “tunnel” between our world of the material and that of the spirit—entrances hidden behind words and appearances. And he did manage to pinpoint some of them. Then, he sensed that the theatre nature of the world may well be a code, too, to the everlasting mysterious dance between the visible and the invisible, and thus to the eternal secrets of life. So, the art of theatre could well serve as an “entrance” to the “tunnel”? Or as a chance for us to have “the eyes of our heart” (Ephesians 1.15) opened to that something which we do not see but may be where we may happen to be coming from, something which we may carry as essential wisdom in us?!

The vertical theatre reality that Song of the Goat creates is exactly like a “tunnel” to the invisible. They do not go about stripping life of its appearances; they simply skip the process. For they aim at entering directly into the territory of the pure spirit. And they do so with the humbleness of a monk. There is nothing here of the tacit haughtiness of the initiated-in-the-secrets gurus, who talk mainly to those who are “able” to understand, or from the stylized detachment of ritual, for that matter. Song of the Goat’s theatre, so to speak, tiptoes into the territory of the spirit—with a special care and tenderness, with trepidation, lest they ruin its fine structure.

Director Grzegorz Bral. Photo: Bral School of Acting

Not by chance is Grzegorz Bral interested in, and works with, the frequencies of sound and music. Together with the two composers of the company, Jean-Claude Acquaviva and Maciej Rychly, they have a special ear for the energies of the fine waves and their potential to harmonize us. And they use this in their shows in order to help accord us to the harmony of the spirit (the divine, or nature, call it what you will) that we are more and more getting in discord with.

From its very start, the company has been interested in folklore and ethno music from the world over, as well as in liturgical chants. It has been using them as a springboard for its exploration of the territory of the spirit and at times as a direct, tested way to “go the other side of things” (as one of the main accents of Island goes). The presence of a live horn bagpipe’s sound in some of the shows certainly adds to a special meditative effect in us, as if breathing with the universe and melting into it.

It’s not solely via music and sound that Song of the Goat strives at and achieves harmony though. “Today’s theatre is about images and stories,” says Bral. “Ours is about how music becomes theatre and how we balance on the edge between music and theatre.” In effect, the polyphonic nature of music here permeates all other stage components, so everything rests in a polyphonic unity, with harmonized energies and “inherent musicality” (Bral).

And since this is, indeed, not theatre about stories, the actors’ singing (as well as their acting) is not primarily aimed at creating characters and relationships. It’s more of a philosophical act—embodying and defending the idea of our being spiritual beings in the first pla­­ce. There are moments when it’s as if the actors are not made of flesh but are just sound vibrations, extending far beyond the contours of their bodies—similar to the characters of El Greco: not merely people but flames.

Fluidity is another key word here. The components of this theatre melt so naturally into each other that they form “a moving painting, a musical poem and physical theatre at the same time,” as Chochlik Kulturalnywrites about Island. And it’s not only that the “borders” between them stop existing. It’s more that the harmony permeating them makes the experience of this theatre feel like watching a first-class tai-chi master, who looks and feels like a visible part of air.

All this amounts to a special type of abstractness. Not rational but sensory. The contact with the audience here, as Bral says, is “on a sensory level.” The appeal is to our intuition. This type of abstractness is, naturally, connected with the nature of the process of reduction of what is material (in its most usual meanings, including the canon of the drama) to its basic minimum. On the surface, this may seem like a typically modern type of deconstruction, yet it’s the very opposite. Or rather, it’s a sort of constructive deconstruction. For it’s done with a very constructive aim: for the sake of reaching to the core of harmony and for the sake of our inner harmonization.

How this process has been evolving and how it has been contributing to the creation and development of the unique vertical theatre reality of Song of the Goatcan be traced in four of their shows, inspired by Shakespeare, created during the last decade.

Video 3
Trailer of Macbeth

In their Macbeth (2008), the essence of the play’s text was retained but was not delivered in the usual way. It was sung, chanted, wailed—something like a recitative or simply one more “voice” in the polyphonic choir of sounds, parts of melodies and music. I will never forget one of the scenes, very typical of the essence of the show:

Several plain wooden tables were placed next to each other, forming something like a podium, and in front of it a witch (just one) and Lady Macbeth were planning the first murder. Up on the podium was the King. Behind it were the rest of the actors, with their incantations and tunes. The two women were not merely talking but as if blowing the words up in the air towards the King—the manner in which they were pronouncing them, the music of their voices, the behaviour of their bodies all produced that effect. The King started to fall asleep and, as if turning into a feather, was, as it were, becoming immaterial and flying away, going to another world . . .

The feeling that this was actually happening, despite the actor’s body being just several metres in front of us, was palpably real. It was in this scene that one realized that the drama there was far beyond the fact that human bodies were being murdered; it was rather in the fight for andon the territory of the human soul.

Video 4
Trailer of King Lear

Macbeth was followed by a take on King Lear: The Songs of Lear (2012)—an even less conventional theatre piece which, unlike Macbeth, is still in the Song of the Goat repertoire. Yet, its (again) 70 minutes not only further expand the very notion of what theatre could be but also bring the audience back to the essential theatrical experience of a purifying catharsis—something which contemporary stages very rarely dare to aspire to or, for that matter, manage to achieve.

Songs of Lear. Photo: Z. Warzynski

That the immaterial could be even further “materialized” the company proved with its next show inspired by Shakespeare, Island (2016). It’s actually the most ethereal of the four works in question, despite having the biggest cast: 13 actors and six dancers. The presence of dancers is just one of several firsts here. I’ll take the liberty to share with you what it felt like to experience it:

Island, or On the Other Side of Things

We get there quickly, without even noticing how it happens. Two women, clad in black tights, enter the almost dark, empty stage and stand facing us, behind each other, slightly askew and at quite a distance, with their heads lit by pinpoint spotlights from above. In a dark mirror at the back of the stage the reflections of their heads create something like a never-ending line of dim lights, as if fading into the very depth of the universe. The woman at the back has her hand on her mouth, the woman in front speaks: “I met him in late autumn./ I was in despair . . ./ Though he appeared, his soul was absent. . . .” (A. Bral). Then, a short dialogue, all spoken by her, outlines her being shown by Prospero the path of salvation: going beyond, to the other side of things. Is she Miranda? Will there actually be a concrete Prospero? What follows makes the answers to these questions of no importance at all. The rest of the cast, all clad in the same way, enter from the side of the audience and head in Indian file to the back. While passing under the pinpoint spotlights from above, their heads make a dizzying sharp exchange of light and shadow. Together with the dense dark of the silhouettes, this creates the feeling of a tide that sweeps us along that road to infinity in the mirror. We are already in Prospero’s demented mind, as the program has prepared us beforehand. Or inside our own minds? In either case, not here anymore but on the other side of things—in the beyond.

There are no colorful butterflies there, no flowers or endless green meadows, no white angels. It’s a world of shadows—of floating shadows; nothing there has a fixed contour. Mirrors standing on all three walls are removed and simple chairs are hung there askew, creating a web of geometric lines. The mirrors are then swirled around the constantly moving bodies, then placed on the floor and again back on the walls—their reflections forming something like kaleidoscope figures, crisscrossing with the pale light exuded by faces, hands and feet in the dark. Remember the “air installations” and the “sculpture of vibrating air”? Indeed, they form and dissolve in a second, like clouds in a windy sky.

Island. Photo: Mateusz Bral

The dancers’ bodies also appear to have no stable borders, though not for the usual reasons. It’s part of the choreography (by Iván Pérez) and a stroke of genius: to make them look as if they are trying to achieve a form, at least for a short while, as if to help us see something for sure and, thus, believe our eyes—the eyes of the body, not to have the feeling it’s a hallucination. For aren’t we so much in need of concreteness—of something which we can see and touch, so that we deem it “real”?

Island. Photo: Mateusz Bral

“The light has a unique role here,” writes the Polish colleague Ewa Bak. “It sculpts, covers and uncovers like a demiurge, covers and uncovers or preoccupies. It creates complementary images. The images in the carefully moved mirrors set at different angles paint contexts, a shadow theatre, constructions. They change the meanings of reality or define it.”

Indeed, nothing here is like our world. Or maybe this is the world inside us as it’s supposed to be: beautiful, simple, and tender as a caress? Or we are the shadows here—the shadow of what’s left of us in a world without shadows, as in the dark fairy tales? The powerful text gives some possible answers:

My hands are empty/ My heart ragged by cruel news/ I lost myself in pursuit of prosperity/ Roots of humanity deprived/ from tenderness by the speed of life/ My conscious invigilated by commercials/ sells body, speech and heart/ I estimate the price of my life/ Greed/ The most cruel prison/ In which the prisoner and the guard are one/ This is the very essence of this blind solitude . . ./ But we can wake up/ We can change heart/ I stand alone I take a breath/ I close my eyes/ I see you there.

ALICJA BRAL

Unlike in the previous two Shakespeare-inspired shows, the text here is very important and, thus, very accented. Most of it is by Alicja Bral, who is also the dramaturg of the show. She has also interwoven in the libretto texts from Sophocles’ Antigone and Aristophanes’ Birds, as well as Georgian and Greek traditional songs. The text is recited and sung en face, usually by one actor, but repeated and echoed by the rest, who form not just a choir but something like a classical chorus. And if what they say at times sounds too direct or even didactic, maybe it’s because we need to be more palpably shattered in order to wake up.

Is it the beyond that talks to us or is it our own consciousness? Or it’s our consciousness as an extension of the beyond? Or is it the demented who talk to us in their hallucinations or—why not?—in their presence in both worlds at once? The demented, these shadows of our material-focused world who, while here, could serve as an exhibit of what we are when we ignore the spirit?

Island. Photo: Mateusz Bral

Another question then: to what extent could this theatre be considered political? It is a political theatre, I have no doubt, but not in the conventional way. It has to do with a trend that I might call a “politics-of-the-soul-theatre,” which I think started in Eastern Europe with the works of another extraordinary director, the Latvian Alvis Hermanis, whose phrase “punching with tenderness” sums it up.

So, Island is at once like a caress in a dream—a caress as if of an angel’s feather—and an outcry against our voluntary discarding of the spirit, the utmost beauty and harmony we have in us. This show, I dare say, is as close as theatre can get to pure spirit. Its crystal fragility is coupled with a disarming purity.

Interestingly, the sense of purity here is strengthened by a very visible inner conducting of the music. It’s done by two of the actors, within the singing, in a very simple, matter-of-fact and yet distinctly tender, loving manner, without any whiff of alienation. This creates a sense of spontaneity, sincerity, even of credibility—what we experience is happening here and now.

“Is Shakespeare in the room?” asks Pulka and his answer is, “Yes, in a storm of breaths and loving gestures.” He’s also present, I’d add, in the way the show manages to raise some of the invisible curtains before our eyes, so that we know more about why we are here and how to live our life; that is, the very essence of Shakespeare’s oeuvre is imbued in the show.

Likewise, when setting to work on Hamlet—a Commentary (2017), Grzegorz Bral, Alicja Bral and the cast made this most difficult of choices: “to express what was merely mentioned and not said explicitly by the author,” as the program puts it.And again, the focus here is on energies; in this case, those that brought about the drama that we know and were set in motion well before it took place.

Hamlet—a Commentary, or Hamlet: The Prequel

Under monastery arches, on an iron bed, placed slightly askew and quite near the audience, lies a dead man. Behind the bed, facing us, stand the relatives and the main figures of the court; in front of it, a bag-piper. A piercing bagpipe sound and a shriek of lamentation start at once, more like a siren than an expression of grief. Then, the mourners rapidly draw back. One young man remains and sits on the bed: the young Hamlet, now alone with his father’s dead body. It’s the night of the vigil, after the day of the murder of Hamlet, the King—two months before the play we know is to begin.

Very much in the style of Song of the Goat, what follows has nothing to do with what actually happened and how; that is, with the action details. For the major reckonings in Shakespeare are between the human world and the invisible one; they are arranged on the territory of the human soul and only come out in the open in human destinies. Despite the intense stage action, the real action always takes place on the territory of the soul. And true to Shakespeare, that’s where Song of the Goat transports us in Hamlet—a Commentary.

Only here the souls dwell in three dimensions: our world, the world of the dead and the world between. And to put it within our grasp—again this so necessary concreteness because of our already so ingrained rationalism!—the bulk of the well-known characters are here too. Plus some more whose non-appearance in the play we rarely question: the mother of Ophelia and a sister of Hamlet, with white faces and deep shadows under their eyes—another bow to our need for conventional images of the dead.

The hand of the dead king trembles, reaches to his face and removes the funeral mask; then, he rises up, with an automatic gesture lights a cigarette and in utmost dismay looks around: at all these people who obviously think the death of his body was the very end of him too. He tries to draw their attention, to talk to them, but, of course, they don’t hear or see him at all. He shouts—in vain. Then, his bewilderment transforms into amusement, and he starts imitating them: the theatricality of life, its propensity for the ceremonial and, ultimately, its pretense. In all that time, from the moment he—or rather his soul—leaves his body, he does not for a moment look unnatural, artificial or false; it’s the living ones who look as if they are on a stage.

Hamlet—a Commentary. Photo: Mateusz Bral

Some of the scenes depicting the relationship between these two dimensions are at once heartrending and nostalgically philosophical. Hamlet, the King, tries to interfere, to comment, then just to caress and be caressed—he puts his head under Gertrude’s palm. Sadly, the visibility and sensibility are in only one direction. It’s we, the inhabitants of this world, who remain the blind, no matter how much we swear that only what we can see and touch is real. It’s only Ophelia who senses the presence of the king’s soul—maybe because what she also senses is that she is about to join him soon.

Hamlet—a Commentary. Photo: Katarzyna Chmura-Cegielkowska
Hamlet—a Commentary. Photo: Mateusz Bral

More unforgettable scenes follow, but the pinnacle is the end, when thin paper spills in the hands of all characters are lit. The burning patches quickly fly up towards the arches, turn into white ashes in the air and start very slowly to fall—as if eternity itself drifts over the characters, spreads on them and envelops them—and us too. Again, like the shadow world in Island, with no special technique involved, yet with an effect that could leave all clever computer-generated tricks standing. Of course, it’s not the first time that burning paper has been used in the theatre. It’s the splitting of dimensions and their parallel existence that we have been witnessing for an hour already that, in combination with the slow-motion floating ashes, takes our breath away and leaves us literally not daring to move, lest we lose the power to see through—to the beyond.

Hamlet—a Commentary. Photo: Mateusz Bral
Hamlet—a Commentary. Photo: Mateusz Bral

“It’s a drama about energy that demands to be revealed and Hamlet is its medium,” reads the show’s program. Now it’s Hamlet, the King, through whose eyes, as if through a keyhole in a classical four-wall theatre, we see or rather experience the energies—both of the visible and the invisible worlds. And again, as in the rest of Song of the Goat’s shows, everything material is reduced to the minimum, and what is left is used for communication, entirely via the vibration of sound and, for that matter, the intensely charged silences.

Unlike Island, there are no dancers here but, as in Island, the text is accented. And again, it zeroes in on the very core of the problems of our materialistic world. The inner conducting is applied here, too, and there is something in the performance of the extraordinary cast that makes one feel that they themselves are in a state of constant dismay—dismay at what could be “seen” not only when being on the other side of things but also when looking from there to the distorted state of souls on our “side.”

It takes great courage to use the language of harmony to talk about disharmony. Especially when it comes to visiting the abyss, where what is to torment and rule the world of Hamlet that we know was possibly distilled. And it takes great courage to make it sound so poignantly contemporary, as it does in the verses of Alicja Bral.

One of main things that explain the nature of Shakespeare’s genius, according to Jan Kott, is that “he gave an inner awareness to passion; cruelty ceased to be merely physical. Shakespeare discovered moral hell.”

Many contemporary productions of Shakespeare concentrate exactly on this moral hell in the works of the Bard by creating a heavily material, visual equivalent to it. They revel in that double accent. Song of the Goat, on the contrary, chooses to contrast it with moral heaven, creating the chance for us to experience harmony and attune to its waves. That is why getting into the depths of their unique vertical theatre reality has in the end the purifying effect of a prayer. More than that: it has the effect of the angels’ coming, as in the final scenes of Faust, in an attempt to try and save our souls.

Striving for salvation in our world and in our time, and via theatre at that? This may sound next to impossible. Well, for Song of the Goat “only the impossible is worth achieving.”


Works Cited

Bak, Ewa. “37. Warsaw Theatre Meetings, Island, Bral, Song of the Goat Theatre.” Okiem Widza, 1 Dec. 2016.

The Bible. Authorized King James Version. Oxford UP, 1998.

Bral, Alicja. Program for Hamlet—a Commentary. Playbill, 2017.

Chochlik Kulturalny. Post on Island. Facebook, 31 Mar. 2017.

Gornicka, Agnieszka. “Island, In Depth of Despair.” teatrdlawas.pl, 3 Apr. 2017. See here.

Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Methuen & Co, 1965.

Pulka, Leszek.“Treasure Island.” teatralny.pl, 28 Dec. 2016.

Program for Hamlet—a Commentary. Playbill, 2017.

Song of the Goat. Song of the Goat Theatre.


*Kalina Stefanova, PhD, is author/editor of 16 books: 14 books on theatre, four of which in English, launched in New York, London and Wroclaw; and two works of fiction, published in nine countries, in two editions in China. She has been a Visiting Scholar/Lecturer world-wide. In 2016, she had the privilege to be appointed as Visiting Distinguished Professor of the Arts School of Wuhan University as well as a Distinguished Researcher of the Chinese Arts Criticism Foundation of Wuhan University. She served as IATC’s Vice President for two mandates (2001/2006) and as its Director of Symposia for two mandates (2006–2010). Since 2001, she has been regularly serving as an evaluation expert for cultural and educational programs of the European Commission. Currently, she is Full Professor of Theatre and Criticism at NATFA, Sofia.

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