At a performance of Gospels of Childhood by the Zar Theater Company in Poland you are spared the indignity of applause. As the piece ends the performers fling open windows and exit, the sounds of the city filtering in, joining with the space. You feel the collective awareness that has formed in the room drift out into open air. The lights rise. After a time people stand as if on cue and begin to walk back into their lives.
Gospels of Childhood was part of this year’s Grotowski Festival in the city of Wroclaw, as was a second Zar piece called Cesarean Section. Essays on Suicide. The two pieces were billed as a diptych, but a third piece, a work-in-progress that I saw, but whose name I do not know, will soon complete the final triptych. The Festival also featured work by the world’s leading practitioners of theater as a fine art, including Peter Brook, Tadashi Suzuki, Pina Bausch, Krystian Lupa, Eugenio Barba, Anatolij Wasiljew and Richard Shectner among others. Theatre Zar, a local favorite, more than held its own in this exalted company.
If theater has one foot in the church and one in the circus, Zar leans heavily on the foot beside the altar. In Gospels of Childhood, performed in Polish, they almost lost me thirty minutes in with so much singing and staging I couldn’t get my bearings…and then won me back entirely with a coup-de-theatre that took place in the blackest darkness I’ve experienced since summer camp when we switched flashlights off in a cave. In that perfect darkness someone was digging in earth. We heard footfalls and erratic breathing…other indecipherable sounds and a weave of voices singing. When the lights rose up again the room was different. Something had shifted in the space and in our collective awareness too. In some uncanny fashion I felt I knew what Lazarus experienced lying in his grave – something coming to life deep inside. Gospels of Childhood is that kind of theater.
Largely musical and song-based, Gospels of Childhood keeps faith with the company’s stated intention to “create theater out of the spirit of music.” From 1999 to 2003 Zar traveled throughout the Caucuses researching sacred polyphonic songs with roots in the distant past. Texts from the Gnostic gospels of Mary Magdalene, Phillip and Thomas are interwoven with fragments from Dostoyevsky and Simone Weil. If I were fluent in Polish I would describe how these texts resonated with the beautiful singing, but since I don’t speak a word all I can say is it didn’t really matter.
The second piece, Cesarean Section, like the middle panel of most triptychs, is bigger and bolder, full of life and movement. The phrase “we always want to kill ourselves, but we never want to die” might describe the emotional terrain here. One of Cesarean Section’s more effective staging tropes involves barefoot dancers and a stage strewn with broken glass. There is an abundance of ancient sacred songs, though fewer than in Gospels of Childhood. Cesarean Section is movement-theater in a somewhat familiar Grotowski-inspired mode but performed with such fearless abandon the jaw drops. Humor here and there like dollops of blood. Halfway through, the ghost of Antonin Artaud shuffles in and sits next to the ghost of Grotowski in the back row, toothlessly grinning.
Before sharing the last piece of the triptych with us the director, Jaroslaw Fret, underscored that it is a work-in-progress. In the theater space a large, translucent sail is tied above the floor. During the piece the performers raise and lower it, and it takes light in various elegant ways while the performers sing. You can imagine how they might flesh this piece out with more staging, but it felt complete, producing again the glow beneath the chest bones, the sense of a definite transformation taking place, a subtle inner refinement. Again there is silence at the end, the sense of your life drifting back onto you like the descent of that sail as it settled over the performers, who now lay motionless on stage.
The next day we see Peter Brook himself in a crowded hall at the Lalek Puppet Theater. Speaking extemporaneously he weaves a complex thought in the air, pausing after each sentence for his earnest Polish translator to catch up. “We all know this is the century of religion,” he states, slyly planting in our temporal lobes this somewhat ominous notion. I think at once of the Zar triptych: rituals for a religion that will never fully be born, and therefore will always retain a generative mystery. If that’s what Brook means by religion, you can sign me up.
Later that night, across the city square, we watch Brook’s Fragments, five short plays by Samuel Beckett. Here we enter the circus tent, and experience the transformative potential of the profane rather than the sacred. Rough for Theatre I, Rockabye, Act Without Words II, Neither, and Come and Go… Up on stage is Marcello Magni, one of the founding members of London’s Theater de Complicite, along with Hayley Carmichael and Khalifa Natour. This is the work of two masters – Beckett and Brook – who understand the power of simplicity. In Act Without Words II Magni repeatedly brings the house down with a simple scowl.
Here, with the utmost economy of means, Beckett is able to fully capture what the Buddhists call dukkha. Famously hard to translate, dukkha identifies the basic shittiness of everyday experience, the sense of continuous low-grade frustration. The feeling is rooted, perhaps, in how confused we are by our basic groundlessness in this world and in our lives; the difficulties we have fully inhabiting our own being in any stable way. Watching these plays, I find myself wondering if this concept of dukkha is not the essence both of Beckett and of clowning in general. Hard as it may be to define, we are all intimate with what Magni and the others are manifesting up there on stage. And so, once again reconciled to indignity, we applaud at the curtain, rising to our feet.