They act and sing like true-born Stratfordians. Wrocław’s Song of the Goat Theatre is probably the only theatre company in the world to have deciphered the musical code of Shakespeare’s poetry. Be careful! It’s touching regardless of the latitude.
The world first heard about them almost a decade ago, when they courageously combined a Shakespearean drama with a Siberian lament at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Swan Theatre. Their Macbeth was the first presentation of Polish theatrical art on this prestigious stage, and as it soon turned out, also their ticket to international fame. They have since been regarded as one of the most original and innovative European groups, and each of their performances in Great Britain has attracted hundreds of viewers. The band has also co-operated with the Royal Shakespeare Company, been awarded with a theatrical Oscar, appeared in first place in many professional rankings, and even artistically supported the Scottish independence movement. Fringe without Song of the Goat? Nobody imagines the famous Edinburgh festival without the very well-known guests from Wrocław. On Culture.pl, we’d like to share the story of their path to international success.
Macbeth practicing Aikido
The Song of the Goat Theatre, established in 1996 by Grzegorz Bral and Anna Zubrzycki, gained popularity in Great Britain after the successful Chronicle: A Lamentation, a play inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh. It was 2004. Earlier, the group had travelled to the border of Greece and Albania to examine a very particular type of music – old funerary songs. Because the story of Gilgamesh is merely the impetus for a moving reflection on dying. As the group says, the song – poignant, purifying, and the body – with its energy, expression, honesty and presence, is more important. Critics wrote that even after a few minutes, the Chronicles… ceases to be a common play. Today, it’s a legend of world alternative theatre, with a long list of Polish and foreign awards, including recognition from the Guardian newspaper and the three most important awards of the Endinburgh Festival Fringe.
The international status of the band was confirmed a few years later with their loud premiere of a musical Macbeth. “Powerful magic. The effect, like Chronicles, hypnotising”, the critics enthused. Because Shakespeare, at first collided with polyphonic choir from Irkutsk, then with ancient songs from Corsica, had to carry away the audience. In an interview for e-teatr, Grzegorz Bral explained:
I decided to do Macbeth in an original version, because Shakespeare has this astonishing power of onomatopoeia, where words and thoughts are shortened and economic, but at the same time they give away the sound of emotions. We use a Japanese arm drag, in the play we use an aikido sword. Actually it’s a poem about a sword.
After its presentation at the Scottish Fringe, Giles Broadbent wrote on the pages of The Wharf:
Bewitching theatre. A fascinating interpretation of Macbeth (…) This is a genuinely new way to revel in the lyricism of Shakespeare, bypassing the textual intricacies and opting to distil the essence of magic and tragedy into a more visceral brew. (…) The enchantment lasts. Truly fey and hypnotic experience. (…) This fragmentary, scattered, often difficult to understand interpretation is, perversely, an ideal starting point for people unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s dramas. The beautifully presented text doesn’t require much attention. Instead, the viewer may loosen control of his own mind and instinctively dive into the rhythm of the play. Maybe we can experience what the great bard felt at the very source, when a shameless and sparking inspiration grew inside of him. The result is the most twisting and misty experience.
Songs of Lear like Munch’s Scream
The Poles caused another fuss in Edinburgh in 2013 during a grand presentation of Polish culture in Great Britain, organised and supported by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute. First of all, a Polish play, 2008: Macbeth directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna, opened the Edinburgh International Festival for the first time in the festival’s history, and two days later 11 thousand viewers from all over the world saw the play thanks to a broadcast organised by The Guardian. And then – the hearts of the audience were stolen by the intimate Songs of Lear.
"If this review was a song, it would be a hallelujah of gratitude", wrote Mary Brennan of The Herald right after the premiere of the magnificent Songs of Lear in the Edinburgh Summerhall. It was the middle of summer when the world’s most demanding theatrical audience awarded the band with a standing ovation at each of the play’s 13 stagings. Shakespeare’s magic worked and the press wrote about “one of the most touching theatrical works in years”, “human emotion overflows”, “yell of the lament caused tug at the heartstrings” and how Grzegorz Bral and his team reinstated Europe’s ability to lament. “Songs of Lear seems to have already passed into legend even though it's only a work in progress”, The Guardian summarised.
The audience’s compliments and fascination with the “tragic theatre of the most powerful kind” has launched an avalanche of awards. This is certainly one of the biggest successes of Polish theatre on foreign stages.
The group obtained three prestigious prizes at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. Grzegorz Bral was presented with a theatrical equivalent of an Oscar, a Fringe First prize, a Herald Archangel and Musical Theatre Matters Award. Songs of Lear also ranked first in The List ranking of all the plays staged in Edinburgh. What did the director himself think about it?
The Edinburgh Laurels are the most meaningful recognition for us, and because even more valuable and special are the Fringe Festival prizes awarded without social, political or racial prejudice. This is a completely open and independent festival. This prize (…) opens many doors for us – we’ve been invited to Australia and Turkey. Going through that door gives us the opportunity to share our Polish culture with the rest of the world
– said Grzegorz Bral.
The group returned to the city of festivals two years later with the famous project Return to the Voice (supported by Culture.pl), with a guest appearance by Anna Maria Jopek, a popular Polish jazz vocalist. Traditional Scottish songs performed by the Poles resonated throughout a 12th-century cathedral at the very heart of Edinburgh, filled to its capacity. The Scotsmen were very impressed; many of them returned to subsequent presentations of the play.
Polish-Scottish Return to the Voice
Grzegorz Bral and his band picked old Scottish songs at the instigation of Rupert Thomson, the director of the Summerhall cultural centre in Edinburgh. This is how the project Return to the Voice came to be. To create this intimate play where Gaelic culture blended with Celtic sounds in a dozen or so carefully selected songs, the creators sought for inspiration on research trips to the Isles of Skye and Lewis and Harris island, among others. However, as Grzegorz Bral admitted in an interview with Gazeta Wyborcza, it was the archives that inspired them the most:
A collection of several thousand recordings of traditional music, made in the 1950s and 60s – this was our main source. We chose, for example, an amazing psalm. Someone recorded two women with the surname McDonald singing a part of the Free Church of Scotland liturgy in a kitchen. An extraordinary expression. We’ve incorporated some of that kitchen church service into our play.
The play was presented in Edinburgh in a particularly important moment for the Scotsmen – a month before a referendum to decide about Scotland’s independence. The concerts amused the audience and the critics; the BBC recorded a 30-minute-long documentary on the Return to the Voice project. Fiona Shepard of The Scotsman wrote, “this is no facsimile of a tradition. Instead, the group absorb the weight of the words and produce a potent, ancient sound rooted in sacred music; “its effect is almost indescribable (…). A choral piece of profound beauty.” The critics were also thrilled by Anna Maria Jopek’s performance; they wrote that her voice is like a drug. One cannot simply stop listening to her.
The Song of the Goat Theatre was established in 1996 by Grzegorz Bral and Anna Zubrzycki. For the first years of its activity the theatre worked in Wrocław’s Ośrodek Grotowskiego. Since 2002 it has its own premises – a 14th-century refectory in the city centre. The theatre is an international band comprising of actors from Finland, Great Britain, Poland and other countries. Each year their work attracts new actors and directors from all over the world. The Song of the Goat Theatre has also managed to work out its own acting technique – a co-ordination technique, which is the object of postgraduate studies affiliated with Manchester Metropolitan University.
Sources: The Song of the Goat Theatre, culture.pl, wow247.co.uk, ayoungertheatre.com, Gazeta Wyborcza, ninateka.pl, own materials, edit. AL, March 2015, transl. Agata Dudek, 12/03/15.