Something Polish This Way Comes…

Review in Issue 23-1 | Spring 2011

Macbeth – there, we’ve said it! Emily Ayres sees Song of the Goat tackle the Scottish play.

The Midlands has been short on opportunities to see good European physical theatre, and outside of the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe we in the UK have been slow to recognise the importance of this type of body – and impulse-led practice. In July 2010 we had the first ever Birmingham European Theatre Festival at Stan’s Cafe’s A E Harris space (www.befestival.org), which was rough and ready and low on audiences, but showed signs that Grotowski was alive (if not due some blasphemous reinterpretation). Then in the autumn came a visit to the newly reopened mac (Midlands Art Centre) by the legendary Song of the Goat company – renowned followers of Grotowski, whose intense physical training in voice and movement work, and long process of devising and honing their work, have gained them a fierce reputation.

Perhaps my expectations were too high for this show, having wanted to see the company since missing them in Edinburgh in 2005, but Macbeth – a show that Song of the Goat have created over the past two years – was underwhelming in its overall effect. The essence of the practice – ensemble, rhythm, impulse, emotional texture, ritual, organicity, craft – is very much what makes the performance so impressive, yet with all these ingredients added together, there was still a sense of it missing the mark.

To perform with such minimal scenery and without the theatrical ingredients we (on the experimental end of theatre practice in the UK, at any rate) would recognise as ‘normal’ – no recorded music, no promenade or walkabout opportunities, no installation, no one-on-one encounters, no digital media, no trickery or deceit – puts the work firmly in the ‘poor theatre’ tradition, pioneered by Grotowski, and means the vocal and physical ensemble work must be the chord that strikes the heart of the audience. The choice of Macbeth as the inspiration made sense in the physical scenes of murder and violence, but their vocal work did sometimes swallow the text rather than bring it out of itself and into the room.

Perhaps the reason this work seems dated, or perhaps a better phrase would be ‘out-of-time’, is that it takes such a very long time to make. The process cannot be rushed; it’s an organic one that picks up changes in temperature and emotion like an embryo does in the womb. It’s a process that checks all along that there are no defects; that all limbs are growing properly. You can’t grow a hand without the arm being there first. However, here on the British theatre scene we have grown numerous theatrical limbs all mashed together to form some hybrid beast of live art, performance, digital media and music – and as such, we work much faster and much less rigorously. Our ideas might be more cutting-edge but we lack the discipline with which to approach them. Song of the Goat have the discipline, but are short on cutting-edge – and short on irony.

It was good to see so many young people in the audience. Of course, Macbeth is firmly on the curriculum in the UK and seeing actors working in what some young students might view as an alien style – thinking with their bodies and not bowing to the weight of the written word – can only be a good thing for a disgruntled teenager struggling with Shakespeare.

Macbeth is an impressive piece of ensemble music theatre that is so tight rhythmically that the overall effect is like one living, breathing and resounding chord. Whether the text was Macbeth or another classic might make no difference, which may or may not be problematic to audiences. The vocal work is beautiful and the text does fly at times, but the music didn’t seem as fresh and challenging as I had expected it might be. I’m interested in Grotowski’s work and the line of theatre that comes down from his work, but I’d like to see some theatre by a company of young Polish practitioners next. What does Grotowski mean to them now? Is he dead to them, or alive?

Emily Ayres saw Macbeth by Song of the Goat Theatre (Teatr Piesn Kozla) at mac, Birmingham, 13 October 2010.

Presenting Artists
Presenting Venue
Date Seen
  1. Oct 2010

This article in the magazine

Issue 23-1
p. 28