Edinburgh Fringe 2012
What keeps mankind alive? A play about the agony and the ecstasy of the human condition. What draws us towards the brink and what pulls us back.
As the audience troop into the theatre, the cast are already on stage and watch us silently: a man at a piano, two women with double basses cradled between their legs. A metronome ticks rhythmically and incessantly. The lights dim and one woman steps forward and outlines her feet in chalk like a crime victim. Suddenly the lights go out completely plunging us into total pitch velvet darkness. The sound of breaking glass, maniacal laughter, confusion in the darkness. As the lights come up, the woman is still there trapped in her outline and now surrounded by shards of broken glass. She goes into a contorted dance, trying to break free from her confines, lifting one foot then another above the glass, hovering perilously across the glass-strewn floor.
The glass is swept across the stage into a central trough that becomes a river of pain and sometimes of light: glass that wounds and cuts to the heart, but also sparkles in the light. From here, a performance of the most consummately skilled physical theatre and intense musicality ensues. Two men and a woman rush at each other, sometimes failing to connect, at other times, climbing each other, falling and catching in a way that is reminiscent of circus but is riskier and richer for being born out of meaning, rather than being mere entertainment.
Above all, throughout the show, there is music – wonderful polyphonic sounds that create a wall of feeling that goes beyond meaning and takes us into the deepest places of the soul. The singing of the actors is extraordinary: their whole bodies seem to emanate with the force of the sound they are creating. Developed from a base of Corsican polyphonic songs, Bulgarian, Romanian, Chechen and Icelandic songs are woven into it. There are sounds produced by the human voice that seem barely human. At times, the intensity feels unbearable. The piece is framed by Erik Satie piano pieces.
Teatr Zar are a multicultural group formed in Wroclaw, Poland by apprentices of the Grotowski Institute. The name of the theatre comes from the title of the funeral songs that in the Corsican tradition are the essence of singing understood as ‘column of sound’. The theatre is based on the premise that theatre is about more than seeing, and that it is something that can be heard, that from hearing we can by pass the literal and create our own deep imagery.
The images are powerful: red wine spills like blood stains on the floor, a woman reaches again and again for the sky on a precariously balanced chair that threatens to topple at any point, another woman drops a bag of oranges that roll unstopped across the floor. There is no narrative; the performance is driven by imagery and by incredible, transcendent music. It is up to each member of the audience to make of it what they will: Kristallnicht, oppression, the struggle to stay sane in a meaningless world. Whatever it means to each of us, this meditation on the human condition strikes deep in the soul.
The title of the performance is a metaphor for the compulsion towards and the condition of suicide, and the involuntary force that pulls us back from the brink. While this is a play about suicide, perhaps more than that it is ultimately about life. It charts the highs and lows, and our desire to keep on going even in the bleakest of times. It is about isolation and alienation but also about connectedness and support. And about sometimes, how it is the smallest thing that can pull us back from the brink. The beauty of the show, both in its physicality and its musicality, and the thrust towards survival make what is a depressing topic somehow uplifting rather than despondent.