Puppet. The Book of Splendour

Summerhall. Edinburgh Fringe.

by neTTheatre. Directed by Pawel Passini

Another disclaimer – I’m not a reviewer/critic/journalist. I don’t make any kind of notes when I’m watching. I have a selective memory and no desire or ability to sum things up with a synopsis. If I had any stars I’d give this five. But I don’t do that either, thankfully. I do however do spoilers. Maybe stop reading and go see it, then read this after if you’re still interested. From this website:

The work of Tadeusz Kantor reveals an archipelago of figures where the ‘zone of death’, as Kantor called it, has an unexpected neighbour – childhood. Encounters with both the imaginary and the real lead to moments of madness, to fear and joy, to euphoria and despair, and to a pulsating world seen by the Kabbalah master’s eyes. The Book of Splendour (Sefer ha-Zohar) is one of the key texts of Jewish mysticism. This beautiful text teaches us a lesson of understanding the world: the people and objects surrounding us, the global and intimate events which happen to us – they are all part of the Conversation between God and Man.

I have never read the Kabbalah or the Torah or any of the texts that this performance works with. I got the general gist of the texts, but not much more.

I also happen to be one of those odd people with no need for linear narrative or to understand the text or to really ‘understand’ anything. I’m quite happy just to watch it. So this is my experience of watching it.

At the beginning there was a voice behind us ‘yes I am here behind you, I am speaking this now’ he said (or words to that effect). I’ll call him the ‘concession to the British’. The voice that talks in a normal and friendly way, tells us not to worry. He tells us it will be hot (not that the play is hot, but that the room is hot). He warns ‘this is not stand up comedy this is sit down tragedy’ we laugh’ ‘that was the last time you will laugh’ he tells us.

fot. M.Rukasz, M.Zgierska, BlowUp Agency

There’s a kind of diagram projected on stage. The projection intersects with the stage design, scaffolding of many levels, ladders and hooks. The diagram is from the Kabbalah, there are discs and wheel shapes and spokes. The voice tells us that this is our map, this is how we will understand the performance (or words to that effect). He also says alternatively you can use the diagram to make a bicycle (we laugh again, so he was wrong, that wasn’t the last time we would laugh).

I expect things happened on stage at around this point. There was a little chorus of tacky white angels at one side of the stage – the only performers who spoke/sung in English. Later the woman angel screams, and screams, and screams, I can’t remember her words, but her screams were somehow picked up in the soundscape. Throughout the performance the recorded soundscape is an extension of the voices on stage. Which is bloody hard to do.

The video too, weaves within the stage design and the performers, it’s really very sophisticated; it echoes what happens on stage, it zooms in on faces, it appears to be live feed, but there are differences, it is the ghost version, or the real version, the nightmare reality, the reflection. On stage there is a woman in a white dress, on the video there is a woman in a white dress starving in a concentration camp. (There probably wasn’t – I’m totally winging it, this is what I mean by the montage, the narrative happening in the mind of the spectator)

Mirrors – the performers look into each other, mirror each other’s movements, they are doubles, echoes and memories. There’s a sense of nostalgia (go on then, there’s a Tarkovskian sense of Nostalgia).

In Grotowski’s Akropolis the performers  in rags march around the stage, emaciated, ritualistic, those performers are here.

fot. M.Rukasz, M.Zgierska, BlowUp Agency

But in many ways this is beyond Grotowski, more sophisticated, more layered, the physicality more refined and detailed, the energy almost as raw, the use of voice more nuanced. There’s a woman in a red dress, a woman in a white dress, and there’s a painter, who is he? God, painting this world? The ghost of  Kantor? The Kaballah Master? Again – echoes, images…. a child with a huge Jewish black fur hat.

fot. M.Rukasz, M.Zgierska, BlowUp Agency

The voice tells us that when the child imagines the devil, he sees him as a big black leather dog.

The child rides on a big black leather dog, an actor in a padded black leather dog suit, it’s a terrifying, brilliant image.

In Kantor’s theatre the dead return to take once again their seats on the school benches. They push aside the doubles of their childhood and drag them offstage. The class has been dead for years, the doubles are mannequins. (Jan Kott)

Dipping into Jan Kott’s essay Kantor, Memory, Memoire (as one does) – this theatre is described. The images of soldiers or prisoners, mannequins or doubles, memories or nightmare… this is a world of memory, imagination, dream, desires, the subconscious…births and dyings… a collective ghost of horrors…this is what our brains do when we are at the edge of our lives.

I’ll resurface to mention that the texts were mostly performed in Polish, with subtitles projected high up (I recommend sitting towards the back for this one as the staging also works on different levels. I mean, literally, as well as…) The ‘concession to the British’ – voice came and went during the performance, now and again grounding us with comments such as ‘and now a very famous Polish actor will perform a text in Russian’. – Or maybe in Polish. I read the subtitles for a while and then realised it wasn’t helping, and there was so much to ‘read’ on stage. It’s a large cast, there are stories and encounters and crazy images everywhere. But it isn’t fragmented. It isn’t chaotic. It is very carefully choreographed.

A woman performs sounds from the Hebrew alphabet. The sounds come from her body, rejected by her body, released from her gut, from her skin. A man has a hook for a head, a puppet has no head. A child speaks and an old man’s face watches. An old man speaks through a child’s face. A group of performers scuttle onto stage, strange creatures, masks strapped across the back of their heads, distorting their bodies.

I’m not saying it was perfect. The subtitle setup didn’t really work. I’d like to think about a way of using texts and words to lift something of the many meanings in the work out, some other way of working with language. I don’t know what the effect would be if I understood Polish; I got the sense the texts would be dense and abstract even if you did understand them. Or perhaps the words work best as sounds and just didn’t need any translating at all.

The ‘concession to the British’  helped us through the performance, but still a whole row left the night I was there.

It was enthralling. I guess it wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t forgettable either. And I left the theatre feeling that something had shifted.

We don’t make theatre like this here.

I don’t know why not.