If you were to step out of your time machine into the Athenian fifth-century theatre, what you would experience is not what you see at the Barbican Pit in the Gardzienice Centre for Theatre Practices production of Metamorphoses & Elektra. While the scientists are working on the machinery, however, this evening is probably as close as you can get to the sensation – the music, the words, and the confrontation of a wholly foreign world – that a time machine journey would produce.
Gardzienice’s is a theatre aesthetic of bodies, and sounds. (Luckily, since few in the audience can have mastered both the ancient Greek and Polish that is mixed in with the occasional English explanation.) The company works with the fragmentary remains of ancient Greek songs (a little of the musical notation survives), then has taken in influences from tours to remote parts of eastern Europe, New Mexico, South Korea and Norway, searching for the elemental in culture and humanity.
This is then reduced and shaped to a carefully rehearsed anarchy, to the point where a group of women in white robes, whirling around the stage to a simple but compulsive rhythm (Sufi mystics by another name), are crying like eerily accurate angry seagulls. Or the Author stands in his cloaks of character masks, defenceless and undefended as they are ripped away.
The second play of the evening, based on Euripides Electra is the evening’s tragedy; the gang rape of Elektra, begun by Aegisthus, her mother’s lover, is enormously powerful, as her shattering body is casually tossed from attacker to attacker. Yet so is her revenge, as she gleefully walks away from his body, drinking his blood.
This Elektra is produced using Cheironomia, the formal communicative gestures recorded on vase paintings (a selection of these is projected on to the stage). As the story of Elektra’s betrayal unfolds this becomes as an increasingly frenetic choral dance – immediately communicative.
The tone of Metamorphoses, which is based on a play by the Platonist Lucius Apuleius of Madaura (also called The Golden Ass, is far lighter. It is the tale of Lucius, who has been accidentally been magically transformed into a donkey. Here it is played as a sacriligeous medieval mystery play, the opening scene a peasant party straight out of Pieter Brueghel the Younger.
Lucius was writing at the time when Christianity and the Old Gods came face to face, a conflict the production explores. Christ is here; at one point he’s the tortured Saviour on the way to Calvary, next he’s a patriarchal scary clown, swinging his “cross” at the women in an unsubtle symbol of maleness. But it seems he can’t restore the unfortunate donkey-Lucius to human form, so it is time for the pagan priestess to display their trade, which involves a comic focus on the man/beast’s nether regions.
So there’s plenty of humour in this first half of the evening, although you have to be feeling confident to laugh out loud, since your neighbour might well be doing a Rodin Thinker imitation at the same moment. (And probably be thinking “get me out of here”.) But who could resist a donkey with the catchphrase “Don’t want to!”
The music and voice (supported only by what looks like a traditional Polish squeeze box and an athletically dancing cello) are astonishing – strange but compelling; the dance superb. As for the narrative – well you can construct your own if you really need it.
This won’t be everyone’s beaker of wine, but it is an unforgettable evening of theatre.
Photos by Robert Workman
The production continues at the Barbican until February 11. What the New York Times thought of Elektra last year.