The Barbican Centre is an odd place, I have come to realise. It is somewhat of a community built within itself and it’s concrete walls. There is a housing estate, cinema, shops, bars, theatres, music halls, and even a church. Whilst I may get lost every time I venture to his strange centre, I always leave filled to the brim with theatre joy. Enter stage left, Teatr ZAR.

Teatr ZAR with Gospels of Childhood
Teatr ZAR with Gospels of Childhood

Teatr ZAR are a multinational group formed in Worclaw who are collaborating with the Growtowski Institute. This perhaps will set a certain standard for this theatre company, a certain method of working, especially when being so closely linked to the work of Growtoski, one of the worlds most notable theatre directors/experimenters. This comment is quite fair to state, especially after watching their debut performance of The Gospel of Childhood.

As audiences we are instructed via email to meet outside St Giles church, a rather odd location set within the heart of the Barbican Centre, surrounded by water, and modern built buildings. The church is a beautiful venue, no doubt about it. But what happens within the church and of the performance itself is something far beyond beautiful, it is captivating, entrancing, emotional and heartbreaking all at once.

Concentrating on the voice as a tool to lead and establish a form of theatre, Teatr ZAR create a whirl wind of choral chanting and rhythmic voice combined with various repetitive physical actions. The themes explored are that of the circle of life, from birth to death. The vocal ability of this group is extraordinary, where their songs and chanting lead the spectator into an emotional state. This is not surprising considering the word ZAR comes from the name of funeral songs performed by the Svaneti tribe in North-West Georgia.

Lamentation has always fascinated me, it’s something which is truly emotional and really piercing to listen to. The Gospel of Childhood features multiple layers of repetitive chanting, wailing, lamenting – full of harmonies, dissonance and melodies bursting with mournful life.

Teatr ZAR are true masters of the voice.

Gospels of Childhood
Gospels of Childhood

St Giles church is perhaps the perfect setting for this performance. The use of candles through the performance sets a certain ritualistic style for the chanting. The use of hanging pipes that are played mimic the sound of church bells adding to the events that unfold. In true European manner there is an uncertainty as to when each section of the performance ends. No clapping, no obvious crescendo, but instead silence.

Whilst The Gospel of Childhood is beautiful to listen to, and to ultimately experience (I find it hard to truly define this performance as anything but an experience) – there are flaws to the work. The vocal aspect of this is flawless. They are, as I’ve said, masters of the voice. But this isn’t purely a piece to listen to, there has to be an element of seeing the physical side of performance too.

There lacks a certain movement, or physicality, or even something beyond this. I can’t quite place my finger on it. You get so wrapped up in the atmosphere and the music, the chanting – the shapes of the body and the odd spoken english lines that you forget at times that this is a piece of theatre where there is meant to be some form of movement. Whilst this isn’t a static piece, it is slightly obvious that the musical element of the performance is the core of the piece, with the physical overlapped. It doesn’t take away from the performance, but it does leave it behind from a well rounded performance.

Gospels of Childhood2
Glass, Wine, Lamentation

The middle part of the Triptych of The Gospels of Childhood is within the Barbican’s Pit Theatre. The style is completely different and kind of tilts the whole performance in a completely different direction to the ritual aspects delivered in the church. The design element here is crucial, the use of broken glass, shattering of glass, glass chips slicing the stage apart, the spilling of wine, the spilling of blood all links beautifully with the song and instruments used. The suicidal aspects used within this middle section are not needed and take away from the performance itself, making this middle section rather weak compared to the church parts one and two.

However, do not for a moment be put off by this slightly odd affair of a performance. It is challenging. I can’t say I understood what was happening from moment to moment. The questions it raised though, along with the beautiful, yes that cliche word of beautiful (but how else to sum up the experience I had?) voices left me stunned into silence.

It’s not often you’ll get to see theatre of this nature without stepping into Poland, so my advice is to brace the slightly cold night to queue for returns for this production, as unfortunately it is now completely sold out. If anything, A MUST SEE.