Gospels of Childhood The Triptych
'This spiritual and sensual experience is a three-part ritualistic lamentation on birth, death, pleasure and pain, told through song, chanting and movement.' That's the way the publicity describes the three part work from Poland that opens the new bite09 season at the Barbican - and I can't fault it. It begins in the church of St Giles, Cripplegate, which faces the Barbican Centre across the lake, moves for its second section to the Pit and then back to St Giles.
The texts on which it is based are given in a booklet in the programme but what you hear and see is not a literal expression of them and, even when some passages are in English, are much less important than the atmospheres and images that the performance evokes.
The opening section, described as 'Fragments on Intimations of Immortality from recollections of early childhood,' is performed in a church lit mainly by candles and carried on a sea of polyphonic chant as it explores themes from the story of Lazarus and Mary Magdalene drawing Gnostic ideas of early Christianity but you do not have to be a Christian to respond to the richness of the sound and the power of the images with sudden collapse continually followed by recovery, childbirth, ritual washing.
To liturgical sounding music are added songs collected in Georgia, Bulgaria and Greece and the sequence ends with music from the monasteries of Mount Athos culminating in a sequence based on the 'Christ is Risen' rite of Greek Easter with a candle being lit in the darkness and the light distributed from candle to candle until the audience is left with an empty space in which great wheels of candles swing through space, though denied the personal candle of public ritual to take away with them.
The audience waited for the performers to return, either moved or perhaps uncertain whether there was more. Only silence and the fading up of light over the audience confirmed this part of the show was over. This uncertainty of understanding is present through much of the whole work but sustained by the wonderful sound these performers make and held by the inventiveness of the images. This is something to be experienced not thought about.
The second section, subtitled 'Essays on Suicide' begins in darkness with the ticking of a metronome and the sound of shattered glass, then fragments of glass scattered into a thin rivulet of light across the traverse stage. The violin and tubular bells of the first part are now replaced by cellos, a saw, an accordion and a piano and the music - Corsican with elements from Iceland, Cechnya, Romania and Bulgaria and some pieces by Eric Satie - had what for me what seemed an Hispanic feel that is also present in what becomes much more danced movement. This section seems much more personal, much of it centred on an individual couple.
The third section, back in St Giles, has a white sail spread above the performance space, one corner sweeping down to the ground where a bare-chested man is lying tied to it. Called 'The Calling' it is apparently a tribute to a Polish poet and a journey he made to the Holy Land, but I could not even begin to interpret its images. Here the music draws on Sardinian and Byzantine hymns and irmoi which begin each section of the canon in Orthodox services. Earlier in the first section, in what I took to be the burial of Lazarus, earth is shovelled from beneath the performance platform. Now, as the work draws to a close, the men of the company tear up some of its wooden planking to make their own graves and lie in them as the women gradually lower the great white sail down over them. They are left there awaiting resurrection. Despite the considerable physical and vocal skills displayed by the performers this is indeed a ritual, not a show. There is no curtain call, no place to applaud them. The audience leave in silence.
Until 2nd October 2009
Reviewer: Howard Loxton