Based on Dziady by Adam Mickiewicz
It’s a challenge bringing a national treasure of a property to another country. Even more so when the performance is one that is so specific and, moreover, completely performed in an original language.
It’s a bold move by Lubuski Teatr to bring Gusła (or Witchcraft) to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, a performance so steeped in mysticism, cultural identity and imagery of ritualistic paganism. Although, if there were ever a place where such a performance would feel at home, then it would be Edinburgh; a city which still annually celebrates the ancient Gaelic festivals of Samhain and Beltane.
Gusła is in part an adaptation of sections and motifs drawn from Polish national bard Adam Mickiewicz’s Romantic poem Dziady. Mostly, the script is drawn from Part II, and features the unquiet spirits of the dead being summoned by a shamanic Guślarz and an old man, who reign them in and encourage them to vent their ire and guilt as, one by one, the multitude of spectres and wraiths take centre stage and declaim sonorously in misery, scorn or jest, begging and justifying themselves to the audience.
Or at least, that’s what is presumably happening, having no working knowledge of Polish myself. Still, even without understanding the word-by-word dialogue, the frenetic dancing, writhing and stomping, and each scream, laugh and plaintive yell, tells its own story.
Director Grzegorz Bral has turned this classic piece of Polish literature into a churning, dark and terrifying spectacle, as if the audience has happened into a place they should not be; a smoky and heavy atmosphere where the very air itself feels oppressively thick with something akin to sorcery.
It’s also an incredible production to behold, as each unique costume bristles with fur and feathers, bone and iron, and looks uniquely bizarre and yet luridly enticing. What’s more, the choreography, the ritualistic chanting, screaming and accompanying live music all point to a level of skill and execution that is simply staggering.
This is simply a production far beyond the usual expectation of a Fringe show. It’s set a new bar for expectations and is easily the freshest, richest and most viscerally stunning piece of Fringe theatre Scotland has seen in 2023.
Reviewer: Graeme Strachan