While nominally concerned with suicide, Teatr Zar's visceral tour de force is as much about survival. In this dazzling yet unsettling performance, bodies teeter on the brink; reaching, stumbling, stubbornly holding on. The pain is always there, in the showers of shattered glass or the red wine that spills across the stage, disturbingly reminiscent of blood, but the impulse to survive asserts itself just as powerfully as the impulse for destruction.
There is little attempt at narrative in Teatr Zar's evocative tapestry of movement and music, but meaning bleeds through the ensemble's abstract collection of images and sounds, imprinting itself on the level of emotion rather than intellect. This is theatre that strikes at the level of the senses, right from the moment the audience are plunged into darkness and exposed to the raw strains of smashing glass. It's about as startling as opening scenes get, setting the tone for an hour that leaves one's jaw almost permanently resting on the floor.
Although the mention of suicide in its name inevitably stains the performance and our perception of it, Caesarean Section might also be subtitled "essays on failure". Teatr Zar's extraordinary company of performers seem to be always reaching for something that is slightly beyond their grasp, repeatedly but beautifully failing. Their physicality, although meticulously controlled, feels constantly on the verge of relinquishing that control, simultaneously conveying the power, beauty and devastating fragility of human bodies. This is never more poignantly expressed than in the image of one woman standing first on a chair and then supported by another performer, straining upwards towards a taunting shaft of light that she is forever collapsing away from.
As extraordinary as the physicality of the performers is the design of the production that surrounds them. Bartosz Radziszewski's exquisite lighting casts unsettling shadows and hypnotically illuminates the channel of broken glass that cleaves the performance space in half, its beautiful but deadly shards an ever-present threat to the bare feet of the performers. The polyphonic score, meanwhile, woven from Corsican, Bulgarian, Romanian, Icelandic and Chechen influences, swells to fill the Council Chamber of Battersea Arts Centre with haunting choral melodies.
Caesarean Section is not always easy to watch, but neither is it as punishing as its title might suggest. Rather than wallowing in the pain of humanity, Teatr Zar leave their audience marvelling at it, tempering anguish with a spirit of irrational but astonishing resilience. Against the open-mouthed horror of the performer's silent scream, there is the beauty of the human embrace and the soaring strains of the music. Much theatre today brandishes the "immersive" label, but Teatr Zar – without narrative, gimmicks, technology or direct involvement of the audience – offer a truly enveloping, involving, gasp-inducing experience.