For some people theatre is purely a title used to describe a single homogenous mass of culture. They make no distinction between plays and musicals, and certainly don’t delineate between the many genre classifications that exist within drama. However for regular theatre goers there exist a number of tell-tale phrases that act as a useful guide as to whether a theatre event is something likely to be enjoyed.
Take Songs of Lear by Song of the Goat; they rather bravely describe their new play as ‘deeply rooted in the best traditions of Polish avant-garde theatre’. Despite putting it top of my list of plays to see in 2015, I must admit to being extremely intrigued in how tickets were selling at the box office.
So it was extremely heartening to report that the Grand Hall at the Battersea Arts Centre was a near sell-out; somewhere in the region of 400 people had clearly felt there wasn’t nearly enough non-linear, dramatic retellings of King Lear using polyphonic singing, gestures and mime in the London theatre scene to satisfy their cravings.
To describe Songs of Lear is close to impossible. It exists as a bold and brilliant reinvention of King Lear that takes its cue from the play but whose source material would be near impossible to identify without director, Grzegorz Bral, providing a summary explanation at the start of each episode.
It contains virtually no dialogue from the play but the dialogue it does contain seems to tell you all that is needed. Instead the cast – or possibly choir – perform the most haunting choral singing, with influences that seem to stretch from across Europe and North Africa.
Some moments sound liturgical and there are elements of what could be Gregorian chanting. A musician playing the Balkan bagpipes enters at key moments, directing his playing towards the actors; his interpolations are open to debate but for me they were a signifier of the existence of the wider world that is being slowly torn apart by the actions of Lear and his daughters. Or it could just be a man playing the bagpipes.
It ends with what appears to be an Arabic-inflected piece – the dead king paid homage to in the guttural cries of mourners, but are they mourning him or are they mourning the divided, fractured kingdom left behind?
The result is 75 minutes of a beauty that moves from an ethereal lightness to powerful sonic assaults – there rarely is a take a breath before the next moment of wonder. The Grand Hall provides superb acoustics and the talent of the 10-strong choir is beyond compare. At will they prove capable of creating rich, textured soundscapes that have the universalism of the finest religious music but also exist as intimate portraits of a reimagined King Lear.
Behind it all sits Shakespeare’s great work, dipping in and out of focus depending on the opaqueness of the episode presented. Image is so scarce that each one becomes invested in huge meaning; Lear stripping Cordelia of her shoes and handing them to his other daughters, the impish smile of the Fool. Occasionally language from the play breaks through and when it does it does so with a thunderous power.
It was one of the greats of theatre criticism, the Polish Jan Kott, who helped to shape the modern Lear. He was central to demolishing the Christian interpretations of King Lear and replacing it with a deeply nihilistic vision that recognised the grotesqueness that lies behind the tragedy. Kott saw through the possibility that Cordelia could be regarded as a Christ figure, with her sacrifice giving the possibility of redemption and healing. At the end of the play we are not left with redemption, only emptiness on a desolate stage that all actors have deserted.
Whilst the piece is open to multiple interpretations, it does seem as if Song of the Goat are channelling these two influences. This is not the mythic hinterland that Kott saw echoed in Beckett, but equally we are not being shown religion offering a redemptive power.
Perhaps, turning the power of its own music against it, we are being shown the destructive influence of religion; the musical influences come from continents that over the centuries have seen the schism to create the orthodox church, the rise of Protestantism, religious war in the Balkans following the collapse of Yugoslavia and now (and for so many times in the past) the shifting sands of power in the middle east.
Songs of Lear might not sound like a very appealing proposition. However I found it mystifying and totally captivating. It is the type of show that once experienced will not be forgotten and it is well worth seeking out to be reminded that the medium of theatre contains a barely imaginable number of possibilities within it.
Watch a trailer