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?