By Danielle Farrow
Shakespeare’s King Lear is the springboard for Songs of Lear, with the company focusing on Cordelia’s story and themes of rejection and loss, including – as they call it – a dying nation. Few characters appear, what lines are included are often played with chronologically and covered by song, and how much of this interpretation of Lear actually relates to your own view of the play – should you have one – you would have to judge for yourself, but in the end Lear is almost irrelevant.
What Poland’s Song of the Goat Theatre Company has created is a soundscape that immerses you in music and vocals of an ecclesiastic world churned by pagan cries across wide open spaces, calls to worship of both Eastern European and Middle Eastern tones and the demanding, exhilarating and terrifying rhythmic thrusts of war. Lamentations abound, growing from a child’s lonely attempts through longing entreaty to the full-throated roar of absolute loss. Occasionally emotion seems slightly forced – not because it has never been felt, but as if the emotions found previously are being squeezed out now, rather than newly felt again. Even then the impact is strong, and when all is new-minted, and flowing through this extraordinary company – each individual a live-wire conductor for the sounds and moves of the group – it can be literally hair-raising.
While the themes and feelings explored do not cover a great variety, there are shifting textures, the laments punctuated by some wonderful percussive ripples and explosions created in rhythmic dances and through the use of chairs and floor as drums. Along with this physicality and the voices, music is created with circle drums, a harmonium, a kora – a long-necked string instrument with a large round belly – and the Polish bagpipes. The sound of the pipes blended particularly impressively with the forceful, throaty cries of strong lamentation.
Each song is introduced, often relating to events within Lear, but also with interesting and informative references made to labyrinths, souls and angels that show explorations stimulated by the company’s look at Lear which have lost some direct connection when it comes to performance. Songs of Lear is apparently “a constantly evolving creative research project” and that evolution can take us quite a way from the source material. However, as it is made clear that this is not Shakespeare’s Lear, but a musical response to it, there is no sense of being cheated here.
Though there could be more variation in the exploration of the elements that have been chosen, the vocal and physical performances are masterly. Songs of the Goat create an ensemble that breathes together, infusing their work with a tightly disciplined energy that can be, in turn, raw and highly sophisticated. Their precision binds all of this into an impressive piece that lingers after the performers have bowed (to standing ovations) and the sweltering space has cleared, so that Songs of Lear continue to reverberate within you.