Songs of Lear

Song of the Goat

Battersea Arts Centre

From 19 February 2015 to 22 February 2015

Review by Alecia Marshall

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As director Grzegorz Bral steps onto the stage, the audience fall silent. The steering force behind Polish company Song of the Goat, Bral welcomes us to an evening of ‘painted sounds’, their title: Songs of Lear.

The inspiration for the approaching piece, he reveals, is a Kandinsky exhibition, long ago viewed. An artist fuelled by the vibration and sound of colours, Bral attributes Kandinsky with the ability to ‘transform intuition’.

Describing the final painting of the exhibition, Bral explains how its meaning was only clear when examined in the context of its landscape: the landscape of Kandinsky’s work. He advises that the following piece must similarly be understood in the context of its landscape: the landscape of King Lear. Yes, this is Shakespeare—but not in his usual guise.

Ten people enter the stage. They divide into two: women stage right, men stage left.  All are dressed in black and sit on hard-backed chairs. There is no evidence of Kandinsky colour—yet.

Bral once again assumes the role of narrator; we are about to view a series of paintings, the first of which is titled Il Paradiso. A cappella, the company begin to sing.

The sound swells, harmonious and clean, pulsating through space. It is neither musical concert nor theatrical performance, presenting the essence of a familiar narrative with raw complexity.

The company draws on a variety of languages and musical styles, from western choral music to Corsican and Coptic traditions. There is occasional accompaniment from an onstage harmonium, kora and sierszenti, but the voices perform best when left alone.

The subsequent ‘paintings’ map Lear’s tragedy in a linear fashion, though decidedly loosely. This is not an attempt to recount the story, but to capture its sound. Characters do emerge (Lear, Cordelia, Fool), each offering snippets of original text that feel unnecessary in a milieu of notes. Yes, they award a certain clarity, but it would have been braver to disregard them entirely.

There are notable highlights. Cordelia’s lament is wrought and stark, the ensemble of voices stripped to a lone, broken sound, whilst Lear’s madness is strangely beautiful—careful and creeping.

When war approaches, the chorus tighten, steeling themselves to sing war. Shoes are removed and the once unassuming chairs become drums, emitting an intimidating, rhythmic beat. They sing with a startling aggression and violence.

Such is the spirit of Song of the Goat: just when you think there is no more intensity to give, they change gear, shift upwards, project forwards. Songs of Lear is a short, sharp, shock of a performance and it is an exhausted audience that exit the stalls—after they have collectively stood in applause.