In the wake of last week’s conference at the Rose Theatre Kingston on Shakespeare Our Contemporary, Jan Kott’s mouldbreaking 1964 book which juxtaposed the Bard with Ionesco, Beckett and post-war political reality, comes Polish company Song of the Goat’s Songs of Lear. The show, we’re told, will bring ‘to life the subtle energies and rhythms that govern Shakespeare’s tragedy…weav[ing] a story out of gestures words and music. Each song is a starting point for another ‘dramatic poem’ where the music becomes characters, relationships and events.’ Like most people in the audience, I suspect, I have no idea what the evening will bring.
The set is spartan: a semi circle of black chairs underneath microphones which hang overhead. They seem, peculiarly, to punctuate the space – both perfunctory and enticing. Some instruments lie on one side of the circle, soon to be breathed into life by musicians, Maciej Rychly, Rafal Habel and Kacper Kuszewski. The cast of singers appear, the evening begins, and from the first moment we’re caught in a web of visceral musicality. Monika Dryl opens her heart out to In Paradisum (lyrics based on a Gregorian chant), her exquisite vocals like a thread winding its way across the room. The first ‘painting’ of the show sets the scene: in the beginning there was love and harmony.
At the beginning of each scene (which he describes as a ‘musical painting’) Company founder Grzegorz Bral explains what the essence of the narrative will be. It’s a curious convention and at times a little mechanical – but at others, it underlines the show as a construct, building a portal to ‘conscious’ exploration. We’re at once both observing the experiment and paradoxically engaged in something sublime and overwhelming: caught in the paradigm of King Lear and – instead of observing the drama – swept along with it by the forceful musical tide
As Bral said flatly at the opening of the Kott conference, ‘Songs of Lear is not about adaptation. The text is a starting point, the crucial part leading us somewhere else’. Bral expands on Kott’s take on Shakespeare as ‘a lived philosophy’ and cites Mongolian throat prayers and Greek Lamentations as influences on his work.
These are all present in the musical composition, Painting 4: Cordelia’s Warning, a rendition of The Gospel of Thomas and of King Lear’s warning. The instrumentation features the sierszenki (a bagpipe-type of traditional instrument), harmonium and kora which conjure ancient sounds (arabic to celtic), capturing the primal terror unleashed at this point in the drama.
Bral describes this method as ‘a revealed poetry’, and compares reading Shakespeare to the way religious people read holy books: ‘True poetry comes as a revelation..my theatre is all about how you connect with this experience of poetry’. Bral relates his theatre practice to the Polish concept of the ‘Dreaming Body’, the idea of looking holistically beyond the rational. His ‘theatre of musicality’ sounds much like shamanistic journeying to get to the source of things, building dramatic tension between music and narrative.
In the following scene we see a broken Cordelia sitting on a chair crying through the lyrics of Painting no.5 Jewels of our Father: Her fragile words break through the tears engulfing her, and Dryl’s emotional outpour, consistent throughout the lament, is devastating. The only respite lies in the next two paintings: Ave Maris Stella and In Paradisum Part 2, setting the scene for Painting 8: War – the show-stopper of the piece.
Julianna Bloodgood is a powerhouse here: her vocals matched by choreographed arm movements, the rhythmic drumming adding to the tension. As the climax returns to base, the desolate sound inspired by Lear’s Christ cipher via Ave Maria and the final ‘Death’ painting, a traditional Tibetan piece like a merciless dirge, leaves the audience in abject silence, as defenceless and bereft as the characters onstage.
At the conference Bral asked, unforgettably, ‘Do we really live through words? There was a time when words represented the object. No longer.’ Bral described horse-whisperers he’d met in South Africa, with their ‘living experience’ of the word: ‘They communicated in ways that were not about conveying information’.
Indeed, what we’ve learnt on this evening is that our interconnectedness (with everything, including text) reveals itself most profoundly through the surrendering of definitions. Although we may have lost sight of the strict chronology of Shakespeare’s play, we’ve somehow lived through the ecstasy and anguish of the experience through these musical paintings alone. ‘Singing songs with other people,’ Bral says, ‘is a physical sensation, the impact is real’. Songs of Lear is an example of just how painful, joyful and beautiful that can be.
Songs of Lear at the Battersea Arts Centre was supported by the Polish Cultural Institute, London.