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Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

Festival Poetry: Songs of Lear

‘Have more than thou showest / speak less than thou knowest’

After word of mouth and rave reviews, I went along to Songs of Lear on Tuesday 21 August. Teatr Pieśń Kozła / Song of the Goat Theatre has been building an international reputation since its formation in 1996 and partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University in 1996. Of their latest production they say:

Songs of Lear is a metaphor. We use King Lear as a landscape but it is only a landscape. The first song you will hear is a tuning song, but it will come back at the end.’

Grzegorz Bral introduces each episode, which is a song and also a poem, locating each new piece in the musical tradition and in the action of the play. What follows is a choral and dramatic interpretation of a scene in the play.

What characterisation and plot remains emerges gradually. The company performs as one seamlessly coherent instrument, moving around the stage area all in black like a hand that clenches and releases. Individuality is surrendered to the songs; voices become instruments, so much so that when the gaida (Balkan bagpipes) enter during the fourth number, the breaking of the uniformity of voices alone is unnoticed.

Special mention must be made of Lear, the Fool and Cordelia, who ground the piece with their recurring appearances. The first confrontation between Cordelia and Lear made the hairs stand up on the back of my arms.

We are drawn deep into the landscape – yet with so little. A dilemma in staging any Shakespeare is how to manage the seen and unseen (think of Banquo’s ghost at the feast). The ninth of the twelve songs manifests the voices heard by Lear in his encroaching madness, the crumpled figure of the king folding in on himself at their centre.

William Hazlitt said of King Lear, ‘All that we can say must fall far short of the subject; or even of what we ourselves conceive of it.’ It is fitting that this ingenious and unusual interpretation feels as removed from its source as a Kandinsky is from the landscape it depicts. I say ‘feels’ deliberately: the transmission of the piece is the key, the walls of sound and their fragmentation emanating from the company to the audience in a way that is almost tactile as it is audible. Care is taken with each element: storytelling, music, words and the composition of the stage. The structure of the piece is used to free the audience to absorb rather than scrutinise without losing any of the transcendental ferocity, power or vulnerability in the source material.

Songs of Lear is part of the incredible Polska Arts programme taking place in Edinburgh this summer.

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