February 27, 2024

Chorally rich Songs of Lear at the Battersea Arts Centre

Songs of Lear first appeared in the UK at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe where it received some praise and a Fringe First award. Anticipation is high then as Polish company Song of the Goat Theatre bring their musical interpretation of King Lear to London and the Battersea Arts Centre.

On stage a semicircle of dark wooden chairs face the audience. Many microphones hang down from the ceiling, drawing attention to the importance sound has in the production. A kora (a 21 string lute-harp) sits to the right. The blurb claims what is to come is ‘a non-linear dramatic event that shows the world of subtle energies and rhythms that govern Shakespeare’s tragedy’.

The great play has been used as a jumping off point for twelve or so scenes of singing and gestures. Ten singers and a musician perform a vignette, before narrator/director Grzegorz Bral walks on from the side and explains what is going to happen in the next scene. The mostly static singers form a well-drilled platoon, their unaccompanied voices merging in choral polyphony. Occasional lines from the original play are spoken but mostly Lear is left behind with famous scenes such as Gloucester’s torture not making the performance in any palpable way.

Musically Songs of Lear is unusual and hard-wrought. As theatre it is flawed, the pause after every scene for the narrator to to speak killing the atmosphere. Especially as the narrator speaks in idiosyncratic English (‘Scene: number first’, ‘Cordelia is banned into an exile’), which jerks you out of the performance.

Accompanying the music is much gesturing and knee-bending. But this becomes repetitive, it being a struggle to express the nuances of Lear with shaken hands and outstretched arms. Grzegorz Bral is quoted as saying Do not show too much in the performance – only provoke imagination and he follows the first part of this dictum to the letter. Two inventive moments do stand out. The seats of the chairs are turned into drums during the storm, when the performers thump them to create a cacophonous din. Props are rare, but the large white discs held by the singers during another episode are similarly turned to noisy use, again as drums. More of that invention would have been good.

An illustration of the main moods of Lear, this is successful more as musical exploration, though the choral language is only occasionally English, not often enough for the lyrics to mean much to a British audience. Deadly serious, Songs of Lear throws an impressive human-powered soundscape around Battersea’s Grand Hall but lacks the verve and visuality to fully engage as theatre.

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