Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Songs of Lear, Summerhall, Edinburgh Fringe

Review: Songs of Lear, Summerhall, Edinburgh Fringe

Published in The List, 17.08.2012
This review won the 2012 Allen Wright Award

Imagine King Lear in pill form, the Shakespearean equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Three-Course Dinner Chewing Gum. Or contained in a single firework. What about Lear: the new fragrance from Christian Dior?

Baffling as this all sounds, it’s pretty much what revered Polish company Song of the Goat does with the play. By translating it into a choral song cycle, they give us a non-natural version of the play – ineffable as opposed to Brechtian – in which Shakespeare’s plot is all but obliterated.

Instead, it’s distilled to its tonal properties. A ten-strong choir – five men, five women – harmonise through ten songs by Jean-Claude Acquaviva and Maciej Rychly. Each is born out of a segment of the play, without fully dramatising it: ‘pictures through sound,’ as director Grzegorz Bral explains. The first, ‘In Paradiso’, is a hymn conjuring England’s hills and sun through stained glass windows, but others grow dark and discordant, as Lear’s brain frazzles and his kingdom splits. After each song, Bral steps forward to contextualise the next.

Gradually, out of a recital, a thin layer of drama emerges. Cordelia sits in a chamber weeping through puberty. Gabriel Gawin’s Lear examines his daughter as one might a racehorse. Later, he surveys his fractured land like a man stood over an open grave.

But it is the music – or rather the sensation of it – that really gets to you. Walls of vibrato and sharp throaty wails surge through the room and, bit by bit, without you really knowing how, it takes you over.

This is essence of Lear, desiccated and condensed; sensed rather than watched and absorbed until it hasn’t just got under your skin, but right into your bone marrow. For the half hour that followed, I was static electricity, too knock-kneed to stand. It is a full-body detox; catharsis pure and simple and transcendent.

In a Fringe chock-full of profanity, Songs of Lear is something sacred.

Photograph: Song of the Goat

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