The most concert-like in appearance of all Song of the Goat’s performances so far, Songs of Lear is by no means less dramatically riveting in its core. Ten chairs, nine singers, six suspended mics and two musicians is all that the eye can see on the starkly lit stage, and yet we spend most of the show in a series of settings the eye cannot see.
The director Grzegorz Bral is present, intermittently talking to us, conducting the singers and sitting in his own chair (identical to the actors’). Bral frames the 10 songs delivered by the cast – all dressed in black – in two ways. Conceptually, he tells us, the show was inspired by a Kandinsky retrospective he saw at Tate Modern some years ago: like the artist, the show uses the principles of ‘inspiration, improvisation and structure’ while pursuing an investigation of the ‘colour of sound’. Shakespeare’s Lear haunts this piece the way one of Kandinsky’s early landscapes is seen by Bral to be haunting his later more abstract creations. Secondly, the evening is framed by Bral’s narrative in between songs serving to orientate us within the story.
Bral has attempted on previous occasions to explain and encapsulate Song of the Goat’s approach through a somewhat esoteric principle of ‘co-ordination’. This is a kind of fine-tuning of energies taking place between the performers but also ideally between the performers and the audience. It is interesting to observe therefore that the audience – not at all negligible in number in BAC’s Grand Hall is mesmerically captivated throughout the show.
Because of the emphasis on sound on the stage there are no extraneous shuffles or whispers happening at any moment in the auditorium for the entire 60 minutes. It’s as though we are all at work. And the show’s minimalism also makes every minor gesture on stage count for its theatrical value: the Fool’s single cheeky sneer, Cordelia’s tears, Lear’s forcefully taking off Cordelia’s shoes and throwing one each to the other two daughters, a subtle tilting of the chairs. Although the actors are always bringing their entire bodies into their immaculate singing this is not the kind of spectacular physical theatre the company had delivered before (I’m thinking of Chronicles – A Lamentation). Yet, nevertheless their performance is entirely athletic in its discipline and poise.
The combination of choral church singing and occasional folksy trilling might have been delivered as competently by a group of trained singers alone, but there is something more at work here. Earlier in the day, at the conference of which this performance is a part, Bral explained how as part of their ethnographic performance research the company came across a woman in Serbia who he described as having ‘more than a perfect pitch’ – the added value was of an apparently ethereal kind. I guess what this show does comes very close to that description too.