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Edinburgh Fringe 2012

Songs of Lear

Song of the Goat

Genre: Musical Theatre




Low Down

Song of the Goat Theatre explores the themes and essence of King Lear through a series of songs, each a small dramatic performance in itself. 


Prose gives us meaning first whereas poetry reveals mood and feeling first. Songs of Lear is sheer poetry. Songs of Lear isn’t Lear, it’s Lear cut back to its essence. In Song of the Goat’s inimitable style they strip Lear into its themes and feelings, replacing text with song. This is more of a performance recital than a play, a deeply ritualistic spiritual experience with the quality of an oratorio.

It dispenses with the text and instead gives us twelve songs interspersed with speeches from the play. There is no linear narrative. Instead there are songs which take us through the play, each a small performance in itself. Grzegorz Bral, the company’s founder steps forward before each song to explain its relationship to and place in the text. The five men and women stand on stage, plainly clad in black, like a concert performance, and sing. Sometimes after a song or interspersed into one, one of the actors gives a speech from King Lear. That, essentially, is it, except that it is much more than that – an intensely powerful and profound emotional experience is constructed from these simple elements.

The songs are written by two composers Jean-Claude Acquaviva from Corsica, and Maciej Rychly from Poland. The Corsican composer’s songs derive from the tradition of ‘liturgical polyphony’, whereas Rychly’s have their roots in the fifth Gospel (that of Doubting Thomas) and are in Coptic Egytian. The first represents the harmony of the play, the king and court, while the second brings in the darkness when Lear decides to divide his kingdom.

The two very different musical forms tear against each other creating a dramatic tension, but ultimately soar together. Plain chant, vocal harmonic overtones and the dirge of Balkan bagpipes combine to create a incredible wall of sound. There are wonderful harmonies undercut by visceral, gutteral wails, sounds you didn’t know the human voice possessed. Song of the Goat stand in their familiar horseshoe, a close ensemble, gesturing to each other as they sing, their bodies totally the vessels of their singing. Sometimes words can struggle to convey the intensity of our emotion; song cuts through the words and text with an immediacy that hits straight at the core.

It’s an engrossing, totally immersive piece. Strange that a piece that takes away so many of the elements of drama to concentrate on the sound can be so thoroughly dramatic. What it does lose in the telling is some elements of the Lear tale – the conflict between Goneril and Regan, the pride and then madness of the king. It concentrates instead on Cordelia, placing her centre stage with three incredible laments that howl the pain of her betrayal.

This is a very special piece of theatre that carried me away emotionally with the beauty of its sound. I can’t really do it justice – just go see it, hear it, feel it.



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