Months after Song of the Goat Theatre (Teatr Pieśń Kozła) brought their Songs of Lear from Poland to Chicago Shakespeare Theater, their performance continues to teach me, as King Lear himself is taught, to
The first lesson was to widen my own vision of innovation. In the studio theater, rows of playgoers looked directly on an open area occupied by a dozen bentwood chairs arranged in a semicircle. The setting promised collaboration and improvisation, in line with the program statement by the troupe, citing “the need and search for connection…as the root of authentic experience.” I thus was disconcerted when a man with directorial bearing walked alone to the front of the space. He earnestly apologized to the audience. He had, he said, no icebreaking joke for tonight’s show; he was to guide us, as Virgil guides Dante. He wanted to describe an art show he had seen at London’s Tate Modern, of the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, which had spurred him to consider how a series of abstractions might capture a landscape as no single image could. (Presumably this show was the 2006 retrospective called Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction.) This man was the company’s director, Grzegorz Bral, and he explained that Songs of Lear would be twelve songs, or paintings, or “landscapes of sound.”
As much as I liked Bral, his intervention puzzled me. Did we need to be told that performance could refract and abstract, or that an experimental troupe might present discontinuous scenes? Why invoke a painter, and a defendant of artistic isolation at that, to introduce a troupe that aims to “integrate movement, voice, song and text”?
The language of the performance became clearer as a group of performers occupied the arc of chairs. They were dressed not in dancewear or actor-casual jeans and sneakers, but in strict black: dress shoes, black sheaths on the women, black trousers and shirts on the men. The uniformity suggested a chorus, or, less literally, with the dark attire setting off the warmer curves of the bentwood, a string ensemble. We were not witnessing a rehearsal, but a concert, made up of twelve pieces. The program listed compositions, attributing lyrics to Shakespeare, the Gospel of Thomas, Gregorian chant, and Emily Dickinson, and music to the troupe’s composers, Jean-Claude Acquaviva and Maciej Rychły. Yet we were to hear these compositions as theater, with the director guiding us much as a docent would guide viewers to read paintings as landscapes. The ensemble would indeed “integrate movement, voice, song and text” into an art form, but one that was consciously multimodal, not a totalizing art. The constant was that this art form was fundamentally choric: an ensemble of singers, largely a cappella, in tight harmonies and in solo, often with one of the actors (not always the same one, and not the director) as their conductor. The actors’ bodies and chairs alike were instruments; at one point all the male actors drummed on their round chair seats like the tambourines used in another number. The half-circle of chairs itself invoked Lear’s crown and its breaking.
Less like an opera than like Shozo Sato’s kabuki-inflected Shakespeare adaptations, this was not the text of Lear set to music, but Lear with its text compressed to distinct, separate musical lines for different scenes from and around the play. The first scene, surprisingly, emphasized the calm before the storm. Other scenes gradually brought forward a consistent, but not insistent, case of main characters: the only jacketed, bearded actor as the impetuous Lear; a spare bespectacled man as Gloucester; a tall, dark woman of coiled energy as the Fool. Shakespeare’s English texts were used amidst other evocative texts and wordless chants: the play’s accusations and curses were interspersed with multilingual promises of peace. In one unforgettable sequence, after the director told us that the division of the kingdoms was not Lear’s first rejection of Cordelia, we witnessed one female actor repeat Cordelia’s words of grief as, at the ages of 4, 7, 11, and 14, her voice, facial comportment, and seated position evoking with dreadful specificity the stages of girlhood and the intensification of emotional pain.
As the play moved from betrayal to total war, the pieces became increasingly collective, percussive, urgent, mobile, and wordless. The company was tapping the wellspring of tragedy: a howling grief that preceded speech and yet compelled the search for words. What we heard might be an early Christian liturgy, an eastern European folk harmony, a Gregorian or Tibetan chant; what we saw was all-too-familiar scenes of damaged institutions and collectivity: divided juries, gridlocked parliaments, warring troops, thrusting mobs. The docent became a commentator, guiding us across an apparently orderly landscape devastated by the sight and sound of human anger and loss, and the production’s many cultural referents reminded us that such conflicts erupt endlessly, are never fully averted. What I learned in the course of this performance was that although I am a teacher of texts, the power of a text like King Lear precedes and outlives any language, and yet that language must continue to intercede. I learned to be grateful, then, for the gentle guidance of the director’s narration, for the hope that this unspeakable pain could be named and understood.
At the end of the performance, the director spoke of the troupe’s stance against war, oppression, cruelty, and tyranny. He turned to the audience and offered his company’s support against the “war going on now.” The lights came up; audience members turned to each other in wordless appreciation. Was I the only one wondering which war he meant? There were so many to choose from, and I thought of Syria, and Palestine, and endangered European unity; but this offer seemed addressed to us as Americans. And thus it is that the full lesson of Songs of Lear, the full intimacy of its landscape, did not become clear to me until after Election Day.
Lori Humphrey Newcomb is an associate professor in the department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research puts Shakespeare’s plays in dialogue with other printed books of the era. She earned her MA and PhD in English at Duke University and her BA in British Studies at Yale University. Read More…