Song of The Goat – Songs of Lear


Performed by an ensemble of twelve singers and musicians dressed in black on a bare stage, save for ten chairs and some musical instruments, Song of the Goat Theatre’s Songs of Lear proposes that there is an essence of tragedy in King Lear that is not beholden to the formal expectations of modern theater, something powerful that predates and remains independent of the play. The performance intends to tap into that force and release it, without regard for intellectual analysis or understanding, through song and movement. Voices echo one another, clashing then merging, gestures are passed between members of the ensemble in an almost unconscious way, the performers keeping a constant sonic and kinesthetic awareness of one another, a result of the company’s group training regimen. They function as one finely tuned instrument. A performer might embody a character for a moment and then let that identity dissolve back into the chorus of voices. The songs, composed by Jean-Claude Acquaviva and Maciej Rychły, draw on Gregorian chant, the Gospel of Thomas, even an Emily Dickinson poem, in addition to language from King Lear itself. Though these sources, save a traditional Tibetan tune included at the very end, reveal a largely Christian and Eurocentric framework for the supposedly elemental and universally translatable capacity of music, the range of texts nonetheless make the case for a common thread running through many different sources of poetry from at least Biblical times.

This is the enduring tragic impulse that Song of the Goat, whose name is the literal translation of the term “tragedy,” picks up and preserves, just as Shakespeare seized upon and shaped that same impulse to his own purposes. Songs of Lear suggests that this essence of tragedy may best be revisited not by endlessly restaging and reexamining the same text, recounting the same plot century after century, but rather by stepping into the emotional center that tragedy embodies and tuning into it together, as the ensemble begins its performance by tuning bodies and voices to the room, the audience, and to each other. In order to know firsthand the passions, desires, grief, and rage shared by humans in tragic circumstances across time—fictional and otherwise, noble and otherwise—we might need to discover our responses together in a theater, a place that should be devoted not to dull repetition or the recitation of literature, but to experiencing, directly and in the present, something very old in a new and unexpected way.

This potential for language to evoke a visceral response that transcends logic and meaning and touches something universal and ineffable is almost always described via metaphors of musicality. Where ordinary prose aspires to do more than merely communicate, we say that it becomes poetry, or becomes equal to poetry; and where the beauty of poetry exceeds its literal meaning, we can only compare it to music. Certainly the popular veneration of Shakespeare takes on these terms—he is not merely a dramatist, but a poet, and where his poetry reaches its expressive apex, it is the musicality of his language that we remark upon. But what does that mean? It certainly does not mean that the words are necessarily to be sung, in fact consigning words to the status of song lyrics can only emphasize the distance between language and music. Instead, our hyperbole suggests that the right words in the right order at the right time might literally become music, break free from the stifling container of syntactical meaning and express themselves as music does, through tone, melody, harmony, and rhythm, and so touch us in the way that music does, that is profoundly and beyond reason.

It is this act of cross-disciplinary translation that Song of the Goat Theatre attempts to realize with Songs of Lear, to take Lear and render it in music. Songs of Lear does not try to tell King Lear’s story through music, but rather to do with music what King Lear does, to invoke the effects of Lear without staging or recounting its plot, distilling to its most concentrated form the animus at the center of Shakespeare’s play. In doing so, they mean to move the audience’s apprehension of Lear from one filtered through theatrical representation into a more shared, lived, firsthand experience that embodies the energy of the drama rather than the specifics of its story (a weighty rebuke, perhaps, to Ira Glass’s now infamous Tweet that Lear is “not relatable.”)

Song of the Goat Theatre was established twenty years ago in Poland by Grzegorz Bral and Anna Zubrzycki. Both are alumni of Gardzienice, the remote Polish theater center founded by students and collaborators of influential teacher and director Jerzy Grotowski. Like Grotowski and the work done at Gardzienice, Song of the Goat Theatre creates work through a collective process based in sustained and ongoing training practices that incorporate voice, movement, rhythm, and energy. They perform as a single choral body engaged in polyphonic song and ensemble movement, aimed at the most concentrated expression of the very human desires, passions, and grief that have defined dramatic tragedy since classical times. In the process, they largely leave behind Shakespeare’s language and the play’s plot. Certainly a few lines from the play find their way in, both spoken and sung, and Bral himself narrates some of the plot, but in many ways Shakespeare’s play, as we know it, is absent. Songs of Lear becomes not a staging of Lear, but a staging with Lear, in relationship to Lear, because of what Shakespeare’s play makes possible.

Bral starts the performance quite non-musically, explaining rather informally and without irony to the audience that “theatre is about telling stories,” and declaring that the performance begins with one. Instead of music or theatre, though, his story turns out to be about painting. Bral recalls an exhibition at the Tate Modern museum in London that traced the early career of pioneering modernist master Wassily Kandinsky from the pastoral landscapes and folkloric scenes with which he began to his discovery of the abstract techniques for which he is best known. The exhibition came together for Bral in a large gallery where he could see the progression of Kandinsky’s painting style from the early landscapes toward ever-increasing levels of abstraction, until he arrived at an entirely black painting with some geometric lines cutting across it. Pure abstraction, it seemed. But in context of the gallery, Bral could perceive the relationship of the black painting to the landscapes, even though they had such clearly divergent representational fates, they shared a common origin and the same instigating impulse.

This relationship between representational and abstract forms is what Bral promises for Songs of LearLear in twelve paintings, with sound as color and himself, the director, as docent, explaining the paintings as we go. The dozen songs that comprise Songs of Lear are meant to occupy the living heart of Shakespeare’s play, to locate the dramatic impulse Lear embodies, and to remain there, tracing the psychic inner life of the play in absence of recited text and enfleshed portrayal of character. Bral’s commentary provides a tenuous connection, tethering his production to Shakespeare’s play so it does not float off into pure abstraction, just as Kandinsky’s black painting could only be a landscape in relation to his earlier, representational works. By breaking Lear down to song, Song of the Goat Theatre seeks to clarify the play. Not to analyze and explicate it to the point of coherence, but rather to cook it down until it is at its most concentrated and transparent—a stock of LearLear’s flavors with none of the meat left behind, a homeopathic preparation of the play. A Lear not to be seen, but to be seen through, heard and felt and understood in the moment of apprehension not as the play, but as an essence that remains of the play after the performance disappears, an essence that can permeate the boundaries between performers’ bodies, between actors and spectators, and that can flow on into the next embodiment of tragedy in any of our lives or on that, or any, stage.

Ira S. Murfin is currently completing his doctorate in the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre & Drama at Northwestern University. His research focuses on the relationship between language, perfor­mance, and media across arts disciplines in the post-1960s American avant-garde. He holds an MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BFA in playwriting from New York University.

Belarus Free Theatre – King Lear


King Lear Serbia 4 Photographer Nicolai Khalezin

“Will it be in English?” my companion asked when I invited him to join me in seeing the Belarus Free Theatre production of King Lear at Chicago Shakespeare Theater earlier this month.

It’s a reasonable question: Lear is now generally hailed as Shake­speare’s greatest tragedy, a play in which a man alone on a heath faces the uncaring tempestuous skies as he slowly loses his reason once his identity is stripped from him. “Who is it can tell me who I am?” he asks. Bereft of Shakespeare’s rich verse, who does Lear become? Can any rewritten version measure up to the original?

This production proves that the play loses none of its force in translation. I cannot think of a company more suited to reinventing this story: like Kent, Cordelia and Edgar, all of whom risk their lives in the face of tyrannical wrath, the members of the Belarus Free Theatre have all faced persecution in what is now the last remaining European dictatorship. Several company members live in exile. Banned on political grounds and forced underground, the company is committed to principles of social justice, freedom of speech, and artistic expression, and defiantly performs in Belarusian, the forbidden language of their homeland. In their hands, King Lear is shockingly immediate, by turns an effervescently funny and savage portrayal of power and its corruption.

The show begins by highlighting the systematic degradation of the young by their elders: in dividing up his kingdom, Lear (Aleh Sidorchyk) pours handfuls of dirt from a battered trunk into the outstretched skirts of his two eldest daughters, making them appear incestuously pregnant with the land itself as they clasp their expanded bellies upon receiving their rewards. After their respective sexual and patriotic musical numbers extolling Lear as the father of the nation to gain his favor, Cordelia’s brash irreverence comes as a blast of welcome air for which her father brutally batters her to the ground. Subsequently, we see Edmund (Kiryl Kanstantsinau) forced to wait on his own imperious wheelchair-bound father, who expects his son to catch the chaotic arcs of his urine in a bedpan and then callously uses his head as a towel to clean his lap afterwards. Such monstrous misuses of power by those on top lead us in the audience, perhaps somewhat to our surprise, to sympathize initially with characters frequently demonized as villainous. (Edgar, by contrast, is portrayed as a partying wastrel before his exile and transformation into Poor Tom.) At the same time, we witness the horror of those once traumatized by servility becoming monstrous in their own experiences of power and the rush it brings: Goneril and Regan quickly trade their simple folk dresses for glamorous gowns and fur coats, ultimately snarling and snapping at one another over the country’s spoils.

Power and humanity alike are ultimately stripped to their bare essentials here: Lear himself is neither loved nor feared in this production; rather, all but Cordelia (Victoria Biran) and the musical Fool (Elias Faingersh) kiss and bow down to the heavy steel gauntlet he brandishes on his right hand throughout the play. Until, that is, the rebels strip it from him in prison and mockingly use it as a puppet: the symbol of might exposed for the hollow prop it actually is. When a terrified Edgar (Siarhei Kvachonak) decides to disguise himself as a madman, he strips down to stained underwear and smears himself liberally with excrement to become Poor Tom. During the storm, Lear, Kent, and the Fool all strip as well to hide with him under a tarpaulin on a wet and shit-slicked stage (the audience is warned in advance of the liberal use of peanut butter as a prop in the show in the case of allergies, but the scene is no less effective).

Fittingly for a company on tour in exile, the Belarus Free Theatre evokes maximum effects from minimal sets: a trunk full of dirt becomes the country to be divided; that same trunk filled with empty mugs then becomes Lear’s hundred knights. Water shaken vigorously by the cast on a blue tarpaulin becomes the storm that drenches the King in his rage; later, a red tarpaulin borne onstage by the cast singing a military anthem becomes the play’s violent battlefield and its bloody aftermath.

The production deliberately upends many traditional expectations: Lear is relatively young and vigorous (shedding the unsteady crawl and long white wig under which he initially totters in his first entrance), even strong enough to spin in place while Goneril and Regan cling to his neck. This king’s claim to being “more sinned against than sinning” is deeply problematic: rather, Goneril and Regan appear here as having learned how to wield power all too well from their tyrannical parent. Meanwhile, Cordelia is as harsh as her sisters, callous and defiant even in the reconciliation scene, suggesting that some pasts simply cannot be forgiven. Gloucester is a demanding bureaucrat in the style of his master; both he and Kent are presented as disabled while serving at Lear’s court, though Kent leaves the wheeled cart in which he’s been kneeling when he disguises himself as Caius. Rising from his knees in exile is a stunning literal depiction of revolutionary action requiring standing on one’s own two feet.

Almost all of the characters, including Edgar and Kent, end up brutally dead at this production’s end: the show closes with a final song to the audience comprised of key lines from the play and the chorus “Good God!” as the final spotlight focuses on the empty gauntlet downstage center. Distilled, energized and relentlessly interrogatory, this Lear becomes a formidable experience indeed: we are left to confront our own reactions to power and the dangerous implications of silence.

Alexandra Bennett is a Chicago-based actor, dramaturg, and an associate professor of English at Northern Illinois University, where she specializes in Shakespeare, early modern drama, modern British and American drama, and women’s and gender studies. She holds her PhD in English literature from Brandeis University, an MA in English literature from Western University (Canada) and a BA in English and history from Queen’s University (Canada).