For almost 20 years, Karine Polwart has been a key figure on the Scottish traditional music scene; award-winning songwriter, musician, storyteller, and even a published essayist. In 2016, though, she turned her hand to the creation of her first solo theatre show, co-produced with the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh for that year’s Edinburgh International Festival. Wind Resistance - which was scheduled to return to the Lyceum stage this week, before all performances were cancelled - is a magnificent cycle of songs co-written by Polwart with the composer and sound designer Pippa Murphy, and linked by a narrative that resonates with a series of linked themes so profound, and so vital to the times we live in, that it often brings audience members to tears.
Karine Polwart lives in the Midlothian village of Pathhead, and loves the local landscape - including Fala moor, where she once lived in an old farm cottage - with a rare combination of curiosity, passion and profound knowledge. Wind Resistance tells the story of Will and Roberta Syme, the long-dead parents of Polwart’s old Fala neighbour Molly Kristensen; a couple who married just after the First World War, when Will returned to Fala, and whose marriage ended less than a year later with Roberta’s tragic death in childbirth.
Around this spine of narrative, though, Polwart weaves a whole range of other themes and stories, ranging from the difficult birth of her own first child, to her constant reflection on the power and beauty of the moor’s natural environment and wildlife, mirrored in this short video. Her narrative and songs encompass thoughts about war and peace, pain and healing, disco-dancing and football, and the often untold stories of women’s reproductive lives; when Polwart took this show to the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2017, women queued to talk to her afterwards about mothers, aunts and sisters long since lost in childbirth, and often mourned only in hushed whispers, because of the circumstances of their deaths.
Time and again, though, the imagery of Wind Resistance returns to our increasingly precarious relationship with the natural world that still lies so close to us, in this case just 15 miles south of Scotland’s capital city; and in particular to the idea of the skein of geese flying over Polwart’s house, on their autumn return to Fala from the north. For Polwart, the almost miraculous co-ordinated power of their flight is a defining image of the interdependence that binds human beings together in community, and also binds us into the natural world. There is an irony in the cancellation of performances of Wind Resistance because of a crisis that will place such untold pressure on the National Health Service, to which Polwart knows she - and all of us - owe so much. Yet there’s also a rich fulfilment of this show’s purpose; to remind us that we cannot and do not live alone; and that the institutions which best reflect our deep connection to the rest of humanity, are the ones which will save our lives.
The album of the show, A Pocket Of Wind Resistance, is available for purchase online at https://karinepolwart.com/album/630338/a-pocket-of-wind-resistance. Until the end of June 2020, all income from digital sales of the album will be used to support Midlothian Food Bank. Karine Polwart is also currently supporting the Help Musicians UK fund, at https://www.helpmusicians.org.uk/support-our-work/make-a-donation