Theatre review: Songs of Lear, Summerhall (Venue 26), Edinburgh

The ten singers of Songs of Lear are faithful to Shakespeare yet try something entirely new
The ten singers of Songs of Lear are faithful to Shakespeare yet try something entirely new
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THERE’S something of a rage for unaccompanied singing this year.

Songs of Lear

Summerhall (Venue 26)

Star rating: * * * * *

Perhaps a capella is the new hip hop. But there is surely no other show like this one, by Wroclaw-based Song of the Goat, whose song cycle inspired by King Lear is visceral, theatrical and astonishing.

Composers Jean Claude Acquaviva and Maciej Rychly seek to capture the moods and the colours of the play. As director Grzegorz Bral explains in his introduction, it is an attempt to “paint the landscape of Lear with sounds”. They draw on a variety of languages and musical styles, from western choral music to Corsican and Coptic traditions, sometimes accompanied – always minimally – on the harmonium, kora or the sierszenti, a smaller, Polish version of bagpipes.

The ten singers, five men and five women, gesture, dance and occasionally fight to help create the moods of the play. Sometimes a character emerges from the ensemble: Cordelia, the Fool, Lear himself.

The choreography is flawless, but the voices are always foregrounded, their ability to capture raw emotion as strong as their impeccable musicianship. They are faithful to Shakespeare, yet also do something entirely new.

We begin with harmony, reflected in soft, rich music. But, as the king makes ill-advised choices, the world slips into discord and the music follows suit, in dark rhythms of clapping, chanting and urgent, piercing incantations. Cordelia’s Lament begins in the faltering voice of a child, gathering strength as she grows in maturity. Absent for so much of Shakespeare’s play, here she is given a voice, and her song is full of the pain of someone betrayed by a person they still love.

The colours of the storm are capturing in frenzied rhythms, beaten out with feet and chairs, and clashing voices. But the storm is also the place where the old king learns self-knowledge. In the tumult, an angel sings.

The final song is a heart-rending wail of a lament sung against a background of dark harmonies. It feels like the musical equivalent of Munch’s The Scream, a howl against all the incomprehensible sadness of the world.

• Until 24 August. Today 7:15pm.