Karine Polwart on finding voice in new sellout Lyceum show

Karine Polwart finds an unfamiliar new voice in her sellout show about migration, childbirth and the land '“ playwright David Greig's first Lyceum production as artistic director

Wind Resistance 
performer Karine Polwart watches the sunset at the lochan. Picture: Contributed
Wind Resistance performer Karine Polwart watches the sunset at the lochan. Picture: Contributed

It takes three passes to find the lane to Fala Flow off the A7 south of Edinburgh, and the chase finally ends with a snatched left turn and a foot hard on the brake. It doesn’t help that the area has two names – Fala Moor being the other – and neither are marked on road signs. Flow is the better name, more evocative of the lochan that glints a mile or so across the peat and heather, and of the roll of the landscape towards the Soutra Hills.

The track runs on the crest of a domed moor, the second highest raised peat bog in Scotland. It’s a blowy day with a dramatic, fast-moving sky, spotlights of sun between thunderous dark clouds; and a stunning, sweeping view bordered by the Pentlands down to Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat, the Firth of Forth. Scattered thistles, skylarks twittering as they rise. Soft bangs of a shotgun; the area is protected as a site of special interest but the land managed for shooting red grouse. But in the season the lochan is also home to thousands of migrating pink-footed geese.

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Only in Scotland could a place like this, 20 minutes drive outside the capital, be mostly overlooked. It is exactly the kind of landscape, the folk singer and song-writer Karine Polwart observes, that Donald Trump would dismiss as “desolate”, ripe for development. Polwart wrote about Trump’s Scottish shenanigans in her 2012 song Cover Your Eyes, and is as shocked as anyone that he is now the Republican presidential candidate.

Magic is happening in the rehearsal room in Heriot, 15 minutes’ drive away, in a cabin-cum-sound studio overlooking a lovely mid-Lothian valley. Polwart is picking a simple, evocative guitar theme, not unlike the title song of her first, award-winning album, Faultlines. Director Wils Wilson is helping her double up the sound, playing live with her own recorded guitar and voice. Polwart is narrating the story of a mother-to-be at her kitchen table, of tiny tragedy with nesting swallows that plays to the fears and anticipation of childbirth. It’s just a minutes-long segment from her two-hour show, Wind Resistance, in the contemporary music strand of the Edinburgh International Festival, a new artistic direction for one of Scotland and the UK’s most admired folk singers. But if this taster is anything to go by, an evening of memorable beauty is taking shape. At the time of writing, all released tickets for the 17 nights have already sold.

Wind Resistance is being staged in the Royal Lyceum rehearsal rooms, across the road from the theatre, in a newly designated studio space. For a show with a small audience it has an impressive roster of talent. It is the first production at the Lyceum by the theatre’s new director, the leading Scottish playwright David Greig, acting as dramaturg; he only took over in June. Greig most recently worked with Wilson as writer and creator on the five-star National Theatre of Scotland hit The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart.

Greig has known Polwart for two decades, since the philosophy graduate who started her career tackling domestic abuse and in child protection set her sights on becoming a folk singer. Since 2005, when she won best original song and best album in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, she has released six albums, with her last, Traces, in 2012, shortlisted for the same award. Her compositions reflect what the Observer called her “unflinching social eye”; a title like Baleerie Baloo might sound like folk doggerel but tells of the Scottish missionary who died in Auschwitz with her Hungarian Jewish charges. Or Tinsel Show, about the Grangemouth oil refinery.

Greig took over the Lyceum from long-time director Mark Thomson. He says he was “incredibly keen that the Lyceum moved away from being a factory to produce Lyceum shows, to being more of a producer of a lot of different types of bespoke work for artists in Scotland”, sometimes in difference spaces. He believes the established Lyceum audience has a “huge appetite and ambition for the theatre… they also want their theatre to be a proud originating space for theatre work to travel abroad.” It’s clear that Polwart’s show, if successful, has huge touring potential.

Greig had travelled with Polwart in 2014 in the Bus Party, where a core group of Scottish writers and artists tried to create a “civic conversation” in venues across Scotland in the referendum year. One was the author James Robertson, with whom Polwart appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer in Pilgrimer, reimagining Joni Mitchell’s album Hejira, exploring “migration, freedom and loneliness”. It won rave reviews at Celtic Connections this year. Polwart is also co-writing four songs in Flit, another EIF show, telling stories of moves and migration and working in fragments of existing music.

In her music, Polwart says, she may be returning a little to the simpler style of her earlier albums. But Wind Resistance takes her from folk into spoken word performance, merging story and song; Wilson is planning a speaker system to move the sound around the audience.

Talking between rehearsals over a halloumi salad, Polwart puts together a stream of ideas. Her best-known single track is Follow The Heron, from the album Scribbled In Chalk, a tune to return to again and again. But in Wind Resistance, the bird that started it all is the pink-footed geese that fly over Polwart’s nearby home in Pathhead and settle in their thousands at Fala Flow, migrating twice a year. “I suddenly thought, how does that work? What is going on there, because it’s so beautiful?” She went on a hunt that afternoon for the flight-science of geese.

The heron is a solitary bird. A skein of geese is a self-supporting thing, the way Polwart describes it, like a team of cycle riders. The wing-tips of the leader create a wash of air, a slipstream that reduces drag for the following birds in turn by as much as 65 per cent; and when the leader flags, another bird moves into place, amid much honking and shuffling. They “keep each other’s backs”, she says. It’s a question, in Polwart’s socially driven view of the world, of how people might do the same, with the welfare system or the NHS, where people could take the pressure off their leaders. “I was really quite beguiled by the idea of the geese working as a unit, the way that they literally create these little pockets of resistance for one another… that was such a powerful metaphor, I began to think what would be the equivalent of a human skein.”

On the hill above the flow is Soutra Hill, site of the medieval Soutra Hospital, founded and run by Augustinian monks from 1164 for three centuries until it fell into disrepute. The only standing building at the site is Soutra Aisle, a historical burial vault. Local lore has it that the bodies and lingering medicinal plants, medieval medical waste, have left the hill unusually fertile for crops. But serious archeo-medical investigation suggests strongly that while the treatment of women was officially prohibited at a monastery, the place was a centre for midwifery and possibly, more darkly, for abortions. There are many traces of plants, some still growing, that would have been used to induce labour and mask pain.

Wind Resistance weaves in favourite songs, like Faultlines, a reworked version of Salter’s Road, or Rivers Run. There are traditional songs like The Death Of Queen Jane, and a Hamish Henderson song, The Flighting Of Life And Death. But the show hangs around stories of women in childbirth, now or a century ago, when Scotland’s death rate in delivery was worse than that of South Sudan. It includes reflections on the birth of Polwart’s nine-year-old son. In a second segment I watch, she performs with an array of alchemist’s bottles, using them as chimes, crushing herbs in a pestle by the mike to add a gravelly crunch to the soundtrack. She talks of potent seeds found in the ground such as black henbane, “a plant so toxic a whiff of it could knock you over”; hemlock, used to poison Socrates, but to which skylarks are immune; opium poppy seeds, another ingredient of early anaesthetics. The birds in the piece run from geese and skylarks to the barn owl and swallows.

Polwart has taken the red grouse call, a grating squawk, and has turned it into the motif “go back, go back, go back”. “The moor itself has it’s own moment,” she says, pronouncing it as one feels it should be spelled, muir. “At one point I become the muir and talk from the muir’s perspective.” She grins. “Within five minutes people are going to go, ‘When is she going to get her guitar, I just want a nice song?’”

• Wind Resistance, Royal Lyceum Theatre, 4-21 August. www.eif.co.uk