Theater Reviews

Songs of Lear at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Laura Kolb (Baruch College)

Lear’s final speech begins with a sorrowful declaration: “And my poor fool is hanged.” The “poor fool,” here, is usually understood to be Cordelia, whose body he has just borne to the stage, and over whom he laments: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life/ And thou no breath at all?” Yet the line conjures up the Fool himself, Lear’s goad and friend and sometime companion, absent from the stage since the end of Act 3. For a brief, weird moment, Shakespeare asks us to think Fool and Cordelia together. We feel the loss of both.

This line is lost in Songs of Lear, an hour-long performance built out of a King Lear that has been radically pared down, then rebuilt out of a combination of textual fragments, music (composed by Jean-Claude Acquaviva and Maciej Rychły) and expressive movements. But the equivalence it draws between Lear’s daughter and his fool is one of the nodes of the original text from which the company has constructed its strange, stark performance. Under the direction of Grzegorz Bral, the members of Poland’s Song of the Goat Theater have taken these characters—or rather, the overlap between them—as a starting point for a reflection on helplessness in the face of power, and self-mastery in the face of chaos.

The production unfolds in a dozen or so songs, each of which offers a kind of sonic snapshot of an instant in Lear. Rather than advancing the plot, each song captures a fleeting dynamic among the characters, amplifying and reiterating the mood of a moment. After a pair of initial songs establishing, first, the peace of the unified kingdom and, second, unease at rumors of its division, we are given the Fool’s first song. The actress playing the Fool chants in a low, determined murmur snippets from 1.4: “Have more than thou showest/ Speak less than thou knowest,/ Lend less than thou owest.” She repeats, with increasing sorrow and urgency, the complaint that Lear’s daughters will “Have me whipped for speaking true” while Lear would “Have me whipped for lying.” By the scene’s end, “I would fain learn to lie” has become a hysterical lament, an accusation, a bitter laugh.

The next two songs present two versions of Cordelia. First, one actress offers a warning to the king, to which he responds with physical aggression, holding her by the hair and removing her shoes, one by one, as she stands helpless, like a doll. Then, a second actress performs “Cordelia’s Lament”—a song that consists of the same speech, repeated three times, first in the voice of a small child, then of a slightly older child, then of a young woman—no less helpless than her child self, but far more knowing. As she sits, knees knocked together, hands under her thighs—the shrinking posture of a child in trouble—she sings to her sisters: “The jewels of our father, with washed eyes/ Cordelia leaves you. I know you what you are.” Like the Fool’s lines on lying, Cordelia’s valedictory reproach calls attention to a problem at the heart of the play: how to “speak true” when truth invites whipping, or worse, from those in power. Or, more simply: the problem of how to speak, at all, for the weak, small, and disempowered.

Repetitions of this kind occur not only in songs, but across them—refrains and leitmotifs emerge, transforming Lear from tragic arc into patterned event. Songs of Lear offers angles on an explosive trauma that seems to play out, in fragments and flashes, over and over. Scenes are shuffled, slightly out of order. Not only does the Fool reproach Lear before he has expelled his youngest daughter; Lear also sings of Cordelia’s death (“She’s gone forever…”) long before the final scene—before, even, the outbreak of war, represented here in a frantic, swelling drumming sequence involving the entire cast.

The cast functions as a seamless whole. While certain figures emerge from the ensemble to play or hint at specific roles—two Cordelias, a Fool, and Lear are clearly identifiable; Gloucester emerges late and somewhat mysteriously—the women and men of the troupe move fluidly between character and chorus, foreground and background. Arranged in a semi-circle on a bare stage, dressed in black, they trace limited circuits forward and backwards, rarely straying far from their original placements. Yet they are always moving, and always singing. Their circumscribed paths mirror their polyphonic singing. Each voice and each step is controlled, even restrained, but the whole is a teeming mass of sound and motion.

Songs of Lear is not, ultimately, an adaptation of a Shakespearean text. It is its own thing: pieces of the play isolated, dislodged, then stitched back together in a new form, for a new purpose. Like the snatches of Shakespeare and Marvell in Eliot’s The Waste-Land, these bits of Lear function as fragments shored against ruins. Familiar lines and phrases become touchstones, smooth pebbles in a rough sea, rhythmic mantras that keep at bay both the insistent polyphony of the chorus and the terrifying disorder at which each song’s accompanying dance—though controlled, constricted—seems to hint. Within all this, the text of Lear surfaces as a kind of anchor against the kind of chaos Lear itself is in part about.

In its final tableau, Songs of Lear places Cordelia and the Fool together. They sit side-by-side at the center of the stage, knees knocked, shoulders touching. As the ensemble forms a half-circle behind them, they sing, over and over, “Hey, hey. Hey, hey”—a weird, discordant chant that cuts against the harmony of the other voices, but that means nothing. Here, the choice to retain Cordelia’s and the Fool’s earlier lines about the problem of speech—the problem of how not to lie, where it’s impossible to tell the truth—makes a new kind of sense. One strategy in an environment where authentic speech is dangerous is to be mute. But another, this production suggests, is to make noise. Words alone can’t get to the heart of the matter, but sound—the voice, stripped of any particular message—can. At this point in the original play, Cordelia and the Fool (maybe, probably) are dead. In Songs of Lear, they have no more words. But they have life, and breath.

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Categories: Theater Reviews

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