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SONGS OF LEAR – Battersea Arts Centre, London.

be9380b1-b7f4-4ff2-9f7c-aef51ae2e482-620x372This is a one-hour show that is performed by a cast of ten, eleven if you include the narrator. There is no set. Everyone is dressed in black (black frocks for the women, black shirts and trousers for the men) and it delivers precisely what its title says it will – ten or so ‘songs’ that are based on or around the themes involved in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Why, I wonder, is it so affecting? How does it manage to have such presence? It is, as I think most of the audience who witnessed it would agree, the most extraordinary coup de theatre, of a kind that you simply don’t see every day.

It manages to be moving without involving much that you could call ‘acting’, and it is lyrical too, without any kind of truly dramatic singing (steering well away from anything ‘operatic’). It doesn’t even tell the Lear story; instead presenting some ‘non-linear’ (according to the programme notes) facets of the on-stage and off-stage tale that Shakesspeare borrowed from some earlier writer. There is some Stoppard-like speculation (Lear, the narrator tells us, has not only rejected Cordelia on the occasion of breaking up his kingdom, but many times before) and it really doesn’t provide too much literal insight into Shakespeare’s play. ‘A’ level students should turn to the original before this.

It is most definitely not operatic. It is much more approachable than that. The music is a kind of elemental plainsong, sometimes accompanied by strange instruments (a European variety of bagpipes, a squeezebox-type organ) delivered to support the overriding atmosphere of oddness. And it is most peculiarly moving, at its best perhaps when the entire cast use their chairs as drums, or when one of the cast drums on simple roundels of stretched skin, held out by the others, that have before been used as props.

Where, then, is its magic? Again, I would have to reach for that word ‘elemental’. T.S. Eliot said somewhere that poetry ‘communicates before it is understood,’ meaning I suppose, that you could understand it on some kind of level without being able to dissect the language. This production gives you the spine-tingling presence of such an idea, to the point where the finale becomes the eclipse of Lear’s kingdom, but could equally be telling of the fall of the Sioux nation, Poland, or somewhere in the heart of Africa.

If you like your theatre to tell a story, beginning to end, then Songs of Lear may not be for you. Even those with a musical ear may not enjoy everything about it, I suspect. But if your preference is for understated theatrical excitement, delivered with style and skill, then hot foot it down to Battersea Arts and get your ticket while you can. This is the most exciting hour you’ll spend in a theatre for a long while.

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Reviewed 19/02/2015

By Michael Spring
@dudley_antipope

19th – 22nd February 2015
Battersea Arts Centre, London, SW11 5TN.

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