Edinburgh Fringe theatre reviews: Sunday Herald, Aug 19, 2012

Fringe Theatre

 

Songs Of Lear

Summerhall

Until August 24

 

Mies Julie

Assembly Hall

Until August 27

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

In a festival in which headlines have been generated by big scale, visually spectacular Polish productions of Macbeth (TR Warszawa’s cinematic show for the International Festival, and Teatr Biuro Podróży’s outdoor Fringe presentation on stilts), it is an ostensibly more modest piece, inspired by King Lear, which is most memorable. Songs Of Lear by Teatr Pieśń Kozła (Song Of The Goat Theatre) of Wrocław – which interweaves small fragments of Shakespeare’s text with polyphonic song, carefully choreographed movement and live music – is not only the most deeply affecting show I have seen in Edinburgh this summer, it is also one of the most profoundly moving theatre productions I have ever experienced.

The work is played by 10 performers (five women, five men) in simple, contemporary black costume, a musician (on bellows bagpipes) and a narrator/conductor (TPK’s artistic director Grzegorz Bral). Incorporating a squeezebox, a kora (west African harp) and, in a startling moment, an extremely simple, and effective, set of drums, the piece uses original songs, composed by JeanClaude Acquaviva and Maciej Rychly, to reflect the contending  human forces (stability and chaos, power and its loss, love and its negation) which energise the Bard’s great tragedy.

As Acquaviva’s songs (in the European choral tradition) collide with Rychly’s extraordinary, visceral pieces (written in the Coptic language of Egypt), the cumulative effect is so emotionally intense as to be almost overwhelming. The palpable immersion of TPK’s performers in the work, and their exquisite facilities in both song and movement, remind us that words are bottles into which we pour emotions, but which can never entirely contain them. In Songs Of Lear, human emotion overflows the capacities of language, creating a unique, tragic theatre of the most powerful kind.

There is also immense emotional power, and extraordinary political resonance, in Mies Julie, Yael Farber’s stunning adaptation of Strindberg’s late 19th-century Swedish tragedy. Set in a farmstead in modern day South Africa, Farber’s drama draws brilliantly on Strindberg’s potent combination of painfully mangled class and gender relations, adding to that the agonised racial politics which, inevitably, still pertain in her country.

The contradictions of Strindberg’s Julie are magnified by her fear for the future of the Afrikaner landowning class to which she belongs. For the subject of her desire, black farmhand John, the dangers are amplified by the still transgressive nature of sexual relations across the racial divide.

The brilliance and strength of both Farber’s script and her directing is manifested in extraordinary, emotionally and physically unrestrained performances by Hilda Cronjé (who plays Julie with extraordinary desire and vicious bitterness) and Bongile Mantsai (whose John shudders with the fear, rage and pride of a great bull). They are supported wonderfully by Thokozile Ntshinga (as John’s mother), singer and musician Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa and composers and musicians Daniel and Matthew Pencer (all of whom contribute powerfully to the extraordinary, premonitory atmosphere of the production).

This is, quite simply, a tour de force. Never before I have seen Strindberg’s dance of death accomplished with such erotic force and brutal passion.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 19, 2012

© Mark Brown

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