As shelf life longevity goes, King Lear isn’t doing too badly at all. Written over 400 years ago, William Shakespeare’s masterpiece continues to be performed across a range of disciplines and formats, with interpretations that vary in their degree of faithfulness to the original text, while maintaining the kernel of the original idea.
The core of the play’s story line centers on a British monarch who misses a trick or two when looking to bequeath his rule to his offspring. It is a powerful tale and one that evokes feral emotions. It also fuels Songs of Lear, which will be performed by the Goat Theater on June 13 (8 p.m.) and June 14 (1 p.m.) at the Jerusalem Theater as part of this year’s Israel Festival.
The Polish troupe has been around for over 20 years. Founded in Wroclaw by Grzegorz Bral and Anna Zubrzycka in 1996, for the past 23 years it has traveled the world, offering unique takes on a slew of works, including original pieces written by Bral. Nothing it does is one-for-one. The same goes for the Lear-based creation, which follows a nonlinear trajectory through the Shakespearean tragedy.
The Goat Theater is a definitively innovative outfit, principally working through the medium of music – largely vocal – while feeding off in-depth exploration of the source material and its backdrop, taking in aspects such as cultural baggage, ethnicity and history, and linguistic structure.
Bral made for a highly entertaining, as well as enlightening, interlocutor. When I asked him why he went for King Lear, his comic rapid-fire response was a simple “why not?”
When I joked that coming back with an interrogative answer to a question is a particularly Jewish trait, he said he is not Jewish but that people from different backgrounds tend to identify in him familiar mannerisms.
“I am Jewish with Jewish people, Russian with Russians, Polish with Polish and American with Americans,” he laughs.
The man is clearly something of a chameleon. I even detected traces of a Scottish accent at some stage of our conversation, which, he explained, was probably the residue of a recent working visit he and the troupe paid to Scotland.
But, seriously, I persisted, why Lear?
This time Bral was strictly in brass tacks and effusive mode. “I am really Shakespeare’s son, lover, believer, devotee, because I believe he is the greatest poet, dramatic poet, of all time.”
The Pole is only too happy to qualify that unequivocal declaration. “He is really, truly the greatest on many levels, not only because of the poetry, but also because of the universality of his stories and motifs and legends and myths that he undertook to write about.”
The latter is not only an acute observation about the Bard’s line of thinking, it is also an important pointer for the way that Bral and the rest of the Goat Theater gang go about their own business.
“He has enormous erudition, referring to ancient Greek or Roman tragedies, referring to Medieval theater, changing it all upside down. To me, Shakespeare is a little bit like Copernicus,” Bral notes, referring to the Polish Renaissance mathematician and astronomer who discovered that the sun, rather than the earth, is the hub of our universe, in complete repudiation of accepted wisdom of the day. “You can imagine, the whole world believes in one thing, and there is one person who has the courage, knowledge, intuition and faith to say, actually, it is totally different.”
Bral feels that the iconic English playwright came from a similar daredevil mold.
THE POLISH director also has a keen interest in textual material and the usage thereof. He feels that our vocabularies have sustained irreparable knocks over the eras and years. Hence his enthusiasm for the way in which Shakespeare crafts his lines.
“I work a lot with language, with poetry. I believe people have so much faith in their everyday language. But everyday language itself is a nonsense – for many decades now. So I am using Shakespeare and particularly, since some eight years ago, King Lear, because I believe in the restoration of the true, honest language. That’s why I do it.”
That sounds like a pretty outlandish statement to make. Surely, contemporary speech is very much the result of a natural evolutionary continuum. That is something that is recognized by the highest echelons of the guardians of the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary specialists, for example, constantly research and analyze words and expressions that have come into frequent usage and decide whether they should be officially sanctioned.
Bral qualifies his postulation, adding substantial depth in the process.
“When I say honest knowledge, I mean, do you have a spiritual connection to the truth of the life? It is only when you have a natural, spiritual connection to your ultimate nature and to your ultimate mind you can use honest language.”
Clearly, for Bral, it is not just a matter of opening your mouth and delivering your ideas in verbal form.
“Otherwise, your language is always between, between searching for the truth and being dishonest. All of us speak half-dishonest and half-aspiring language. While social media and politics are now so much on our influence, we become even more false, even more artificial, using language only to achieve goals. There can’t be any truth in the language if you want to achieve something, because then you use language in an extremely manipulative way.”
The Bard of Avon, says Bral, had no such Machiavellian intent. “In Shakespeare’s case, language is honest because it is the language of poetry and fiction and imagination, so he is not trying to achieve anything. He is just honestly expressing people’s characters, fictional characters’ desires. For me that is a great lesson for us contemporary people to learn that, through fictional characters, we can learn about honesty in language.”
So much for the semantics, but there is plenty more, in sonic terms, to the Goat Theater and, specifically, the forthcoming King Lear reading. Bral has talked about text in a musical sense. Presumably that has something to do with the meter, or rhythmic element, of Shakespeare’s writing. The Pole says he, first and foremost, trains his ears on the auditory properties of the work in question.
“Many directors read a play, trying to understand what it means, what it says, what the motivations are, and in that way to approach the production. But I am interested in how it sounds. I am not only talking about Shakespeare’s language, I am also talking about the characters’ musicality of emotion, the characters’ musicality of events – tragedy, death, love and so on. To me, the world is music. Everything sounds, everything resonates. Everything has harmonies or disharmonies.”
Bral has the scientific collateral to back that approach.
“There are well-known experiments with sound and vibrations with flour on a metal plate, creating regular or irregular shapes,” he notes, adding that the same goes for water and, hence, also for us. “Our body is over 70% water. That also means we are being manipulated by different sounds, harmonies and vibrations.”
That also impacts directly on his line of work.
“I am interested in using theater and the sound of the theater, the harmonies of the theater that we create, in order to put balance into human bodies.”
That is front and center in his King Lear, with the performers pumping out the decibels and emotions by the bucketload. Given the thematic core of Shakespeare’s tale, that suits the emotional baseline of the textural source.
“I am not talking as a scientist, or as a doctor or whatever,” Bral continues. “I am just talking about my need for harmony between people. I believe the easiest and most direct way to create harmony is through music.”
That premise has seen Bral travel far and wide, absorbing the local human vibe in places such as Chile, Georgia and Taiwan.
His artistic trajectory has also remained “unsullied” by formal musical education. He says he grew up on sounds such as British rock band Queen and then discovered opera. But now the world is his oyster, with as few constraints as possible. “Every conversation is improvisation. Why should it be different with music?”
Bral says he is also drawn to the female side of the human species. “The world needs more female energy. It is time we men strongly support women’s activities and energies.”
That comes across powerfully in his adaptation of King Lear, which he also uses to redress a 400-year-old imbalance.
“I support women in art, and I give them prestige and position and the energy they deserve. Shakespeare was not inclined that way at all. In his time no characters were performed by actual women, even Juliet. His time was really cruel. I am just trying to bring back some balance.”
For tickets and more information: www.israel-festival.org
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