Return to the voice
High-impact musical theatre fraught with raw emotional honesty at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe
This article is from 2014.
Return to the Voice by Wroclaw-based music / theatre company Song of the Goat was always going to have a lot to live up to. Following the universal eulogising of the company’s remarkable Songs of Lear back in 2012, this new work was specially commissioned by Summerhall, with the historical splendour of St Giles’ Cathedral as its setting. And rather than telling a Shakespearean story through song, it was going to tackle Scottish traditional music on its home turf, delving into ancient Gaelic song in collaboration with Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies and musicians from the Western Isles.
It was probably inevitable that the final work would fall somewhat short of these lofty ambitions. But more interestingly, Return to the Voice raises quite significant questions about what we expect from theatre, and about our emotional involvement in performance.
The show itself starts with a brief set from Scottish traditional musicians, before the twelve singers of Song of the Goat take to the stage for an hour of beautifully arranged Gaelic songs, dripping with raw emotion and almost unbearable in their emotional intensity. It’s tempting simply to surrender to the visceral power of the music and the inexorable pull of its repetitions and shifting harmonies – but there’s a big question: why is this theatre? There’s little – bar a bit of movement and singers emoting to each other – that goes beyond a conventional music performance, and on those terms, Song of the Goat’s admittedly powerful evocations fit right into the ‘holy minimalism’ that eastern European composers such as Górecki and Kancheli have pulled off with much more subtlety and imagination.
The company’s performances, while undeniably potent, could have done with more light and shade – a couple of songs showcasing the male singers, for example, would have provided some much-needed variation in texture. The raw emotional honesty of Return to the Voice hits like a hammer, but take a step back and the cracks start to appear.
Summerhall @ St Giles Cathedral, 560 1581, 13–16, 18–21, 25 Aug, times vary, £15 (£13).