Skip to main content

Karine Polwart - Wind Resistance

Karine Polwart has spent a lot of time watching the geese fly above her home close to Fala Flow, a windy peatbog in Midlothian, south east of Edinburgh. The end result of Polwart's observations is Wind Resistance, a music-led performance piece produced by the Royal Lyceum Theatre company in association with Edinburgh International Festival, where the show makes its world premiere next month.

While it forms part of EIF's contemporary music programme, Wind Resistance is a theatrical piece overseen by stage director Wils Wilson, and with dramaturgical work by playwright and the Lyceum's new artistic director, David Greig. For an artist like Polwart, who is best known for her folk-based songs but steeped in an oral storytelling tradition, this isn't as big a leap as it first appears. It is telling, however, that Greig and Wilson's last collaboration was on The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, an intimate music theatre piece that reinvented the Border ballad tradition for the twenty-first century. It was the geese, however, that was the show's starting point.

“I love geese,” says Polwart on a break from rehearsing Wind Resistance. “My home in Midlothian is a flight path for geese, and I've watched them every year, and had no idea why they fly. But there's the way they rely on each other, and operate as a huge dependent family. Each one takes a turn at the front, and they all have a turn and watch each other's backs as they fly.

“That made me go off on a tangent about the elegance of the goose skein,” Polwart says of the v-shaped formation the birds fly in, “and made me think of the ways we're contracted to look after each other, like with the health service, and social things that we work out co-operatively. That's where my politics come from.”

With some two and a half thousand pink-footed geese making the annual migration to Fala Flow, the regarded as being of major ecological importance at an international level, and is an official Site of Special Scientific Interest as well as being a Special Protection Area.

“There's a little loch high above the Forth Valley, which I had no idea was an ecological sanctuary,” Says Polwart, “and that resonated with other things. High above it as well are the remains of a chapel, which used to be a mediaeval place of sanctuary, and this whole idea of sanctuary, and how we help each other's back became part of it as well.”

Polwart developed her ideas into a series of songs and texts that became an early version of Wind Resistance which she performed in the bar of the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, where she'd invited David Greig to the performance.

“It was raggedy and half-formed,” Polwart remembers, “and the pages were sellotaped together, but David rang me the next day and said he wanted to do it as a show, and if we could get some publicity material together over the day we could get it in the programme. I'd seen Prudencia Hart and loved it, so what a gift of an opportunity, to work with both David Greig and Edinburgh International Festival, and then bringing in Wils Wilson as well.

The next piece in the jigsaw came from Polwart's involvement as co musical director of Pilgrimer, novelist James Robertson's Scots reimagining of Joni Mitchell's 1976 album, Hejira. This was performed at the 2016 edition of the Celtic Connections festival in January, when Polwart brought in composer Pippa Murphy as part of the team. Murphy coincidentally lives in the next village to Polwart, and seemed a natural fit too for Wind Resistance, as did designer Miller Clark for what is now a fully fledged theatre show that nevertheless aims to retain the intimacy of Polwart's original Traverse performance.

“When I did the read-through,” says Polwart, “it was just a one-woman show. Now, my gags have evolved into stories, and I'm going to be working on a theatre set. Sound is a big component of it. It's not just songs, although there is a mix of my own songs, songs by others and traditional material, but now it's not just something that's being told in the first person. There's much more of an over-arching story now. There's a documentary aspect, but there's a mythical aspect as well that's about the symbolism of birds. There are pre-recorded songs and speeches as well, so the sound is doing a lot of work, and as an acoustic performer it's very much taking me out of my comfort zone. Normally I might do one night at the Queen's Hall, but Wind Resistance is on for seventeen nights.”

In terms of form, Polwart mentions the narrative-based shows by activist and comedian Mark Thomas as an influence. She also mentions iconic American performance artist Laurie Anderson, whose work she became “obsessed” by.

“She combines song, story, obsessions and political meditations. I think that will definitely be palpable here in my writing as I try to bring ideas about ecology and other things into it. Mark Thomas as well, the way he manages to be wry, and looks at things through a particular person. There's something about the way he does things that makes you think about what my place in the world means to me.”

Having studied politics and philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, Polwart “had a narrow escape from working in academic philosophy, but over the last few years I've been asked to write essays on various things, so now I write essays like a songwriter. I'm not an actor, but I am able to tell stories, and anyone who's been to one of my gigs in the last five years will have heard me talk about birds and how important they are to me, but with Wind Resistance there's a narrative arc that runs all the way through it that's very different to doing little set pieces.”

While Wind Resistance is ostensibly still a solo show, Polwart revels in the sense of community her artistic collaborators bring to the show. This in itself is a political act.

“I work in a field where collaboration and co-operation is at its core,” she says. “I've experienced that very profoundly in the folk scene, where collaboration is at its heart, so I was really cheered that it's the same at the heart of the theatre world.

“I'm a little wary to say this, but a lot of that desire to co-operate is to do with the Scottish independence referendum. A lot of people met and came together, and it was an exceptional time, but the folk music scene has worked like that for years. I met Pippa Murphy because I was working with James Robertson, and I met James Robertson because I was working on something when the referendum was going on, and that's how it works.

“With the referendum, people were trying to create a culture that was about big ideas, but ideas that weren't separate from each other. It wasn't to do with what people's views were on the referendum, but the fact that everyone was doing things, and this project could only happen after that.

“The importance of working together, and not being isolated, is really important in the face of this threat of neo-liberalism, which just wants us to be cut off from each other. How much we share and connect with the experiences of others in the faces of those just out for themselves is at the centre of our existence right now.”

She pauses.

“Really, it's just putting two fingers up to neo-liberalism.”

Wind Resistance, Rehearsal Studio, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, August 4-21, 8pm (except Aug 15-16); Aug 6, 13, 20, 2pm.
www.eif.co.uk

The Herald, July 5th 2016

ends

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Futureproof 2017

Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow until February 4th 2018
Four stars

Now in its ninth year, Futureproof's showcase of recent graduate photographers from seven Scottish art schools and universities returns to its spiritual home at Street Level, with nineteen artists embracing photo essays, abstraction and constructed narratives. It is Karlyn Marshall's Willies, Beuys and Me that grabs you first. Tucked in a corner, this depiction of a woman impersonating iconic artist Joseph Beuys says much about gender stereotyping, and recalls Manfred Karge's play, Man to Man, in which a German woman took on her dead husband's identity.

The personal and the political converge throughout. Ben Soedera's Foreign Sands contrasts natural resources and the constructed world. Gareth and Gavin Bragdon's The Bragdon Brothers moves onto the carnivalesque streets of Edinburgh. Kieran Delaney's Moments also looks at the apparently ordinary. Matthew Buick goes further afield, as tourists…

Bdy_Prts

Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh
Saturday December 2nd


It should probably come as no surprise that professional dancers are in the audience for the Edinburgh leg of this mini tour by spectral performance art/pop auteurs Bdy_Prts on the back of the release of their sublime debut album, The Invisible Hero. Beyond the music, the raison d’etre of Bdy_Prts’ dynamic duo of Jill O'Sullivan and Jenny Reeve, after all, is a flamboyantly costumed display of kinetic physical jerks and modernist shape-throwing to illustrate a set of fizzing machine-age chorales.

In this sense, the Bdy_Prts live experience is several works of art for the price of one that's a long way from the pair's formative work fronting Sparrow and the Workshop (O'Sullivan) and Strike the Colours (Reeve). Part living sculptures, part Bloomsbury Group super-heroines, part widescreen pop fabulists, O'Sullivan and Reeve paint their faces with ancient symbols and sport customised shoulder pads that look both seasonally …

Ceildh

Tron Theatre, Glasgow Three stars
One kiss is all it takes for everyone to understand each other in Catriona Lexy Campbell and Mairi Sine Campbell’s new play. Linguistically that is, as ancient and modern are brought to rollickingly intimate life by the Gaelic-based Theatre Gu Leor (Theatre Galore) company in the Tron’s Vic Bar en route to an extensive cross-Scotland tour. The set-up is the sort of ghastly tartan-draped corporate function whose perma-grinning hostess Lisa makes bogus claims of preserving culture while blatantly intent on flogging it off to the highest bidder. Think McWetherspoon by way of Trumpageddon.
With the audience ushered into a cabaret table arrangement by Lisa’s step-daughter Eilidh and serenaded by Eddie’s oh-so-couthy accordion playing, the dirt from Harris is unearthed along with a bottle of David Beckham-branded whisky. This causes the corporate shindig to be disrupted on an epic scale by seventeenth century poet Mairi Ruadh. Which is when both the kissing an…