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.”
“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