Describing herself as “a fast-talking, fast-walking wifey”, the Scottish musician Karine Polwart has packed a lot into her award-winning theatre piece Wind Resistance. But at the same time it has a sense of spaciousness, something also clearly important to her in her life and her work.
The show – performed as part of the Festival of Voice in the intimate space of the RWCMD’s Richard Burton theatre – opens with an atmospheric song, “All on a Summer’s Evening”, but it really took off for me with the spoken word as Polwart described the area in the Scottish lowlands where she lives; Fala Moor, defined by clear open space, is a place that, she said, rewards “the widest possible gaze” and “the narrowest focus”. The wide gaze encompasses the Bass Rock in the north-east, with its colony of northern gannets, and the Dun Law Wind Farm on the western edge of the Lammermuir Hills. In close focus are the sphagnum mosses and heathers of the moor and the moorcocks and skylarks which scurry over them before rising in flight.
Into the conversation – for that’s what it feels like – Polwart drops songs, including her version of the traditional Irish air “The Lark in the Clear Air”. She does not come from a traditional folk song background, discovering it only in her late twenties, since when it has given her a vehicle to express her concerns about the world today. The central idea which she explores in Wind Resistance is the essential interdependence of people. Taking the image of the skeins of pink-footed geese which fly over Fala Moor each summer, she sings and speaks in “Labouring and Resting” about how they take it in turns to support one another through pockets of wind resistance created by their wing tips – “Like skyborne socialists, no one bird bears the brunt”.
Interwoven with this is the story of a local couple, Will and Roberta Sime, around the time of the first world war, and their daughter Molly. On the moor grow henbane, hemlock and opium poppies, all giving seeds which were used in early anaesthetics. Polwart has incorporated the science of this into a complex and moving exploration of childbirth over the last hundred years, using Roberta’s story, as well as that of a childhood friend. When she sings of her own experience of a long labour her voice blooms and projections of water splashing in water, heavier and heavier, add to the drama.
Another very powerful piece is Polwart’s version of the English ballad “The Death of Queen Jane”; Jane has a difficult labour, the baby lives but she dies.
Happily, Karine Polwart survived the birth of her son, Arlo. There is a sweet song for him in the show, “Rivers Run”, written soon after his birth and about her wish to for him to live in a bright world. Now as an eleven-year old his passion is football, and that finds its way into the show too!
Wind Resistance is a tour de force, by turns gentle and dramatic, sad and uplifting, always heart-felt.
At the beginning of the second half Polwart sits on a low stool and tells the old Scots Traveller tale of how trees became evergreen; it’s a perfect way to re-engage the audience after the break. We are all soon rooting for the little robin with its broken wing, and for the way the spruce, the scots pine and the juniper worked together to shelter and feed him.
And in the end, Polwart tells us as she draws her show to a close, teamwork is what can save us – we have to be one another’s wind resistance, because we’re not going to make it on our own. We gave her a standing ovation for it, and came out in reflective mood.
Karine Polwart presents a one-woman show, but one developed in collaboration with a team, including sound designer Pippa Murphy, who has contributed much to the richness of the aural experience. Special mention is also due to Wils Wilson’s sensitive direction and to Jeanine Byrne’s atmospheric lighting design.
I went expecting to hear a fine singer-songwriter, which I did, but I also experienced a moving exploration of environmental and social issues, a splendid use of the resources of theatre.
Karine Polwart sings in a regular trio with Fair Isle-born singer Inge Thomson, who performed a memorable show in the Cardiff Festival of Voice in 2016.I hope we may get a chance to hear them together in Cardiff before another two years go by.
Karine Polwart performs Wind Resistanceat the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama again today and tomorrow – details here.
Cath Barton is an English writer who lives in Wales. Her novella The Plankton Collector will be published in September 2018 by New Welsh Review. Cath is on the 2018 Literature Wales Mentoring programme, working on a collection of short stories inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch. https://cathbarton.com@CathBarton1