Monday, 14 January 2008

REVIEW: "Jacques Brel: The Rage To Live"

(Second review in one day...see below for thoughts on a second viewing of . Expect a third post in the next 24 hours with the RZ's belated reflections on 2007.)

In 2006, the show which defined Off-Broadway, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living In Paris made an artistically triumphant return to the city which rocketed Brel to American fame. This year, writer Judith Paris and actor Anthony Cable are bringing Brel’s words and fifteen of his songs around the UK. Recently concluding a run at Hampstead’s New End Theatre, The Rage To Live is a well meaning but ultimately mild-mannered performance.

Whereas Alive and Well... focuses on Brel’s work and its themes, Rage to Live is all about the man himself. Following the trend of recitatives, most of Paris’s book is sourced from Brel’s writings and interviews on a variety of subjects, including his career, marriage, and faith. Strangely missing are Brel’s wartime experience and his opinions towards Vietnam (all of his protest material is missing), the two things that shot the American revue, mentioned here in passing, to fame. Performed by Mr. Cable as Brel himself with piano and accordion for accompaniment, Rage is a retrospective at the end of life, but for a man with such a fascinating past and catalogue, the text is remarkably dull and lifeless.

No director is credited, a traditional warning sign, and one heeded here: direction consists of sitting in a chair and rambling like the declining hero in Coward’s Present Laughter before standing up, singing a song, and ending in a blackout. When the lights come up, Mr. Cable is back in the chair and flat as ever. If the 2006 New York revue summoned the feeling of visiting friends in an intimate film setting, Rage is like a Radio 2 retrospective - informative and passably interesting, but distant.

But oh those songs. Brel’s music is entrancing and Cable comes to life once the tunes begin, channelling the senses of loss and power associated with his subject, salvaging an otherwise toothless evening. Unfortunately, despite producing a new translation in parts, many lyrics (including entire songs like "Madeline" and "Ne me quitte pas") are left in the original French, depriving the audience of a fuller sense of understanding. While the recent New York production utilised the same tactic, it was limited to one of four characters and provided a setting. When Cable talks about his wife hearing Ne me for the first time, the meaning is lost to the audience without knowing what the words mean.

Fans of Brel will attend regardless of the reviews, but The Rage to Live lacks the fury to survive, petering out before the last song.

Where: New End Theatre, possible upcoming dates elsewhere
When: Closed. Check Website for production news.
How Much: £15
Concessions: Usual suspects can advance book for £11
RZ Unofficial Worth Paying: £5 for the songs.
RZ Other Notes: What we have here is rather redundant - given that this production crams 15 songs into 75 minutes, there’s not much time for the monologues in between, and there’s little depth in what’s there. When it closed in early 2007, there was talk of transferring the NY Jacques Brel to London (supposedly at the Chocolate Factory). The Rage To Live will take the edge off a Brel craving, but it’s nowhere near as satisfying as the plotless work it capitalises from.

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