Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris? Nope, he’s not. He’s dead. Dead and very buried on an island in French Polynesia. But his songs are still doing their thing and at the Gate Theatre in Dublin this week I met the Belgian in spirit for the first time.
I was in town. My mate had tickets. It was a given that I’d go. I asked no questions as I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen bad, really bad theatre. I’ve seen mediocre stuff, but even a mediocre night at the theatre beats a night of thumb twiddling.
So, to Jacques. I wasn’t the only one in the company who’d not heard of him so I wasn’t that put out. Born Jacques Romain Georges Brel, he died back in 1978 at the very young age of 49. Lauded as the master of the chanson (a lyric-driven French song style), his work has influenced the likes of Leonard Cohen and Rod McKuen, two of my favourite lyricists. McKuen was one of the first Americans to translate his songs, which were originally written in French and Dutch.
Brel himself wasn’t above influence either. Probably his most recognised song, Ne me quitte pas (If you go away), recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Nina Simone, Tom Jones, Marlene Dietrich and a litany of others, has a melody in part derived from Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6. Needless to say, I didn’t recognise it. But no surprises there.
The cast of four – Risteárd Cooper, Karen McCartney, Stephanie McKeon and Rory Nolan – were well into it all. The revue was originally performed in Paris in 1968 to great acclaim and there wasn’t anyone in the audience on Thursday night who didn’t enjoy it either. It was magical. The scene was set in Paris, in a crumbling old bar reminiscent of Budapest’s Piaf. It ran uninterrupted for 90 minutes with song after song sung with a passion and enunciation that lent clarity and soul to every word.
The four swung seamlessly between tunes, adopting the roles required by each set of lyrics. Each song told the type of poignant and heartfelt story that never dates. I was particularly taken with The Old Folks and the lines:
Though you may live in town, you live so far away
When you’ve lived too long
As I said, Brel’s songs were originally recorded in French or Dutch and subsequently translated to English so while Elly Stone’s version does the man justice, his original is something else and worth a listen.
McKeon’s version of Carousel left me reeling. I was there with her, on the carousel, going fast and faster to the point of dizziness. Amazing. But like all Brel’s songs, this too was what Cooper calls a ‘playlet’. And what Peter Crawley explains in his review in the Irish Times as creating
an image of life that is always accelerating, finally moving so fast that it threatens to spin out of control completely.
We met a young girl whose sweetheart didn’t come home from the war. We met a young soldier who lost is virginity in army whorehouse. We even had a glimpse of Brel talking from his grave. I enjoyed every last minute of it and have made a note to self to buy Marc Almond’s album Jacques to hear it all again. If you’re in Dublin in February, it’s a must see.
This week, I’m grateful I didn’t ask questions because it wouldn’t have been something I’d have picked to go to see myself… and although discovering him late, my life is already all the richer for knowing of Jacques Brel.