Friday 24 June 2016

Jacques Brel: A Life A Thousand Times

Far West Theatre premiered "Jacques Brel: A Life A Thousand Times" in Buxton last year. It was very well received at The Green Man Gallery. You can see a revised production - also at The Green Man - this Fringe on 8, 13, 17, 23 & 24 July. Simon Pennicott-Hall, the driving force behind the show and who takes the part of Brel, answered some questions for us.

1] Jacques Brel? Why should we care about him anymore?
I would argue that, in the English-speaking world, we never really got to caring about him in the first place. Brel never wrote or sang in English and only performed in the UK and US a handful of times. Even then the audiences admitted they hadn’t a clue what his songs were about. We didn’t have the cultural appreciation for foreign artists then that we do today. When he started to become really famous here, it was not because of an appreciation of his talent, it was from how that talent was translated into songs the English public could understand. Many artists (Aznavour & Distel in particular) chose to sing in English to expand their appeal. Brel absolutely refused to do this, and it was only really when Mort Shuman, Terry Jacks and Scott Walker took the matter into their own hands that people started to identify with Brel’s work.
The problem is that this, I would say, has given us a false impression of Brel. As popular and successful as some of the translations were, they are nothing like the originals, they lack the intensity and imagery that Brel chose. He was very brave, passionate, and sometimes controversial in his choices of subjects and words. In France, Belgium and around the rest of the world he was and is still celebrated as a master songwriter, storyteller and explosive performer. You cannot get this from “Seasons in the Sun”, “If You Go Away” and (in “Alive and Well and Living in Paris”) regardless of who performs them.  
The Brel that we think we cared about then, is not the Brel that the rest of the world knows. Brel did not write songs to be commercial, and I think it is important that we strip away the commerciality we have wrapped his songs up in, in the past. There is so much more to discover if we do this.   
2] Brel was a flawed figure. Not necessarily a good family man - do you feel at all uncomfortable playing him?
I’ve played a number of questionable characters in the past, so I wouldn’t say it makes me feel uncomfortable. To me it makes it more exciting. Bear in mind that when we say he wasn’t a good family man, we are talking from a standpoint of now, where there are almost set moral rules of how men should behave. Back then it wasn’t uncommon for men to behave the way he did. Even his daughter France admits that much of his behaviour wasn’t abnormal for the time.
Whilst I don’t agree with all his views, and certainly not on how he treated the women in his life, the more you research the man, the more you can kind of understand why he was who he was. It’s important for an actor to find a connection with whomever you are playing, an understanding of what made the person tick and why they held the views that they did. And there is so much to work with in Brel’s life.  
Imagine dropping out of school, taking a chance on a music career, and all of sudden record companies are throwing money at you and women are throwing themselves at you too. Who wouldn’t be taken in by this? That was Jacques. Yes, he was flawed but it shows he was human too. Many people say after seeing the show that they can’t decide whether they like him or not and I think that’s fair.  However, we could just as well be talking about any number of modern artists when we make this conclusion.     
3] You've rewritten the show from last year's premiere. What changes have you made and why?
We have updated translations of many of the songs and there are also some additional sections of dialogue. The translations are the key thing; last year, although we had retranslated many of the songs, we were still using some historical versions I wasn’t happy with. Now I can finally say that all of the translations we use are our own. There is also one brand new song and some of the songs have been switched between performers. It has been a lot of work, but I think it gives the show more balance and gets us closer than ever to the original Brel tracks.
My research into Brel is an on-going thing, so as I’ve been doing this I’ve found additional bits of text I think are important to include. There are lots of sources out there, but the majority of these are in French so it takes a while to translate and digest them. I’ve received a load of information from Editions Brel since last time, so this has helped put a lot more meat on the bone.  
4] Brel - was he a Belgian or a European?
A very good question. Brel considered himself to be Belgian and whenever he was quizzed in interviews, he would never hide from this.  As he said “Brussels is not Paris, but wherever I go in the world, Brussels is never far from me”. I think he was being genuine about this. His songs are littered with Belgian imagery, places and in a few cases, Belgian language. The only reason he wrote and sang in French was that his family, although Flemish, spoke French at home. He sang about the beautiful and not so beautiful aspects of his home country, in a way you just don’t get from his songs of other places. He was proud of the land he was born in, warts and all.
The French may believe him to be theirs, but I can’t think for a minute Brel would have agreed.  Even when he’d finished his singing career, Brel premiered the French version of “Man from La Mancha” in Brussels when - I guess - he could have done it anywhere in Europe. That speaks volumes.    
5] It is easier to feel personal sympathy for his daughter (France) rather than for Jacques - is that how you feel about the two of them?
Actually, no. With France narrating the show and not being restricted just to things she has said in real life, it is easier to make a connection with her and be sympathetic about her relationship with her father. But France has accepted her father for who he was. She is at peace with it. She was, in fact, the one who set up Editions Brel, so that her fathers’ work could be celebrated and promoted. However bitter we might feel France should be, we project a lot of that on her. She does not ask for our sympathy.  
Of course, it cannot have been easy with her father being away so often, with the rumours of affairs and the very limited communication between them. But then it can’t have been easy either for Jacques being away from the family, working ridiculous hours to make his career. When Jacques was tempted, whilst inexcusable, the fact that his wife knew and stayed with him must have been like torture. Once again Jacques does not ask for our sympathy. But in a strange way, I feel we owe it to him.

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