I didn’t know much about Jacques Brel before I went to the opening night of Godfrey Johnson’s The Shadow of Brel last week.
A friend of mine had played a Brel CD for me some months back but the food and conversation held too much interest and anyway I can’t understand French, so Brel was unfairly neglected and didn’t make much of an impression at the time.
Godfrey changed all that. He wasn’t singing in French though, he went through an hour-long English repertoire of Brel’s darker work, songs like Amsterdam, Au Suivant, Tango Funèbre and Chanson des Vieux Amants that brought the brilliance of the Belgian songwriter to light for ignoramuses like me.
Of course, as Godfrey proved during the second half of his show where he takes requests – at a modest price for each with proceeds going to the Darling Trust – he can turn any half-decent song into brilliant theatre.
He parodied Madonna’s Like a Virgin, played a far more heartrending version of Mad World than Tears for Fears ever did, sang Cindy Lauper’s True Colours with meaning and made Alanis Morisette seem like a cowed schoolgirl with his version of You Oughta Know.
With his incredibly expressive face that appears to contain a world of mischief only barely contained, Godfrey sits on the edge of his chair, the upper half of his body turned toward his audience to give us the full gamut of his expressions, while his fingers take on a life of their own as they make that battered piano sing.
He appears to be the kind of man who might do as Bukowski suggested and ‘play the piano drunk like a percussion instrument until the fingers begin to bleed a bit’.
In fact, Brel’s lyrics and Bukowski’s poems appear to have a lot in common: women, drunkenness, despair, madness, exuberance and an unquenchable lust for life despite a hard-boiled cynicism.
Godfrey can conjure the disillusionment of the young soldier who endures the sordid scene of waiting in line to be ‘serviced’ by a whore provided by the army authorities in Au Suivant (Next), yet is equally able to deliver the exquisite heartbroken plea of a man begging his lover not to leave as she stands at the open door with her suitcase in hand in his rendition of Ne Me Quitte Pas (If you go away).
While Godfrey is a performer par excellence, the lighting technician team deserves an ovation or three. Rarely have I seen lighting fit the mood so perfectly, it was designed by Jon Keevy with Jaco Nothnagel from Go2 Production Management hitting the dials with timing that would make a septuagenarian Swiss clockmaker say ‘Jawohl’ with a professional envy.
But, “it’s all rather melancholy”, said my friend whom I had invited to the show after the blue fade out for interval.
“Yes,” I said, “doesn’t it just hit the spot.” – Steve Kretzmann
The Shadow of Brel is on at the Kalk Bay Theatre until this Saturday November 27.
Book through www.kbt.co.za or phone 073 220 5430.