The Waterboys Present: An Appointment with Mr Yeats

Wed, Mar 17, 2010, 00:00

The Abbey Theatre, Dublin

PUTTING THE poetry of WB Yeats to music is hardly an original enterprise, but to put together an entire show of his work, as Mike Scott and his band have done here, is a potentially risky endeavour.

There is the obvious possibility that the entire project will be dismissed as a gimmick, with the parallel danger that the original material will be done a disservice. But Scott is passionate about the great man’s poetry and this show exhibited more than a hint of the “delirium of the brave” needed to pull it off.

One look at the stage, littered with keyboards and drums and guitars, and with a hypnotic widening gyre projected on to the backdrop, indicated this wasn’t your usual evening of poetry.

The significance of premiering this collection of songs at the Abbey was obvious, even before Scott explained his sense of privilege at performing on the famous stage. With his slinky frame and mop of unruly hair, Scott is more Byron than Yeats, and surrounded by his nine-piece collective, including The Waterboys’ legendary fiddler Steve Wickham, Irish guitarist and songwriter Joe Chester, singer Katie Kim, flautist Sarah Allen and Ruby Ashley on oboe, he was more flamboyant ringleader than diffident poet.

What they unveiled was not just the strongest collection of Waterboys songs since Fisherman’s Blues, but also a stunning reinvention of Yeats’s poetry.

As the songs unfolded, with a touch of Kurt Weill here, a hint of Nick Cave there, Yeats’s words filled out the music, appearing fleetingly recognisable despite their changed circumstances, like meeting a long-lost friend where you’d least expect to.

To pick out highlights would be to ignore that this was an intricately crafted whole, but watching Mad as the Mist and Snowmutate into a duel between Wickham’s fiddle and Blaise Margail’s trombone was exhilarating, while the bluesy jam arrangement of The Lake Isle of Innisfreetore it from the pages of dusty, unloved schoolbooks forever.

Indeed, it was impossible not to be convinced that these reimaginings will quickly become part of our larger relationship with Yeats, just as a great theatrical performance adds to our understanding of the original text. Standing for the deserved ovations, this felt very much like seeing one of those landmark productions for the first time. Things fall apart, that much is undoubtedly true, but on this memorable night, everything came together beautifully.