Once more with feeling
ON STAGE:In the 1980s, jazz musician Paddy Sherlock decamped to Paris, while Beckett was still rattling around its arrondissements. Now Sherlock is taking the lead in Beckett’s most famous play, and he only has French to play with
PADDY SHERLOCK has always played trombone. Now, though, he’s playing Estragon in Beckett’s En Attendant Godotin Paris, the first Irishman to take the role in a French-language production in the city. Aptly so, for Beckett wrote the work not in English but in French.
“The first night I walked out on stage, I was terrified. I am the Irish guy doing Beckett in French – no half measures. There is a huge prejudice in the French theatre world against Anglophones. I had to master the words. But was told not to try to be Maurice Chevalier,” he says.
The six-week run of 30 performances at the Theatre Proscenium marks a strangely inevitable step for Sherlock. Not knowing what to do in a weary mid-1980s Dublin, he left for Paris. His fortunes were as gilded as his gleaming trombone. Street busking repeatedly filled his hat and led to jazz and funk bands. He spent time in an artistic squat in the 18th arrondissement, with other musicians and video artists. He percolated upwards into cult band Federation Francaise du Funk (FFF), and was in P18 with three guys from La Mano Negra, a group fronted by Manu Chao, when they signed to Virgin.
“I was shocked and excited to earn a living. It had never occurred to me that I could. When I came here from Dublin, I couldn’t speak a word of French. It was terrifying and liberating – I wouldn’t have been as daring at home. I needed to be not known and not have people commenting on my baby steps until I got up and running.”
Based in the French capital, he mutated into a charismatic frontman with a degree of Jumpin’ Jive-era Joe Jackson to his act. With his band, he played festivals around Europe and Woody Allen’s band once joined him on stage. There were albums and appearances on French TV.
Sherlock acquired his taste for pragmatic theatrics via Ian Drury, the Stones and teenage roles in Terenure College’s annual Shakespeare play. He went on to perform with Brendan Gleeson in Passion Machine’s The Drowningat the SFX but only returned to acting in the past decade. “I was scared but I believe that if you leap, the net will appear. I wanted to do theatre. I thought it would help my focus as a musician. A choreographer told me: ‘Look at the size of your hand. Look at your foot. They both displace air on the stage and you can’t occupy that space without justifying it.’
“I did an audition with Jean-Marie Russo and he cast me in a Nathalie Sarraute play Pour Un Oui ou Pour Un Non. Here I was, an Anglophone in Paris, doing a nine-week run and being the main guy. We got really good reviews. And then Russo offered me Godot.
“I had to prepare a couple of months extra just to master the text in French, to get to a precision with the language where it would actually work.”
At 46, Sherlock has now lived most of his life in Paris. Did Beckett not hang over him as an impossible benchmark, his brilliance not inspiring but discouraging? “I never set out to follow in Beckett’s steps in any way . . . But despite myself, he was always there. When I came over, he was still alive – people said you could see him around rue St Jacques and meet him for a coffee . . . He is omnipresent and weighs heavily on every artist. But I am not a writer. As an actor, I can take him on.”
“ Godotis very relevant today,” he says. “When Lucky arrives with a rope around his neck you have all of society there – upper class, lower class, no class. You ask why an enslaved guy is carrying everything for Pozzo who talks excessively but who is a complete loser.” Plus ça change . . .
Beckett originally wrote the phrase “Habit is a great deadener” as “L’habitude est une grand sourdine”. “Sourdine” translates as a “muting device”. And for a jazz musician, this has an extra relevance: a “sourdine” is also the “lid” used to muffle a trombone.
“ Godotis about life and people filling the empty spaces when they are afraid of the vastness of opportunity and the universe. They start to babble to fill the space. And, as they get older, they start waiting and wishing for the end – but all around them there are still possibilities.
“Beckett makes the audience uneasy waiting for this guy who doesn’t turn up. What he has taught me is don’t fill space with idle chatter. If you occupy space, you deaden it.”
PADDY SHERLOCK’S TOP PARIS JAZZ VENUES
The Coolin. I’ve been playing there every second Sunday, October to April for 14 years. I do whatever I like there with a seven-piece band playing our original songs from a soon-to-be released album. 15 Rue Clément, 75006
Le Caveau de La Huchette. The grand old temple of Paris jazz clubs. I saw Lionel Hampton here, Harry Sweets Edison and even played with Al Grey from the Count Basie band. 5 Rue de la Huchette, 75005
L’Olympia. The best venue in the world! I was there on Halloween to see Ray Davies and met him backstage with his lead guitarist, my friend Bill Shanley from Clonakilty. 28 Boulevard des Capucines, 75009
The New Morning. A wonderful venue. A bit shabby but a great size. 7/9 Rue des Petites Ecuries, 75010
Les Aprioris. A new wine bar in the Marais district. It’s tiny but with a huge heart. 82 Rue Archives, 75003