Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris review: spinning in nostalgia

The appeal of Brel’s songs has always been their urgency, but despite commanding performances, the Gate’s new staging feels like a slab of nostalgia for the good old days as its theatre slides into ruins

Risteárd Cooper, Karen McCartney, Stephanie McKeon and Rory Nolan and in Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Photograph: Pat Redmond

Risteárd Cooper, Karen McCartney, Stephanie McKeon and Rory Nolan and in Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Photograph: Pat Redmond

 

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris ★★★
Gate Theatre, Dublin

The Gate theatre is in ruins. Craters in the plaster expose crumbling brickwork beneath, familiar columns are falling away and a yawning hole in the ceiling looks as though a bomb has torn through it. In the imagined catastrophe of Alyson Cummins set, the theatre has either withstood a recent war, or is taking the prospect of new management very badly.

A more immediate effect for this staging of Eric Blau and Mort Shuman’s revue of the songs of Jacques Brel – always a blend of passion and acid – is to create a sense of distance. The idea may have been to make this grand theatre feel like an enclosed cabaret, but the stylish decay and costumes put us back towards the 1940s.

Opening with Brussels, a song that moves with rickety bustle of a tram car (It was the time when Brussels was king, It was the time of the silent movie) director Alan Stanford seizes on the allure of nostalgia and doesn’t let go.

This creates a peculiar time warp. Blau and Shuman’s translations wear their Off-Broadway 1968 origins heavily, but the appeal of Brel’s compositions is their urgency. His signature is a spinning waltz time and his verses – unvarnished reports of sailors, prostitutes, soldiers or strivers – escalate into frenzy in a world that always seems to be turning faster.

Under Cathal Synnott’s lively musical direction, the four performers – Risteárd Cooper, Stephanie McKeon, Karen McCartney and Rory Nolan – share the songs either individually, as a relay, or as an ensemble. Still, you come out humming their loneliness, in the stately bolero of Alone, a galloping duet of unrequited passion on Madeleine, or when McKeon, with the poise and precision of a latter-day Julie Andrews, sings I Loved, a meditation on desire that dissolves, not unhappily, into drink.

There’s rarely a sense of who they are singing to, however – an offstage Mathilde looming in the distance, a table-top portrait, or just an invisible abstraction – and where other Brel revue shows have sought an equivalent dynamic of movement, to not involve choreography among such a capable cast feels like missing a trick.

Nolan, given an absurdly thick wig and a moustache, brings great comic personality to the frustrated fantasy of Jackie, the more stingingly sardonic The Bulls, and later the harrowing, sordid progression of Next. Cooper is better in company, on the a quiet duet of Old Folks or a boisterous eruption for The Middle Class, the latter of which here feels like Brel trolling the audience. Left alone with Amsterdam, though, he loses amperage. What can you do with such a standard?

Everything in Brel is revolving – the outrages of war through history, the surge and wane of love, our transformation into the things we despise – and Carousel is a natural crescendo. Steered by McKeon first as an entrancing funfair that accelerates, on and on, until the speed becomes frightening, it’s a dizzying achievement.

Yet the revelation is McCartney, a late addition to the cast, who finds surprising rapture in My Death, and whose command of the rushing Marieke, which retains Brel’s emotive Dutch verses among Blau and Shuman’s blunt translations, is just incantatory.

Given a staging idea bold enough to match such performances, these songs of life and death would feel fully realised, in a warm and grim cabaret at the end of the world.

- Until February 25th