Brel: Songs of life, love and loss

Brel – The Words and Music of Jacques Brel
Silo Theatre at Q, Auckland
Until November 24

Jacques Brel didn’t see the world through rose-tinted spectacles. They were grey, smokey and crazed, and the flashes of light and colour soon faded. Life was a burden.

The Belgium singer’s career through the 1960s and 70s was a major influence on contemporary music, with hundreds of versions of his songs having been recorded.

He was also a major influence on many musicians – including David Bowie and Leonard Cohen – with music which was a mixture of the personal and the political.

Brel's music is always different. Many start out as love songs but end up being tunes of despair, confessions or suicide notes.

But there is also a strange sense of freedom which recalls the nihilist heroes of the French New Wave cinema such as Jean Paul Belmondo in Jean Luc Godard’s movies.

The four singers in Silo’s latest production – Tama Waipara, Jon Toogood, Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Julia Deans – are all exceptional singers and actors, bringing Brel’s despairing songs to life and giving them a contemporary feel and relevance.

The standout performer is Jon Toogood, who is closest to being Brel's alter-ego, exuding a repressed nervous energy with his agonising voice.

His performance of Next, which is a reflection on the effects of World War II army brothels on a young man’s loss of innocence and his despair at ever having a meaningful relationship, is heart stopping.

His strident singing, accompanied by the hectoring gestures typical of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, is a chilling performance.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand is a consummate singer, performing with a clear, crisp voice and emotional intensity. Her Ne Me Quitte Pas is poignant, with a despairing sadness rather than the sweet nostalgia usually provided by other singers.

Julia Deans has an achingly desperate voice and occasionally manages a Piaf-like groan, her face constantly revealing an inner anguish along with a casual wit.

Tama Waipara, singing songs such as Fanette, looks and sounds like the swarthy, grubby French sailor who Brel often wrote about, and his French accent captures the resignation needed for some of them.

In Carousel, the four stars whip themselves into a manic fury as they sing about the whirling circus contraption – a metaphor for the endlessly careering, pointless world.

The band of Leon Radojkovic, Abraham Kunin, Jonathan Burgess and Simon Walker provide an enthusiastic backing but it occasionally overwhelms the singers, lessening the enjoyment and exposing the band's limitations.

The stage is filled with furniture, instruments and lights in a mix of concert and cabaret – a set which could be a celestial lounge where the devil is just outside the door, waiting.

Silo productions are always innovative challenging and stylish. Sometimes they don’t quite make it but with this Brel b eing directed by Michael Hurst it has an extraordinary work which is raw, funny, passionate and entertaining.