BWW Review: ADELAIDE CABARET FESTIVAL 2017: ANCIENT RAIN - PAUL KELLY & CAMILLE O'SULLIVAN WITH FEARGAL MURRAY at Her Majesty's TheatreReviewed by Barry Lenny, Friday 16th June 2017.

Ancient Rain is a tribute to the great Irish poets, with some pieces spoken, and others set to music in a song cycle by Paul Kelly and Camille O'Sullivan, with the help of her musical director and pianist, Feargal Murray. They were joined by electric guitarist, Dan Kelly, Drummer, Paul Byrne, and cellist, Sokol Koda.

Words seldom fail me but, in the face of the writings presented in this production, a century of Irish poetry, where does one begin? The subject matter covered so many of the sad, tragic, and devastating times and events in Irish history. The performance covered the 'troubles', the Catholic church's opposition to abortion, the famine when the potato crop failed due to the potato blight, the taking of the Dublin GPO, and Sean Connolly's involvement in the Easter uprising of 1916, about which W.B. Yeats wrote in From Mountain to Mountain Rode the Fierce Horsemen:

Who was the first man shot that day?
The player Connolly,
Close to the City Hall he died
Carriage and voice had he.
He lacked those years that go with skill,
But later might have been
A famous, a brilliant figure,
Before the painted scene!

His poem, 1916, ends with:

I write it out in a verse-
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

But I am getting ahead, as this was the third item. Seamus Heaney's poems Digging and Act of Union began the concert, the first attesting to his move away from toiling on the land like his forefathers to being a writer. In the latter, he sexualises Ireland as a woman defiled by the male, England. Then comes Yeats, and his poem of the Easter uprising.

Digging is told first by O'Sullivan, with a sparse and sensitive accompaniment by Murray, the poem passing to Kelly, then back and forth. This quiet and gentle beginning builds as the other musicians join in. By this stage, we are already so deeply engaged that the segue into Act of Union, sung by Kelly, leading to his reciting of the Yeats poem, and O'Sullivan's first song coming in behind it, has us listening intently to every word.

Gaelle Mellis and Neil Simpson provide a design and lighting design that complement the performance beautifully, an integral part of the performance. The movement of chairs, the musicians changing positions, or a burst of smoke, each part adding to the whole. Chris Drummond's direction is a light touch, guiding the performance and performers through a labyrinth of light and shade.

Paula Meehan's The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks gives O'Sullivan an opportunity to deliver a sensational and powerful indictment of the Church. Her musical introduction to the poem, and its telling, is passionate and moving, touching the audience. It seemed a shame to interrupt the production at this point with an interval, particularly as the time had flown by, to this point.

Donagh McDonagh. Padraig Pearse, Enda Wyley, and, of course, James Joyce, were represented alongside Yeats, Heaney, and more in a wonderful collection of poets old and new. A section of James Joyce's short story, The Dead, written in 1914, closed the performance, but not without a reprise of the title song Ancient Rain, as an encore, followed by a standing ovation. This was a performance that will stay in people's memories for a very long time.

Paul Kelly is a popular and prolific Australian songwriter with a string of hits to his name. In this performance, though, he seemed a little awkward, his recitations of the poems are clear, displaying good diction, and his musical settings are skilfully presented, but it is the performance of a singer/songwriter, without the physicality or the powerful interpretation of a cabaret artist, or an actor. Camille O'Sullivan is both of these and completely overshadows him, not deliberately, but simply because she is doing what she does. His performance is not exactly all on one level but, by comparison, it is within a rather narrow band.

Camille O'Sullivan variously prowls, strides, skips, and dances around the stage, embracing and embodying the music, giving it a physical form. When she stands, motionless, it takes one's breath away. When she sings, her voice might be anything between the gentlest whisper and a roar. She does not merely recite the poetry; she lives it, and draws the audience into that world with her. She commands the stage, with an enormous presence. This is her show, and the story of her Ireland. Slainte!

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From This Author Barry Lenny

Barry Lenny Born in London, Barry was introduced to theatre as a small boy, through being taken to see traditional Christmas pantomimes, as well as discovering jazz (read more...)

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