Thursday, November 24, 2016


Acting on a recommendation by English Man, I went last night to the wonderfully nostalgic Wilton's Music Hall  for a performance by Camille O'Sullivan of some Jacques Brel songs. I'm very familiar with and a long-time fan of Brel but had never been to Wilton's or heard Camille and both were definitely worth a trip to the eerie no man's land that is Aldgate East at night. Miles of deserted glass-fronted office buildings dotted here and there with sad, empty little fast-fooderies like a jumble of ill-assorted type faces in a short-sighted sentence. Then a leaking railway bridge, forlorn boarded-up shops and then....a sign! 'Wilton's Music Hall' with an arrow pointing to a side alley, voices, lights, warmth, people crowding into an ambiance that is not of this century and all the better for it. My seat was directly behind a spiralling carved wooden pillar redolent of all the hands which stroked it over the years and I forgive it for making me crane my neck to see Camille O'Sullivan on stage.

She was a seasoned, confident performer, chatting in an intimate Irish lilt as if she knew everyone in the room (maybe she did) but when she sang, the voice soared powerfully away from you and was all about her - and why not? It made for a great show wasn't Brel enough for me. I do not mean that she should have impersonated him - of course there are innumerable covers of his songs. It's just that if you've seen and heard Brel, well, I don't think Camille really gets him. Partly it's the execrable English translations and partly because her emphasis is on showbiz whereas Brel was all about the words, the content of his poetry, articulated musically, forcefully, making sure his 'message' hits you - he was a kind of preacher, like it or not, and when he was bad he was lousy and when he was good he was sublime. Here is one of his sublimes, in my opinion. You really need to hear the words but I haven't found one decent translation on the internet. I'll search again or might have to do it myself.

UPDATE: Just done it. Could be better but anyway.... See next post.

Camille was best in the lusty, boisterous numbers which she performed with punk-ish and puck-ish energy but she lost it in the quiet ones. Ne Me Quitte Pas was sentimentalised out of existence. She did sing a few of the original verses in French but that couldn't erase the saccharine of the English translation or her catch-in-the-throat little girl interpretation. 
I never understand why some excellent singer/songwriters accept to have their lyrics translated so ineptly - no self-respecting poet or novelist would. But anyway, it was a good evening and I'm glad I was there. Here are some pics I took, behind the spirally pillar, in dim light.


Vincent said...

Nice review and pics, and a reminder of a brilliant show I saw 1987 at a small theatre in Dublin, 1987. Now I see it is available on DVD
. I can’t remember if the songs were done in English or French, but it established a lifelong appreciation of Brel and even the sense of knowing him personally.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Vincent, look up some of Jacques Brel's live performances that are on Youtube, if you haven't already done so.

The difference between his own versions of his own songs and what other people have done with them is huge - not only because translations into English were so bad (I don't know about other languages they were translated into) but because he and his songs/poetry were indivisible, much as Leonard Cohen singing Leonard Cohen is the real McCoy. Which isn't to say that there shouldn't be other interpretations by other singers or groups, and films or theatrical shows based on them. But in an admittedly possessive, nerdish way, I must confess I cringe before all the 'altered' versions.