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Her Majesty’s Theatre, Fri 16 Jun.
Paul Kelly is an icon of the Australian music scene, and his fan base know that his oeuvre is wide and varied and are prepared to swoon over whatever he presents. Irish-French singer Camille O’Sullivan is less well-known to Australian audiences but brought an intensity and passion to the stage that will have left its mark on those who witnessed it.
Ancient Rain is a song cycle, a group of related songs, inspired by W.B. Yeats poetry and based on the stories of Ireland, from famine to the troubles to the scourge of anti-abortion laws. A mixture of new compositions and much loved poetry set to a beautiful score written by Kelly, O’Sullivan and her long-time collaborator, Feargal Murray, the songs are separate but connected by themes both of the earth and of the heart. With a bit of politics and religion thrown in.
Ancient Rain has the makings of excellent musical theatre, and on paper everything looks ‘grand’, as they say on the Emerald Isle. However, somehow there was a disconnect. Kelly’s delivery followed his usual style – an entirely effective combination of deadpan/heartbreaking. O’Sullivan’s delivery is quite different – fierce, powerful, intense. Miraculously, their voices blend perfectly.
But what should have been deeply moving felt more like an exercise in keeping up. Without a reasonable knowledge of the stories behind the songs, there was a distance between the audience and the material. One of the most successful numbers, The Statue Of The Virgin At Granard Speaks, worked in part due to O’Sullivan’s fervent delivery, but also because Kelly provided context by way of a brief explanation of the story behind the song.
Act 2 was wholly more successful because the content was more accessible, allowing the audience to stop thinking and start feeling, which was a relief and also a pleasure.
Fans of Kelly’s work will no doubt file this with ‘he can do no wrong’, and O’Sullivan has no doubt won a new legion of fans (I overheard one woman leaving the theatre call her ‘magnificent’), but this is a work that, while exquisite at times, perhaps requires a cheat sheet for Australian audiences who might have not had the benefit of an Irish history curriculum.
Image courtesy of Sarah Walker