Gavin Friday’s been a Virgin Prune and a glam cabaret torch singer, he’s done Brecht and Weill, and most recently stole the show at Hal Willner’s Leonard Cohen tribute concert Came So Far For Beauty.
But at the end of this month Gavin Friday will be taking on William Shakespeare in Nothing Like The Sun – The Sonnets, under the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
"How this came about was I worked with Gavin Bryars about a year and a half ago on the Sinking Of The Titanic and we got on really well and talked about doing something more.
“I had this crazy idea to do a musical version of the Stations Of The Cross, which is still in the pipeline. But late last year, just around the time of the Leonard Cohen thing, Gavin rang me. For some reason, the Queen has commissioned that all of Shakespeare’s works be recorded in Great Britain this year, and the Royal Shakespeare company and the Royal Opera House commissioned Gavin Bryars to take on the duty of performing the sonnets in a more innovative way.
“Gavin decided he was going to write an original 40 or 50 minute piece of classically based music over which 10 to 12 sonnets will be performed, that’s the main part of the show. But for the first half of the show he decided to commission four contemporary singers to reinterpret a love sonnet of their choice, in their own way, and he would arrange it. He approached Antony Hegarty, Liz Fraser, Natalie Merchant and me.
“So I rummaged through the sonnets, and what I found is that it could take you maybe five or six days to understand what the fuck they’re about! You almost have to get them into your bloodstream subliminally, and then you’re walking down the road and you go, ‘That’s what it’s about.’ So I picked Sonnet XL, and I did a very simple demo of it, quite minimal and intimate. I decided to go against the whole bravado of how Shakespeare’s work is put across. I really believe when you listen to the words, they’re so profoundly beautiful and intimate, there’s no way they were written to be performed in that Laurence Olivier way. So I brought it right down almost into that erotic Shag Tobacco sentiment, and got very melodic in that final couplet, went out there very much into ‘Angel’ falsetto territory, where the orchestra really pushes in.
“And Bryars got back to me and said, ‘I want this done for the show, I want an arrangement of it’. So I said, ‘Fantastic’. And about a week later I got a call from the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it felt like the Queen’s grandfather was on the phone to me, 15 golf balls down the throat: ‘We absolutely think your interpretation of Sonnet XL is wonderful, but we’d also like you to be the main narrator and singer over the main Gavin Bryars piece’. Which I hadn’t even heard. I think they just like the slant I’d taken, I think they’re quite taken by debunking the opera.
“But the great thing about these projects, whether it’s Kurt Weill or it’s Krautrock or Prokofiev, you become this obsessive. So I’ve the complete works of Shakespeare, videos, audiocassettes; you become this sort of Trinity College student for three months. I knew I’d heard the sonnets narrated, and then I worked out that Derek Jarman made a very beautiful abstarct movie called The Angelic Conversation, with very ambiguous, beautiful, James Dean boys running around with candles. But Judi Dench narrated over this, I think seven or eight of the sonnets, and her diction alone would leave you standing. But what Jarman was obviously pulling up on was, ‘Who were these written for, a girl or a boy or what?’
“I know that this is a love issue for hotpress; do you know what would be great to do? Print Sonnet XL, because in this day and age of utter shite getting awards, to just let people read 14 lines of absolute profound beauty would be a good thing on Valentine’s Day.”
Gavin Friday will be touring with the Royal Shakespeare Company to perform Nothing Like The Sun – The Sonnets. Performances: Feb 24 – The Courtyard Theatre, Stradford; Feb 25 – The Courtyard Theatre, Straford; March 3 – Djanogly Theatre, Nottingham; March 13 – Sage Gateshead, Newcastle; March 15 – RNCM, Manchester; March 17 – The Venue, Leeds.
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