Rockstar and actress talk Brel

THE ROCKSTAR AND THE ACTRESS: John Toogood and Jennifer Ward-Lealand star in Silo Theatre's newest production, Brel.
THE ROCKSTAR AND THE ACTRESS: John Toogood and Jennifer Ward-Lealand star in Silo Theatre's newest production, Brel.

Depending on who you ask Jacques Brel was either a beautiful performer with integrity, or a punk icon before punk was cool.

The Belgian musician is the subject of Silo Theatre's latest production, Brel, starring theatre regulars Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Tama Waipara, and rock royalty Jon Toogood and Julia Deans.

More than three weeks into rehearsals, and just a few days out from their opening night, Ward-Lealand and Toogood are buzzing. They have started to perform with the production's live band, and have finally taken up residence in the Auckland Town Hall's Concert Chamber. So far, they said, it's feeling good.

It's clear though, the man at the centre represents slightly different things to each of the performers.  

"He was a musical genius really. A beautiful actor and he performs these songs with integrity and such depth. He was an extraordinary man," said Ward-Lealand, who previously directed the play Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.

"I've lived and breathed these songs, but as a director. So I'm thrilled to be in the middle of it now."

But for Shihad front man Toogood, more research was needed before he could come to grips with who - and what - the man was.

"To be honest, I didn't know anything about him... then I went 'okay, Google Google'. And it's like Iggy Pop in a suit, smoking 100 cigarettes a day. The commitment to each song is amazing.

"It was actually a little intimidating at first. If I even got 10 per cent of the way there, I'd be nailing it. It was incredible to watch."  

The intimidation is understandable; Brel wrote over 300 songs in his lifetime, and while his name may be relatively unknown, his music has lived on, both in its original form and as tributes by others.

Musicians including David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Ray Charles, and Nina Simone have all taken Brel's words and breathed life into them. Now it's the turn of these four local talents.

The production is a cabaret-style show, with the songs shining rather than a script.  For a theatre regular like Ward-Lealand, the important thing is substance, rather than technique.

"For me a song is a script, is a song is a script - they are all telling stories and one just happens to have music with it." 

But this is all new for Toogood - he's even wearing a suit. Usually the man with a guitar strapped to his chest and a band along for the ride, stepping foot into the theatre world has meant looking at things in a different way - including his plans to make a couple of new albums.

He came home from his Melbourne base with his guitar and a plan to write some songs for Shihad and The Adults in his down time.

"But there's no time for that at all... it's intense.

"There are a lot of words and his songs start out small and they get more and more and more and by the end you are spitting out words a million miles an hour. But they are really great words so you don't want to mess them up."

Brel was, and is, all about the tales contained within a song. And while some might say storytelling is a lost art in modern music, Toogood and Ward-Lealand disagree. But they said there is something special about the way he approached things.

"Modern pop has the constraints of three-and-a-half minutes, so often you don't get to articulate the detail that he does, but there is always great music. But Brel's stuff is actually a bit timeless - it's all love, life, death, loss, yearning, happiness and joy - all the stuff we go through," said Toogood.

"And the good thing about Brel is that he stands up, he stands up now and he'll stand up in the future because the songs are good. They are well crafted, they are visceral, they are funny, they are moving, they are dark, joyous," said Ward-Lealand.

"And as each new generation re-interprets them, they will continue to be relevant."

Brel: November 1 - 24 at the Concert Chamber, Auckland Town Hall.
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