The Stage, a Book &
the Silver Screen
Artist: Duke Special
Time: 29 tracks / 87 mins
Duke Special has come a long
way since his acoustic sets with an old gramophone-decked piano closed
Greenbelt’s performance café. Previous album I Never Thought
This Day Would Come was BBC Radio 2’s Record of the Week and he headlined
Greenbelt’s mainstage in 2009 with a performance that showed more verve
than did Sixpence None the Richer, who finished one of the other nights.
(Surely his next project must be a live DVD?)
This trilogy of discs (also
available separately) does just what the title says.
Duke Special (actually Peter
Wilson) was commissioned to write and perform Mother Courage and Her
Children for Deborah Warner’s National Theatre production of Bertolt
Brecht’s landmark eponymous anti-war stage play. It is a difficult project
to get right, as Brecht’s philosophy of drama was (crudely put) that what
was going on onstage should alienate the audience, so that they could assess
the point objectively. This would hardly suit the Duke’s natural warm style.
Wilson has always used theatrical
elements. His music also works because his vaudeville instincts bring to
mind the World Wars that the play refers to (albeit via the Thirty Years'
War of 1618–1648 to nominally distance the work from what was happening
in Europe as Brecht wrote it in 1939). Perhaps his light style belies the
heaviness of the topic (and there is a great darkness in some of these
lyrics) so helping Brecht’s alienation after all.
songs, using Brecht’s original texts, depict individual characters and
their views. The eponymous Mother Courage, a canteen lady who follows the
soldiers, loses her three children in the war. Her theme is the strongest
of the set. In a Sky Arts feature on the work, Wilson explained how this
song “contains a lot of references about war and about the essence of the
play, so I wanted it to be something that was absolutely huge, and at times
sound as though all hell was breaking loose,” adding about its being reprised
twice, “I didn’t want it to be too immediate, so you wouldn’t be sick of
it.” There is no danger of that; it works well as a core tune.
A chaplain, officers and
prostitute are also among the cast. So the graphic song about crucifixion
is given a personal twist by the weak chaplain. Its banjo track adds a
vulnerability to the piece and focuses the hearer on the lyric. This adds
clout to the powerfully cynical “Great Capitulation” that follows it.
This is a very fine work
in the context of the stage play, but it may be harder for the home listener
to relate to its themes.
For the very brief book
disc, “Huckleberry Finn” gathers the only five songs that Kurt Weill finished
before he died in 1950 for his dramatization of Mark Twain’s work. This
links to the first disc, both in that these songs (apparently never previously
recorded together) were destined for the stage, but also in that Weill
was one of Brecht’s collaborators. Mellow and melodic, they capture the
summery mood of Finn’s world, due in no small part to Ben Castle’s inspired
score for brass and strings. “Catfish,” sung with Beth Rowley, was the
song that drew Wilson to this collection, but I return more often to the
scene-setting “River Chanty” and “Come in, Mornin’.”
For “The Silent World of
Hector Mann” Wilson sent eleven other writers (including Aqualung and Ed
Harcourt) a copy of Paul Auster’s novel The Book of Illusions about Mann,
an obscure silent film actor who appeared in twelve films. Wilson asked
each to write a song “in a pre -rock and roll style” based on the title
of a Mann film to go alongside his own “Mister Nobody.”
This is the ‘proper’ release
of the set with a cohesive set of stories that are nearer to Wilson’s normal
fare. There is something about the comic characters and slapstick capers
of silent film that suits Duke Special to the ground. Neil Hannon’s “Wanda,
Darling of the Jockey Club” shows his usual genius with surreal humor in
general and comedy couplets in particular. Aqualung’s is an atmospheric
piece. Otherwise, it is the less recognized writers that deliver some of
the surprises here and show the quality of musicians who share Wilsons’s
musical world, particularly his producer, Paul Pilot.
“I’d always suspected that
where the arts overlap is where it gets interesting and you can do something
original,” Wilson told Sky Arts, “I want to branch out and be touched by
other art forms.” His experimentation paid off, as this humorous, earthy
and touching pack certainly has both interest and originality. It will
not to everyone’s taste, but this pack revels in the pathos, pleasure,
pain and peculiarities of humanity and does so in Wilson’s own distinctive
Web link: http://www.skyarts.co.uk/video/video-mother-courage.