Gary Raymond reviews National Theatre Wales and Gruff Rhys’ solution to the future of ‘the album’, with Praxis Makes Perfect.
While the music industry has been scrambling as well as navel gazing for a few decades now trying to figure out what will be the future of ‘the album’, National Theatre Wales and Gruff Rhys’ Neon Neon, with Praxis Makes Perfect, seem to have come up with the most fascinating and artful solution to date. Ever since longplaying albums with a story hit the pop mainstream with (sort of) Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, bands have sought to submerge their music into the profundity of literature with a theatrical anchor. Magical Mystery Tour was an attempt to give a series of songs a visual narrative backbone. Dylan tried it with the Rolling Thunder Revue and the add on of Ronaldo and Clara. Many have tried in various ways, but nobody has ever really made it work artistically on a serious scale. And that is where Praxis Makes Perfect comes in, resplendent in its almost-chaotic mixture of earnest history lesson and dark-edged nightclub circus.
The show takes place in a warehouse, a whiplash from Cardiff city centre, but once the roll door is fastened behind, it is a misty, iron cave of anywhere, the ideal bubble for the oddest mix of genres, tastes and reference points you are likely to find succeeding in any artistic environment. It is part-live gig and part-full throttle, no holds-barred heavily choreographed pretentious theatre. It is kitsch, funny, moving, uplifting, silly and thoughtful in equal measure. It is rabble-rousing, confusing, flawed, shambolic, loud, flamboyant, boisterous, crude and utterly triumphant. It is a theatrical event that chewed its audience up and flung them onto the dark pavement outside, to a man and woman bewildered and joyous.
At the centre is the figure of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, Italian millionaire and subversive anti-communist publisher of the centre part of the twentieth century. His most famous achievement, and worthy of a drama in itself, was his publication of Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, which he connived to push out against all the pressures of the Communist machine. He becomes an icon of the revolutionary elite, those who see the power of the publisher. There are fiery scenes where Feltrinelli plays basketball with Fidel Castro (neatly played out to a backdrop of photos of the real occasion when this happened), and enters a dangerous dance with a pistol-whipping Che Guevera. (The cameos in Praxis are full-blooded scenery chewing entertainment).
While the action, never less than hurtling along, is played out, Neon Neon slide out the thumping synth pop of the album that has inspired the show from the industrial stage of a rickety iron bookshelf. Gruff Rhys circles and moves within the show like a half-cut ringmaster. Extremely charismatic and only half-aware of the audience beneath him, he spends most of the time with the look of a man trying to remember where he last put his car keys. The attitude of the band, the look of the show, and the general atmosphere, is somewhere between Stop Making Sense and a Socialist Workers’ Party Conference at the Hacienda. The audience are goaded into whoops and applause as Rhys holds up placards inciting exactly those things, and the music shudders through the bones and rattles the corrugated walls. This is garage theatre at its most grand.
Writer Tim Price has done a marvellous job with a script that had little room for manoeuvre when it came to content. A lesser writer would surely have buckled under the weight of the biographical information that needed to be let out in order for the story to mean anything to those who knew nothing about Feltrinelli. Yet he has managed to inject much humour, grit and grace into the words. Director Wils Wilson, who must have a Looney Tunes Christmas party going on in her brain in order to keep tabs on everything that goes on from minute to minute, has inserted some very interesting moments of symbolism into difficult plot points. Subterfuge and conniving and torture and relationships, rather than skipped over or lingered on, are given emphatic representations by the versatile and energetic cast.
And it is energy that is the key. Everything rushes and swarms around the laconic Gruff Rhys, who ends up being the real star of the show, even ahead of such co-stars as Feltrinelli and Fidel Castro. Make no mistake, it is the music of Neon Neon that drives the thing, and the inspiring insights and sensibilities of Rhys and Bryan Hollon (the other half of Neon Neon) that are at the heart of the production.
Do not be surprised if more bands start having meetings with the artistic directors of big-hitting theatre companies as word gets around of Praxis Makes Perfect. It may be the future of the album.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, editor and broadcaster.
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