Rufus Wainwright fares best without the Bard - review

A sumptuously elegant and inventive singer-songwriter: the one and only Rufus Wainwright
A sumptuously elegant and inventive singer-songwriter: the one and only Rufus Wainwright Credit: Christie Goodwins/Redfern/Getty

I’m not going to suggest Shakespeare would have turned in his grave at Rufus Wainwright’s musical appropriation of his sonnets but he might have had a ghostly chuckle. There was something of the rude mechanicals in a cheerfully fumbling production in which an uncharacteristically nervous Wainwright marshalled his forces with all the camp flourish of an enthusiastic leader of a regional amateur dramatics society.

Wainwright dropped music sheets from his stand, forgot the names of musicians and halted a sonnet in mid-recital because he thought he heard someone’s phone ringing. “Who wrote this?” he asked, squinting at a crib sheet. “Oh Shakespeare!” he concluded when someone helpfully turned a spotlight up. “Let’s just try it! Hey! Putting on a show! Rock and roll!”

The clink and rustle of drinks being served at the bar echoed around the freezing church on an uncharacteristically chilly April night. Wainwright chirpily apologised for the shambolic air, claiming “We only had two hours to put the show together. Welcome to rehearsals!” When he wasn’t performing himself he sat on a chair on the side of the bare stage, legs crossed, arms folded, head waving enthusiastically from side to side in time with the music. 

Fortunately, the music itself was of a higher order. Wainwright’s melodic gifts are not in doubt, he is one of the most sumptuously elegant and inventive singer-songwriters in contemporary music, albeit his material tends to be too quirkily self-involved for mass consumption. He ceded the grand piano for most of the performance to classical accompanist Chris Glynn, joined for sections by orchestral musicians from the Royal Shakespeare Company, with glorious Scottish opera singer Janice Kelly delivering Shakespeare’s words with exquisite refinement, all the more impressive for having stepped in at the last minute after Sarah Fox fell ill.

With veteran actor Peter Glynn bookending performances with sonorous recitations, this ensemble offered Wainwright’s interpretations of six sonnets, the musical setting spanning light operatic to Brecht and Weill cabaret. Wainwright joined in with his characteristically louche vocals for two, whilst Florence Welch (of epic rock ensemble Florence + The Machine) came on and rather stole the show with her charismatic stillness, striking pre-Raphaelite beauty and emotionally direct vocal on a folky pop version of Sonnet 20 (When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes).

I have heard many attempts to put Shakespeare’s sonnets to music before and always come to the same conclusion: these are poems, not lyrics. The words are too densely packed to unfold in song, and meanings that can shift in the reading become either too elusive or overtly coloured by melodic shades.

The most successful of Wainwright’s efforts was probably Sonnet 20 (A Woman’s Face) which they performed twice, and, after all the great musicianship on display, it was Wainwright’s straightforward solo piano version that was most effective, simply because it stripped things down to their essence, beautiful words and music.

Wainwright’s loyal audience was delighted enough to give the ensemble a standing ovation, and were treated to a handful of solo performances where Wainwright suddenly lost all nervousness and just exulted in doing what he does best, singing and playing his own fantastic songs with aplomb. Who needs Shakespeare?