Love Sonnets

Thy eternall Sommer

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 12.02.2009

Marianne Faithfull reading twenty-one of Shakespeare’s Love Sonnets. Not surprisingly, the event at the Théâtre National had been sold out for weeks! The evening was under way the moment the legendary singer-songwriter entered in her elegant black trouser suit and sat down at the small white table.

“A womans face with natures own hand painted,”: sonnet 20 was the first one picked, plunging us right into the mysterious and elusive story behind the Bard’s sequence. In the first 126 poems, which are addressed to a young man of great beauty and promise, the speaker expresses his admiration and affection for the latter. He urges him to marry and have children so as to ensure the continuance of his ancient family, while warning him about the devouring power of time and ageing. Sonnets 127 to 152 are addressed to a “Dark Lady”, whom the poet despises for her unfaithfulness, yet cannot forget. To complicate matters even further, both the poet and the young man seem to be romantically involved with her.

Idealisation, jealousy, betrayal, forgiveness – the conflicting moods of love and the ambiguities of personal relationships are as central to the sequence as are the transience of youth and beauty and the eternity of art. How far are the sonnets autobiographical? Who would then be the other two people trapped in this love triangle? Scholars have not shirked the challenge and forests have been destroyed in the process. Still, the poems largely keep their secrets even centuries later …

What should matter more to anyone than this type of detective work is the universality of the themes explored and, above all, the power and beauty of the language used. As Ted Hughes suggests with regard to the best kind of poetry, there is something beyond comprehending the words on the page. There is a magic about hearing a voice speak the lines or as Hughes puts it: “I prefer poems to make an effect on being heard… an effect quite apart from anything that I call understanding or being able to explain them. It’s just some sort of charge and charm, a series of operations that it works on you.”

Marianne Faithfull succeeds in moving swiftly between clear, serene lines and more turbulent or dark ones. She is on familiar ground. “Shakespeare has been my ‘friend’ and companion throughout everything. I have performed, read, watched and studied his works all my life,” she explains. Of course, while listening to her famously dark, husky voice giving you fourteen lines of Shakespeare at a time, you will miss the complex host of associations of the text, you will be unable to decode the architectural compression of the often playful argument.

The reading of each sonnet is followed by Vincent Segal playing a short piece on the cello. He has composed tunes especially for the show: repetitive modern beats of melancholy and pain contrast with what are almost Elizabethan melodies. The sombre, atmospheric bowing and plucking fits Faithfull’s precise, pared-down reading perfectly and mirrors the emotions carried by the text. I only wish sonnet 130, Shakespeare’s witty rejection of Petrarchan metaphors and his celebration of human imperfection, had been included! And then, no doubt, most people in the audience wanted to see Marianne Faithfull as well as listen to her. When­ever the cello was playing, she looked dreamily into space or seemed to scrutinise the audience, gently tapping her foot to the music… “Good evening”, “Good-bye” and “Thank you” were the only non-Shakespearean words we heard that night.

Now it is up to everyone to go back to the sonnets and savour them at their own pace on yet another rainy weekend. Or had we better wait for the recording of the Marianne Faithfull/Vincent Segal show to come out?  It is bound to make a cup of tea taste like champagne on a dull Saturday afternoon. It is also going to be a more than welcome change, away from the less expressive and more sentimental readings currently available on CD.

Shakespeare’s Love Sonnets was at the Théâtre National on February 6 and 7

Janine Goedert
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