Dé Máirt 28 Meitheamh 2011

'An Appointment with Mr. Yeats' - The Waterboys and the Poetry of W.B. Yeats

© Paul Mac Manus
I was a very lucky recipient of generosity that allowed me and my best friend to attend the first night of ‘An Appointment with Mr. Yeats’ in the Abbey Theatre last night. This artistic project of The Waterboys, Mike Scott and Steve Wickham, sets twenty poems of William Butler Yeats to music, thus giving the arch-poet’s words a new lease of life. Mike Scott himself has had a long artistic and spiritual relationship with the poet, as is apparent in the symbolism of his own lyrics and the free pagan spirit of The Waterboys’ early albums. I like to think that Mike Scott is a freer reincarnation of the poet, an unrestricted spirit of  dramatic beauty and mysticism that is synonymous with the young darkling Yeats before he affected the mask of burning gold. I would also add to the balance a touch of Jack Yeats, with a freshness and more earthy sensuality; Sligo personified.

On entering the theatre, the audience was met with a darkened stage and a hypnotising spiral in a circular display screen on the backdrop. In my seat (four rows from the front in the centre) I got a gentle waft in incense from backstage. The theatre was PACKED with people from all walks of life, full of anticipation. Finally, the theatre darkened and disembodied waves and music was heard. After a period of impatient waiting and heightened expectation, band members began to come onstage one by one, as their instrument entered the music. Then Mike Scott bolted onstage, and straight up to the mic, and launched into the first syllables of “The Hosting of the Sidhe”, accompanied by a fitting tumultuous horse-galloping beat. Following this was “News for the Delphic Oracle”, and “The Song of Wandering Aengus”. After three songs from this mind-blowing arrangement, Mike began to relate to us his love for Yeats’ poetry  finding collections of his poetry in his house when he was young and how he always felt drawn back to the poems, and grew in his understanding of the poems through the years. Reminding the audience of the historical background of Yeats’ role in the foundation of the Irish Literary Theatre, later the Abbey Theatre, Mike told us how honored he felt to be performing the world premiere of his project on the Abbey stage.
What struck me most about the ‘setlist’ of Yeats poems was how Mike worked with many of the less familiar Yeats poems (like “The Mountain Tomb” and “Sweet Dancer”), and how the eternal favourites were arranged in a fresh and completely unexpected (like “Down By the Salley Gardens” and “September 1913”). The two most striking songs of the repetoire were “Mad as the Mist and Snow” and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”. “Mad as the Mist and Snow” is a musical delight, as if it was a tune stolen from the fairies themselves. This was the most energetic and theatrical performance, with Steve Wickham himself frolicking like a fairy-fiddler, wearing a crow mask (a nod to his other Sligo-based band No Crows), engaging in a musical duel with bemasked trombone player Blaise Margail. I like to think Yeats would have fallen back in love with his early lyric “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (as he in later years reacted against this poem, and hated reciting it) as it was well and truely revitalised as a Blues song, which is indeed fitting to the theme of the poem.

Mike Scott spoke about his interest in the mystical side of Yeats, and explained Yeats’ interests in mysticism, the Occult and Rosicrucianism. He told us how he would search through academic biographies on Yeats’ life, trying to find out more on Yeats’ experience with mysticism and the supernatural, and how he was always disappointed in their treatment of this side of Yeats. Following this introduction, the circular display screen on the backdrop changed to a clock, which ticked towards midnight as “The Four Ages of Man” was performed; on the clock striking twelve, the screen changed to a starry, astronomical sky, and Mike and co. performed “Before the World Was Made”, which blended into a section from “The Second Coming”, proclaimed by Mike from a theatrically-sized book.

A particularly resonant arrangement is Mike’s blending of two poems from Yeats’ plays, “They Will Be Remembered Forever/Let the Earth Be Witness”. The political power of verses from the play Kathleen Ní Houlihan are used in the context of the modern political struggle in Iran. The video of this song and images from Iranian protests can be seen on You Tube here. (These images were played behind Mike’s solo performance with guitar on the backdrop display.)

The poem which Mike referred to as “the last track on Yeats’ final album”, “Politics” was a beautiful arrangement, and we were happy for it not to be the last song of the night, as they followed it with “The Song of the Last Fairy”. The band bid us goodnight, at which we stood up in clamourous applause, giving them a standing ovation - I beheld Mike’s combined expression of relief and surprise as he mouthed “Thank You”. They left the stage, leaving us clapping and whistling enthusiastically - we knew they would be back out (they hadn’t performed “The Stolen Child”). On returning, Mike and co. gave us a rendition of “A Song of Rosy-Cross”, which blended seamlessly into the frolicking tune of “The Kings of Kerry (aka “Hye Diddley-Eye”) from the Room to Roam album. We remained on our feet from this point until the very end… I cannot convey the joyous yips from the audience on our hearing the glimmering piano of “The Stolen Child”, with an elfin Sarah Allen on the fairy-flute (of the Anglo-Irish folk band Flook). It was a truely soulful, magical moment of the night. We were fairly happy with our lot, though saddened at the thought that the night was over… But it wasn’t! On leaving and returning again, the veil between this world and the world of fairy was lifted once more with the pagan celebratory “Bang the Drum” from the This Is the Sea album. Mike dedicated the last song of the night to WBY himself - “The Whole of the Moon” - the words of which I always associate with Yeats. The energy was something else, of sheer humanity and something spiritual - I would say we reawakened Yeats’ spirit! There was an added spark when The Man Himself appeared before our very eyes - WBY! The final moments of the gig were heightened by the presence of the Poet himself, in video footage on the backdrop display. In stately gait, Yeats descends steps towards the camera, peering behind round spectacles into the camera; just as he gestures towards the camera, the footage is frozen, and he remained ‘on stage’ with the band members as they took their final bows and received their tumultous applause.

After the majority of people had left the theatre, my friend and I sat in ecstatic contemplation on what had just been undertaken, meditating on Yeats’ image on the backdrop until it was switched off and we were nearly thrown out! Re-emerging onto the streets of Dublin, we felt that we had partaken in a huge séance, in a huge moment in artistic history, or in a seisiún ceoil of fairies and humans alike. To be really corny, the only conclusion that we could come to was that we saw the whole of the moon.

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