Camille O’Sullivan, Irish-French diva and cover-artist of note performs in a WMC co-production of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds classics in this year’s Festival of Voice. And what witchcraft indeed is this?
Those unfamiliar with O’Sullivan’s style might at first find her oddly affected, a sorceress, framed against a projected back drop of stormy skies and a full moon, summoning the instrumentalists and lighting operator to wax and wane with a gesture of a hand (at one point she shushes the guitarist), drawing seemingly on the higher power that Cave often alludes to in his lyrics.
It is a stirring mix: O’Sullivan’s vocals – powerful and raspy at times, soft and de-voiced at others, always resonant with passion and commitment (“You have to commit” she says at one point, as if finding it necessary to explain away her exuberance and self-declared love of performing Cave’s enigmatic works) – and Cave’s Old Testament lyrics of sin, savagery, lust and longing; the Irish lilt adding an extra layer of fervour and repentance. O’Sullivan occupies half the stage, empty but for a chair, opposing her, the poker-faced band (Feargal Murray on keys, Steve Fraser on electric guitar, Paul Byrne on drums and Charlotte Glasson on musical saw, saxophone, violin),between them, like some negligible shield, a set of wind chimes that she teases at will with a hand, her foot or the microphone. She is an organic presence, both entirely in control and also teetering on the verge of chaos. It doesn’t bother her in the slightest that she creates interference on her microphone as she runs it across the chimes, nearly loses her balance as she kicks them, or bangs noisily into her chair at the end of the set. It certainly doesn’t bother us. She discards her gold boots at the midpoint and they lie illuminated by Joe Fletcher’s remarkable light show (this man could make an empty stage hold an audience’s attention), embodying everything that makes Cave’s work so very memorable: love and anger, fragility and violence. She throws off her black jacket and jauntily runs wild fingers through her sweaty locks, imbuing every movement with joyful theatricality and adding an entrancing female perspective to many of Cave’s tortured male characters.
The show is topped and tailed by poetry in Cave’s own resonant voice and moves purposefully from the ironic opening number God Is In The House through the contemplative Oh Lord, her lament accompanied by the wail of a musical saw, into the wilds of the satanic Stagger Lee(after which, she swears, she doesn’t swear), singing with unfettered fury through The Mercy Seat(and others) and finally into the stirringly heartfelt Into My Arms(O’Sullivan’s favourite) andThe Ship Song. For these, she draws her chair closer to the audience, as if to tell her favourite story to a child. She is chameleonic, capricious, and utterly captivating. Her charm is infectious.
O’Sullivan’s performance career started in circus and this shows in all the good ways: an irreverence for convention, a fearless dedication to storytelling, a keen eye for technical precision from those around her (Fletcher’s beams of light and Glasson’s arrangements are on point throughout (the latter even when O’Sullivan bounds across the stage and teasingly tinkers with the high notes). Her love of Cave’s work began when she was a student in Dublin. She has performed his songs individually for many years and this ‘love letter’ to him is serious, poignant, ardent stuff, and the first time for her to present a full set of his work.
She should have done it sooner.