CAMILLE O’SULLIVAN loves that line in Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’ - “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”, that even in the darkest recesses of life and art, some hope will be found, light will always break through, to, if not banish the dark, then at least to light the path through it.
Woyzeck In Winter, a major new production fusing two separate works - Georg Büchner’s 1836 play Woyzeck, and Schubert's 24 song cycle, Die Winterreise, written in 1823/4 - will receive its world premiere at the 2017 Galway International Arts Festival.
While the works are unrelated they make natural bedfellows; both dealing with doomed romance, heartbreak, mental illness, and lives ruined and destroyed. Woyzeck is a poor soldier who earns extra money for his family through menial jobs and participation in bizarre medical experiments. Brutalised by society and consumed with jealousy, he descends into despair, and finally, a desperate, violent, act. Die Winterreise dramatises a heartbroken obsessive, staggering miserably through the winter wastes towards his own destruction.
Clearly this is a work which looks deep into the darkest depths of humanity’s dark side, but for singer Camille O’Sullivan, who plays Marie, the wife of Woyzeck, that is what makes it so attractive.
“Like all the great plays, you know it’s not going to end well, but it’s about the journey, it will be thought provoking, and the music dramatises that - the music and text fit each other like a hand in glove - and also can make the experience uplifting,” she tells me during a break in rehearsals on a Tuesday afternoon. “It’s a work that makes you think, and also entertains you, even sometimes when it is in the darkest of places.”
The play has been adapted and directed by Conall Morrison - Camille calls it Morrison’s “10-year brilliant thought in the making” - with musical direction by Conor Linehan. It boasts an all-star cast with Patrick O’Kane (Woyzeck ), Barry McGovern, Susannah De Wrixon, Rory Nolan (who Galway audiences will know from numerous Druid productions ), Rosaleen Linehan, Camille, and others.
“Sometimes I’m sitting there thinking I can’t believe I’m working with these people,” Camille enthuses. “And Conor and Conall are the magicians making it happen. Conall gets excited by it all. You can see him mouthing the words along with you, and with such a big cast, Conall knows how to handle his cats.”
Since the noughties, Corkonian Camille - born to an Irish father and French mother - has won acclaim as a superb vocalist and interpreter of the work of Nick Cave, Jacques Brel, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen. She has played toured solo, performed at music festivals; and starred in musical theatre. Anyone who has heard her sing, or has seen her shows, knows the lure of the darkness fuels her art.
“The greatest love songs are not ‘over the picket fence’ Doris Day type, but the ones where it didn’t work out,” she says. “As a singer, I feel I am getting a better grip on such songs when things go wrong in my own life. If you only go for the joy, you’re just being safe. You can get a great joy from singing about things that are sad. Once I used to apologise to audiences for singing a Radiohead or Nick Cave song, because it was sad, but I don’t anymore, as they are the ones that excite me. It’s more interesting to hold a mirror up to the audience, but you can also get a laugh from it.”
On-stage Camille exudes confidence, sexiness, and swagger, but she admits in reality, she is often quite shy, and can be very nervous ahead of stepping on stage.
“It’s hilarious,” she admits. “None of my friends recognise me when I’m on stage, but it took me many years to get the confidence to go up and sing. It is that ‘fight or flight’ thing. Once you’re in front of the audience, it’s like a fuse is lit, it matters. You have to imagine you are a bigger animal than the audience, you’re a tiger.
“Over the years I’ve met many performers who feel the same way, and it’s great to know there are others just like me. A lot of performers are trying to be something bigger than themselves. It’s not about being somebody else. It’s about showing something that you’d not otherwise show, and about being all these things you have the ability to be, and the vulnerability that allows you to do that is a really important thing. If it’s too perfect, there’s no heart in it. That vulnerability takes away the fakery, and that’s what helps me become Marie.”
All of this - the light, the dark, the hidden, the revealed, the inner person, the person on display, all feeds into the Marie character, making Camille the ideal person to portray her.
“Marie is Woyzeck’s wife and the mother of his child,” says Camille. “It’s Woyzeck’s love of Marie that drives him into madness. In Marie’s journey, I look for what’s the woman’s issue. Marie can’t be just the object of her husband. When she gives out about someone, says something about them after they leave the room, she reveals her own torments, and doubts about herself. She is not just a person who has done something bad, you hope people will have empathy of her, despite the things she has done.
“But she does love her husband. There are scenes at the fair, where she is with Woyzeck and they are close, and they are dancing, and talking and laughing, you do see that as well.”
And Camille is not afraid to draw on her own personalty when stepping into Marie’s shoes. “Everyone is their own, unique, personality; you can bring some of your own things into it,” she says. “People call it acting, but what you are trying to do, is get it to a point where it is you, but not letting the audience know it is you - if I was in as dark a place as Marie, what would I do?”
If Marie has dark depths, Woyzeck is truly plunged into a nightmare by the medical experimentation he volunteers for. “For Woyzeck it’s about the dehumanising nature of how he is treated by the doctors, and how the system can break a person,” says Camille.
In many ways, Woyzeck In Winter, through song and text deals with mental illness - the piano as a metaphor for the mind; beautiful when in tune but very easy for it to become detuned or unstring. As such, despite its 19th century setting, it touches on a contemporary issue, and comes at a time of greater public openness about mental health.
“We are realising that a lot of people are at sea with themselves,” says Camille. “Today it is more open to talk about mental health, and so it should be. People are more likely now to say. ‘Do you need to talk?’ ‘Maybe you need to see someone about it?’ I think Büchner was ahead of his time when he wrote Woyzeck, he could see where things were going, and how social pressures were affecting people. The play shows how we don’t really treat others very well in relation to health care, and that we often accept things very easily, when perhaps we shouldn’t, we trust figures in authority when perhaps we should question them.”
Camille’s work ranges from rock to chanson to musical theatre, but Woyzeck In Winter is a new challenge altogether, as she - and the cast - will be singing works composed for classical/operatic voices.
“For me, the lyrics are king and I spend a lot of time orchestrating and arranging songs to make them different and to make them my own, but here Conor Linehan respectfully follows the structure, so I’m a bit like a fish out of water, but I’m learning a hell of a lot. What I wasn’t aware of before was how modern Schubert can be with the music’s many subtle changes. You see how Schubert wrote every note he needed. There is no note there that doesn’t need to be there. I think people will feel it’s contemporary, and because the show is sung as well as spoken, it magnifies the emotion by a hundred, You can be more dark, more beautiful, more scared.”
Before we go, as we have mentioned Nick Cave, has Camille every met him? “He’s always been the loveliest man, a real gent, any time I’ve met him,” says Camille. “I’m a Cork girl, I’m friendly and chatty, but the whole Cork thing goes when I meet him, he’s been so nice and charming while I’ve been speechless, and can’t think of what to say. He’s the Man In Black, but a real gentleman.”
Woyzeck in Winter, a co-production between GIAF and Landmark Productions, runs at at the Black Box Theatre from Monday July 17 to Sunday 23 (previews from July 12 to 16. For tickets see www.giaf.ie and the Festival box Office, Forster Street.