DREAMER. REBEL. Genius. Singer. Songwriter. Visionary. Peace campaigner. Martyr. Iconoclast. Icon. To many millions of people, John Lennon was, is, and always will be all these things.
Yet there is also the darker side of the man - the abandoned child, the insecure adult, the adulterer, the cynic, the possessive husband, the preacher who did not practise what he preached, and in his own words: “I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women.”
In truth Lennon embodied all of the above positive and negative qualities. As he told Playboy in 1980: “Part of me suspects that I’m a loser and the other part of me thinks I’m God Almighty.” He was full of contradictions and complexities, virtues and failings, and this is what makes him human, all too human. It is because of these contradictions that people can identify with him so strongly, and alongside his music, it is what makes him such a culturally significant figure.
“Look at me, who am I supposed to be?” - ‘Look At Me’ (1970 )
Through his music - with The Beatles and solo - and through his life, Lennon continues to speak to people in different ways and each listener, fan, or critic takes away a different picture that informs his/her picture of the man.
This quality, which Lennon possesses more than any other Beatle, indeed more than any other musician bar Dylan, has inspired Galway’s Waterdonkey Theatre Company to create a new play/theatre piece, The Very Best of John Lennon, which explores how Lennon’s life and work have impacted on the popular imagination.
“John Lennon is an absent character for a lot of the piece,” explains the play’s director Meadhbh Haicéid, during our Tuesday afternoon interview. “We set out to explore different aspects of his identity within the public and cultural consciousness, especially in the why he has reached our generation - people in their 20s and 30s.”
This led to Meadhbh and the plays’ cast of Rosemary Sweeney, Zita Monahan, Priscilla Nicchonmara, Chris McCormack, and John Rodgers to collaboratively create The Very Best of John Lennon, which draws on the music, biographies, memoirs, newspaper articles, films, Youtube clips, and even the comments on the Youtube clips, to build up a picture of those public attitudes and reactions to Lennon.
“Everybody has different identities,” says Meadhbh, “and it is multiplied by the people you know. Different people have different views of you and you act differently depending on who you are around and because John Lennon is such an icon we all have a view on him and it’s possible to feel that you know him in a way.
“He had a fascinating biography. Nowhere Boy was a big inspiration. In one sense his life was like a fairytale, a rags to riches story, but then there are also all of those contradictions. People feel outrage that Lennon would fight and hit while at the same time singing about peace, but everybody is made of those contradictions and Lennon was always open about that in his songs. It’s rich material for us to look at and performance is a good way for us to look at those contradictions.”
“I just think I write 20th century folk music” - John Lennon, 1971.
Each participant in The Very Best of John Lennon had to bring his/her own personal understanding and relationship with Lennon to bear on the piece. For Meadhbh, what is her experience of Lennon?
“Lennon’s music has always been around me,” she says. “‘Imagine’ is one of my mother’s favourite songs and so he reached me that way. I listened to him through my teens and then recently, just before Christmas, I heard the song ‘Gimme Some Truth’.”
‘Gimme Some Truth’ from Imagine, was Lennon’s unrestrained protest against Richard Nixon and the British and American political and social establishment: “I’ve had enough of reading things, By neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians, All I want is the truth.”
The song’s setting may be 1971, but its words mostly transcend the limits of its era and remain relevent, as Meadhbh herself argues.
“The lyrics resonated with me and with the feeling a lot of people have about the current political and economic situation,” she says. “It has a message for people. There is also an honesty to that song that people can be a little afraid of now. There is a rawness to it that you do not hear in a lot of today’s music which is very polished and engineered. It still has a place and makes a plea to people.”
It is no surprise that music forms a major part of The Very Best of John Lennon, given that it is a play/performance piece about one of the most important and best loved songwriters of the 20th century. “All the songs chosen have a connection and a meaning for each of us in the cast,” says Meadhbh.
Lennon classics such as ‘Look At Me’ and ‘Woman’ will form the soundtrack as well as music inspired by John Lennon, which has been composed especially for the play by Chris McCormack.
“Chris is a fantastic pianist,” says Meadhbh. “When he started out he felt he did not know much about Lennon but he threw himself into it and came to feel a real connection with Lennon that inspired the music he has written. We will also be interest to see if people will spot a particular Beatles song that we have included in there.”
“If being an egomaniac means I believe in what I do and in my art or my music, then in that respect you can call me that...I believe in what I do, and I’ll say it,” - John Lennon, 1980.
Lennon, in both his life and music, prompts, indeed demands a response. There is no sitting on the fence about him and you suspect Lennon would not want it any other way. It is a spirit that informs The Very Best of John Lennon, and suits the view of a man who sang: “You gotta serve yourself, ain’t nobody gonna do it for you”.
“The contradictions and divisions in the public’s picture of John Lennon, in terms of black and white, was he a good or bad person, suit the way Waterdonkey work,” says Meadhbh. “We have always been interested in presenting different perspectives, so rather then telling the audience what to think we try to give the audience multiple perspectives and let them decide where they stand for themselves.
“We hope the audience will feel an engagement with the performers, we won’t be asking for audience participation, but we would like for them to meet us and for us to all to meet John Lennon.”
Waterdonkey Theatre Company stage The Very Best of John Lennon in the Town Hall Theatre from Wednesday May 11 to Saturday 14 at 8.30pm as part of the JOLT series of plays. JOLT is a new theatre initiative, designed to encourage a more experimental approach to theatre, and will involve audience feedback and interaction with the theatre companies.
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie