Sunday, February 3, 2013

'Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie' at Fairfield Halls, 2nd February 2013

When does the past become myth?  While it's easy to relate to life in say, the 1960s, events further back become blurred, a sense of how things really were becomes difficult to grasp.  Out of this historical fog strides Woody Guthrie, carrying a guitar immortally emblazoned "THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS".  Though he died in 1967 he's a man of the 30s and 40s, a man of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, discrimination against 'Okies' and vicious attacks on unionised labour.  He's very much a man of his time, a hitchhiking troubadour with an acoustic guitar and a head full of songs to lift the spirits of desperate migrant workers.   I think Steve Earle described Woody Guthrie best:
"He was the living embodiment of everything a people's revolution is supposed to be about: that working people have dignity, intelligence and value above and beyond the market's demand for their labour"
'Woody Sez' is a biography of Woody Guthrie, telling the man's life story using his songs.  I was a little curious when I heard about this musical, Woody's humble style doesn't seem to lend itself to a stage production.  There's zero bombast and a total lack of ego in his songs, and I had vague nightmares of jazzed up chorus lines singing along to 'This Land is Your Land'.  Thankfully there's none of that here, this is a stripped down show, austere in its staging and intelligent in design.

Woody's story is told by four outstanding performers, as skilled in acting as they are musically talented.  David M. Lutken plays Woody, and Ruth Clarke-Irons, Helen J Russell and William Wolfe Hogan play various characters in Woody's life.  As I entered the theatre, the four were sitting relaxed at the front of the stage, chatting with the audience and playing instrumental Woody Guthrie songs.  This breaks down the barriers between the cast and audience right away, allowing us to view the myriad characters we meet as familiar friends.  Furthering this demolition of the barrier between performers and audience is the total lack of any amplification from the stage.  Everything is played acoustically, with no microphones.

It's a shock to the system at first.  I'm accustomed to concerts and plays blaring music as loud as is legally permissible, initially everything seems quiet and muted.  Very quickly you become attuned to it, and I was surprised how effective simply hearing the music directly from the guitar or singer was in creating authenticity.  A lack of electrification makes sense for multiple reasons, firstly and most obviously because it's period appropriate.  It also gently prods the audience into shutting up and paying attention to the music rather than chatting to each other.  But most importantly, and what this tactic adds up to is a definite connection of the life and philosophy of Woody Guthrie to a modern audience.

Before the financial crash of 2008 'Woody Sez' may have felt slightly quaint.  The fire in songs like 'Jolly Banker' and 'I Ain't Got No Home' can never go out, but still, they speak of a battle long since passed.  But now, as global capitalism convulses these words regain the immediacy they had when Woody sang them in the 30s and 40s.  Woody Guthrie's condemnation of the victimisation of the poor rings as clear as bell in a country where the government is doubling down on austerity.  Seeing a show like this is a useful reminder that the rich blaming the poor for the poverty inflicted upon them is not a new thing.  Bankers and politicians gamble the livelihoods and dignity of the working class away just as easily now as they did in the 30s and 40s.

All of these performers are fantastic musicians, and all get their individual chances to shine.  Considering that pretty much all the songs are led by an acoustic guitar, the sound never gets samey.  A huge variety of period accurate instruments are played, from a banjo and double bass, to dulcimers and even,enjoyably, the spoons!  Even though the songs can be musically similar, the varied arrangements stop any boredom setting in.

David M. Lutken's Woody is an immediately likeable character.  Woody Guthrie is known primarily through his music rather than in a physical sense, a fact that gives Lutken a broad canvas to work on.  You never feel like he's doing an impression or imitation, it's more that he's embodying a certain optimistic, kind spirit.  Throughout the course of the show, we go from light-hearted comedy moments to some pretty pitch-black depressing stuff.  Woody Guthrie didn't have the cheeriest of lives and time and time again a member of his family will burn to death.  If proof were needed that the cast has the audience in the palm of their hand it's the hushed silence when Lutken falls to his knees in grief upon hearing the death of his daughter.  

If I have to head down to Croydon for a show then it'd better something pretty damn amazing.  I'm pleased to say 'Woody Sez' was well worth the trip.  It's a modest show, friendly and welcoming, but one with an unbending sense of social justice.  Here we see Woody Guthrie mythologised as a Tom Joad figure, nobly fighting for the little guy, epitomising artistic resistance against exploitative ideology.  This is cleverly balanced with a portrait of a normal, flawed man who makes mistakes, suffers and loves his way through a difficult life.  'Woody Sez' is an outstandingly well-performed and politically subversive show,  one that underlines the relevance of a man whose poetic soul we should all hope to emulate.

'Woody Sez' is playing at:

4 February - Buxton Opera House, Buxton
5 - 6 February - Sheffield Crucible, Sheffield
7 - 9 February - The Lowry, Salford Quays
11 - 13 February - Harrogate Theatre, Harrogate
14 - 16 February - Theatre Royal, Wakefield

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