Marianne Faithfull turns from pop to Shakespeare’s sonnets

by Malcolm Curtis | December 8, 2008 | 08:15

British entertainer Marianne Faithfull is proud of her voice but she takes issue with those who simply attribute its husky tenor to her wild party days. The publicity handbill for her reading of Shakespeare sonnets at Geneva’s La Comedie theatre tonight suggests her vocal appeal comes from being a “smoker of Gitanes,” the French cigarettes.

But in an interview Monday with Swisster, the singer and actress would have none of it. “They always try to bring drugs, alcohol and cigarettes into it,” she said in a room next to the stage where she is set to perform.

Faithfull, who shot to stardom as a pop singer in the 1960s and became notorious for her parties with the Rolling Stones, said she doesn’t drink or take drugs anymore.

She admitted to smoking, but not Gauloises. “My voice has grown up with me.” Now 61, the actress and singer, speaks of her poetry readings as a natural extension of a love for Shakespeare that she had even back in the days of her association with the Stones.

The Bard’s sonnets have held a particular appeal for her, to the point where she has embarked on a tour of major European cities to give readings. Her 65-minute appearance tonight in Geneva will see her recite 26 of them, with musical accompaniment from French cellist  Vincent Segal.

So far, she has taken her act to Berlin, Basel, Milan and Brussels. And next year she plans to take the sonnets to Paris and London.

Language – in this case, Elizabethan English that even many Anglo-Saxons struggle to comprehend – is not a barrier, Faithfull said. Subtitles are beamed above the stage, in much the same way as in opera, she said.

Her manager, a Frenchman who is also her partner, has selected the best French translation available for the texts she has chosen for the Geneva recital, she said. “I love doing it,” she said. “Anywhere there’s an audience for sonnets I’ll go.”

The pop singer is still producing records, having released her latest album, Easy Come, Easy Go, this year. She started as a folk singer in the 1960s when she was discovered by Andrew Loog Oldham, the manager of the Rolling Stones.

He, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards composed a song for her called As Tears Go By, which became a hit recording. A celebrated relationship with Jagger followed, and she was swept along by the turbulent currents of swinging London.

Faithfull said even then she was a fan of Shakespeare, an appreciation that had begun at home as she was growing up. “My father loved Shakespeare and I went to a good school – and I had a great English teacher,” she recalled.

“My school took me to see . . . Judi Dench in Romeo and Juliet, that was the first one I saw.” But Faithfull said in her early career she wasn’t quite prepared to do Shakespeare  recitals.

“The public weren’t ready for that at all. They saw pop singers as very, very sort of fluffy creatures.” However, she said she performed the role of Ophelia in a production of Hamlet at London’s Roundhouse in 1968, before it became a rock venue.

After a tumultuous period, marred by periods of drug addiction, Faithfull found herself living in Boston in the mid-1980s. “Clean and sober” she enrolled in a course on the early plays of Shakespeare at the Harvard Extension School.

“I never went to university,” she said, adding that the course helped her further appreciate the writer’s work. On the first day of her visit to Geneva, Faithfull had the opportunity to look at a rare copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets dating from 1609, part of the rare books collection in the Martin Bodmer Foundation museum.

“It gave me goose bumps,” she said after perusing the pages almost 400 years old. Of the 154 sonnets Shakespeare wrote, Faithfull said she has selected those that deal with subjects such as love, beauty, fame, time and hate. “It’s big stuff.”

Based on her research, she believes that in his poems Shakespeare was addressing by turns, a boy, a man and a “dark lady,” all of whom he likely had a love relationship with. “I think he was writing intensely personal questions and analysis of his love.”

Through the sonnets “you can tell Shakespeare is going through every possible change.” Faithfull said in her recital she reads the poems “in a very colloquial tone, so it sounds like everyday speech.”

Segal, who has composed tunes specially for the show, performs a piece after each of the sonnets. The music – “a mixture of plucking and bowing” – is like “a rest for the ears” between poems, she said.

The visit for Faithfull is not her first to Geneva, where she appeared a few decades ago in a film with French actor Alain Delon. She has also performed several times at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

She now divides her time between a home in Paris’s eighth arrondissement and one in Ireland, when she’s not traveling. Asked what would have happened to her if she hadn’t run into the Stones as a young girl, Faithfull said she would have “probably stayed at school and gone gone to university and then I would have gone to drama school.”

She said she  still sees Jagger occasionally, along with other members of the iconic band. “I am in touch with him and I see Keith (Richards) and I see Charlie (Watts) and sometimes I see Ronnie (Wood).”

But she bridled at the suggestion of performing a rock concert with the group. “Where would I fit in with that? ‘Come on, do a croaking version of As Tears Go By?’” she said.

“I never was playing with the Stones,” added Faithfull. who said she still enjoys going to see their concerts. But “I left Mick when I was 22-23, how long ago was that?”


About Malcolm Curtis

Freelance English-language communications professional (writing, editing, translations) based near Geneva, Switzerland. Let me know if I can help you.
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