Friday, 21 October 2011

vanity project 1: this isle is full of noises

As an experiment, the next four posts will be the full versions of pieces I've written for the Guardian recently that had to be cut to fit the print page. Truth be told, I'm slightly appalled by my own vanity in republishing them here, but then, the whole concept of blogging still strikes me as impossibly vain, so what the hey. But it's not as simple as that: I don't labour under any illusions of being a great writer – and if I ever do get ideas above my station, the comments my work mostly attracts, that I sound as if I'm shacked up with the person I'm writing about, or that I make them sound staggeringly annoying, or that I've failed to take them to task, or that I've written a “puff piece”, are pretty effective at knocking that ego back down to size. Nor do I have the slightest belief that people would comment any differently if the longer versions of my pieces were published: more words just means more to criticise. What I do feel is that there's something depressingly arbitrary about the necessity to fit pieces around adverts: sometimes the axe is wielded, sometimes it isn't, and you never know when you're going to feel the blade. And since I'm here, in unlimited space, I might as well put these pieces out with limbs intact.

First up: the bonkers Nick-of-Franz-Ferdinand Tempest, which I never got around to seeing, because I got into a domestic muddle (I managed to miss Handspring's Woyzeck at the same time, what a ditz)...

As rehearsals for The Tempest go, the scene in Sausage Studios in east London is a little peculiar. There's hardly room to move between the amplifiers and stringed instruments – 15 guitars, a bouzouki and a double bass – that line one wall, and the keyboards stacked in towers two or three high along the other. Shakespeare specifies that Prospero's island is “full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs”, but there isn't much sweet airiness about the indie-rock caterwaul being conjured up by the two performers.

But this is no ordinary Tempest, something that's reflected in its mouthful of a title. The Isle Is Full of Noises: The Tempest Puppet Music Show is a collaboration between German puppeteer Philipp Pleßmann and his old friend Nick McCarthy – guitarist with Franz Ferdinand. The pair met two decades ago in Bad Aibling, in Bavaria, where McCarthy grew up. “We did everything together: a lot of drugs, playing music, all those teenage experiences,” says McCarthy. An air of teenage mischief still clings to the pair: any time they mention Miranda's speech “I do not know one of my sex”, the word sex sets them sniggering.

It was Pleßmann's idea to turn The Tempest into a solo puppet show. While studying at the Ernst Busch drama school in Berlin seven years ago, he wrote an essay detailing how he planned to do it, although, he says: “When I read it now it's very funny, because I didn't do any of those things.” When he finally staged the first act of the play three years later, as part of his diploma course, he realised he wanted to set Shakespeare's text to music. So he travelled to Glasgow and spent five days with McCarthy working on a soundtrack.

Or rather, five nights – at the time, McCarthy was recording Franz Ferdinand's third album, 2009's Tonight. Listening to the plangent setting of Ariel's song Full Fathom Five, the clattering guitars backing Miranda's sex speech, and the propulsive keyboard riff behind Iris's call to the nymphs in the wedding scene, you can hear how Franz Ferdinand fed into the Tempest soundtrack. But the influence wasn't only one-sided: McCarthy was so pleased with the music he wrote for Caliban's “the isle is full of noises” speech that he played it to his band-mates and – with Pleßmann's approval and a tweaked lyric – the track became a song on Tonight, Dream Again.

Since then, McCarthy has been too preoccupied with other work to return to The Tempest. He spent two years touring Tonight with Franz Ferdinand; when the band went on hiatus for a year, he started focusing on the second album from Box Codax, the band he started with his wife, Manuela, and another friend from Germany, poet Alexander Ragnew. After meeting the artist Martin Creed through a mutual friend, he ended up producing an album for Creed, scheduled for release in the new year. “I've never produced anything else before but it workedLink out really well,” McCarthy says. “His music is really simple, just one note going up and then back down again, so that's the way you have to record it.” It's not just restlessness that drives him: it's also a recognition that Franz Ferdinand need external stimuli to remain fresh. “There's only a certain amount four people can do until it's just empty,” he says. “Then you need something else to come in.”

It was up to Pleßmann to flesh out the Tempest show, working with designer Hank Schmidt-in-der-Beek, who has created projected images for every corner of Prospero's island, and director Kalma Struen (who is also Pleßmann's partner). The trio have given several festival performances across continental Europe, but the showings at Wilton's Music Hall in London next week will be the first with McCarthy performing the music alongside Pleßmann. McCarthy will rove the stage, swapping between guitars, keyboards and drums (which he still can't play, more than a decade after telling Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos that he would be the fledgling band's drummer). “Right from the beginning I said I don't want to be that theatre musician standing in the corner doing sound effects,” says McCarthy. “I hate that. I hate hiding behind my instrument, the way so many musicians do.”

Mccarthy admits the show is exposing. “We can improvise a bit, but with just the two of us doing it, if there's one wrong note you can really hear it.” Even so, the mood of the pair is light-hearted, especially as regards Shakespeare. “We didn't grow up here, so we didn't get that whole Shakespeare stuff at school, which must really mess a lot of people up,” he says. “We got it with the German writers.”

Faust,” chips in Pleßmann. “Every German student hates Faust.”

“We wanted to make The Tempest quite easily understandable,” continues McCarthy. “We're using Shakespeare and if we want to change it, we change it. We have no respect for it, I suppose.”

Everything about the show registers that lack of reverence. Sly in-jokes run through Pleßmann's text: his Prospero is adamant that German modernisations of Shakespeare are preferable to the original; at one point, the character Ferdinand nods to McCarthy's band's name. Musically, McCarthy says his reference points were big 1970s shows like Jesus Christ Superstar or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. As for the combination of music and puppets, Pleßmann says: “You see it in The Muppet Show – it works so good!”

In some respects, Pleßmann's puppets are just like the Muppets: their faces are slashed from ear to ear to create gaping mouths. But they are otherwise realistically human, with textured skin and googly eyes, which makes them look eerie to the point of terrifying. His main puppet, Prospero, has no body: Pleßmann can hold the head to one side and engage it in dialogue, or place it in front of his own face for one of Prospero's monologues. “It's like a very flexible mask,” he says. “It's much more interesting when the puppet can be free.”

He laughs uproariously when McCarthy tells him that one Glasgow newspaper has reported that the pair are working on a children's show: Pleßmann works primarily in adult theatre and doesn't find this suspicion of the form in Germany. McCarthy's tastes in puppetry are definitely adult: a few months ago he saw Complicite's Shun-kin at the Barbican and found it mesmerising. “The puppet in that was unbelievable: she was sado-masochistic so there were really weird sex scenes. I had bad dreams that night. But I think it's fascinating, that you can go that far with a puppet. You can show more with puppets than you can with actual actors.”