On paper, choosing the story of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli as subject matter for an album might seem typically off-beat and idiosyncratic, especially one involving Super Furry Animals singer Gruff Rhys. The idea is as eccentric as they come – a concept album based on the life and times of an Italian communist and publisher, yet by the end of the theatrical adaption of Praxis Makes Perfect in Berlin this week, the decision to celebrate this colourful character made total sense. Feltrinelli’s story – being the richest communist in the world, founding a series of radical bookshops in Italy, taking on the CIA and liaising with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara all make for a good yarn. Yet it is his revolutionary outlook and the focus of his life and work that remain a powerful message today – read books – that’s how you take on the man.
Welsh singer-songwriter Rhys and Los Angeles producer Boom Bip cooked up the music for this colourful synth-rock tribute to Feltrinilli in their band Neon Neon. Having previous showcased the production (in collaboration with the National Theatre Wales) in the UK last year, the opportunity arose to showcase Praxis Makes Perfect at Berlin’s legendary Berghain club after the opportunity arose to present the stage version as part of the month long Foreign Affairs Festival.
Guests were instructed to arrive wearing red and (in keeping with the night’s theme) bring a favourite book to swap with a fellow audience member. Upon entry into Berghain each guest was inspected for red clothing by a stern looking woman dressed in typical Soviet police attire. The club had been decked out in various filing cabinets and sculptures for the occasion and near the bar a member of the theater group could be found painting revolutionary slogans onto large placards. After a quick beer, several more Soviet police types appeared, ushering the assembled crowd into the cavernous main area where the show was to take place. Unprepared for what to expect from the performance, it was something of a shock to be confronted with several huge stage blocks on wheels which barged their way through the crowd throughout the performance. Feltrinelli’s life and times were played out on top of the blocks, involving a dynamic cast of young and old Feltrinelli’s, CIA interrogators and, naturally, Fidel Castro.
The performances, both by the band and actors, was flawless and it was an almost perfect marriage of intense synth rock and theatrical story telling. The concrete walls which make up the interior of Berghain (a former power plant) soak up the sound particularly well. Gruff Rhys popped up at various points around the room – serenading the crowd from aloft and at one point surfing a conveyor belt with a shopping trolley whilst catching household consumer items thrown at him by members of the theatre. There was no let-up in the energy of the performance, which transported the audience to the various locations (Cuba, Italy) and periods (the swinging 60’s, the Lead Years) significant to Feltrinelli’s life. Not wishing to give too much of the piece away, I’ll resist going into too much detail. Yes, it was quirky, but it worked incredibly well. Here’s a short clip of the performance when it was staged in Cardiff:
There’s every chance that Praxis Makes Perfect will be performed again and I really recommend this striking slab of entertainment. Following the success of Rhys’ most recent multimedia project ‘American Interior‘ (which included a pretty good album), Neon Neon’s trip to Berlin is another example of why 2014 is shaping up to be an excellent year for Gruff Rhys.
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