My first thought, as John Waters stood in front of a microphone on an almost empty stage and started channelling John Lennon on his last day alive, was “Why?” Lennon died thirty-five years ago. His life, his work, his thoughts have been extensively documented, by Lennon himself and by others. So what could Waters bring to the table that hasn’t been said before?
By the time I left Auckland’s Civic Theatre, I believe I had an answer to my question.
is, mostly, a monologue, Waters telling, in Lennon’s voice and largely in Lennon’s own words, Lennon’s story. And it is, mostly, an engaging and rewarding experience. It’s a very stripped-down production — Waters, occasionally strumming an acoustic guitar, stands at a microphone, with Bill Risby to his side at a grand piano, a single spotlight shining on Waters as he tells the story of a northern boy made very, very good. Waters’ monologue is punctuated by Lennon’s music, sometimes complete songs and sometimes snatches, accompanied by Risby on piano and sometimes also by Waters’ guitar playing.
The production’s simplicity belies its depth. Waters clearly holds Lennon in the greatest respect, and tells his story with clear sympathy — even Yoko Ono is defended, presented as a positive presence and not the alien presence who drove a wedge between Lennon and Paul McCartney, destroying the Beatles in the process. The songs he chooses underpin the narrative he tells — when his Lennon talks about politics, or the social role many wanted the Beatles to play, he trots through Revolution, while a discussion of the increasingly surreal nature of many of his lyrics is accompanied by Come Together. And when he sings, he finds Lennon’s voice quite surprisingly well. Lennon, let’s not forget, was a rocker, a singer who wanted to let go and howl and roar, and Waters, while not quite imitating Lennon’s singing, manages to do justice to the songs and to present them in a way that is entirely faithful to Lennon’s originals.
Where he does fail, occasionally, to find Lennon’s voice is during the spoken-word segments that make up the bulk of the performance. Lennon was from Liverpool; Waters is from London. I’m from Manchester, and I know fake northern accents when I hear them. John Lennon had a very distinctive voice, even within a Scouse context — he was almost a parody of a Liverpudlian, a professional Scouser — and at times I heard not so much a true Scouser as a southerner trying, just a little too hard, to do Scouse.
But that’s a minor quibble. Waters clearly has a lot of affection for Lennon — he’s been performing Lennon: Through A Glass Onion on and off since 1992, and his portrayal of the man is, obviously, respectful. So that, in the end, was the answer to my question. What Waters brings in Lennon: Through A Glass Onion is a personal take on music, and a musician, that clearly speak to him on a very personal level, and this production allows him to pay his respects to someone who clearly has been very important to him.