A month ago to the week, The Knife vaingloriously attempted to rehash our every widely accepted assumption of what the conventional live show could be comprised of. In truth, they fudged it with a grim and in many respects ignorant lacerating of months of exponentially heightening expectation. It took one fatal blow, with their futile attempt to shake the habitual widely reviled, if bafflingly eulogised in certain corners of the www. Though as we approach the third of three sold out occasions at the Village Underground, we’ve been passed down nothing but effusive praise of Neon Neon’s live reconceptualisation of their immaculate latest, Praxis Makes Perfect.
I suppose I should start by stating that it was one I initially struggled with. It lacked the shiny immediacy of its John DeLorean-inspired predecessor Stainless Style, even if its title might well have been commensurately sublime. Though perhaps most pertinently, the concept to have fuelled its conception – the life story of determined lefty and pedestaled Milanese publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli – remained opaque at best to the uninstructed. The show therefore, loosely based around his son Carlo’s scrupulous biography of his father’s life and lifestyle Senior Service, itself serves to elucidate not only the lot, but so too the allure of Feltrinelli, Snr.
Gruff’s attraction to Giangiacomo has been similarly, or perhaps rather suitably, closely guarded although his highly detectable distaste for an authoritarian monarchy; for the chasmic division between the social classes which continues to blight Great Britain – a symptom of that aforesaid disapprobation; and for the unashamed acceptance of mediocrity we’re so often compelled to adhere to render Rhys and Feltrinelli an evident match. It’s due to this ineffable character alignment, I imagine, that he and Bryan Hollon set about constructing what is, and I’ll get this out the way early so as to soberly dampen the sense of inherent exaggeration, one of the defining pieces of artistic provocation in recent times.
I’d taken the conscientious decision, as I indeed had with that of The Knife before it, to resist indulging in reviews of the recital. I was reluctant even to investigate the inevitable flutter of pixelated Twitter pics from the previous two evenings, such was my desire to enter with fresh, and unsuspecting eyes. If my ears had already been prepared by an itself indulgent wearing out of the recording in question, I wanted for at least one of the senses in this impeccably sensorial extravaganza to be stupefied by the element of surprise.
This begins outside on Holywell Lane, where activist argot is blared from the sterile chops of an abnormally enormous megaphone. This sense of unorthodox enlargement of the tangible serves as a common trope throughout the evening, and of course translates to the audacious intentions of the show as an abstract entity in itself. Yodelled referencing of Italian towns historically renowned for their seditious insurgence sits oddly with the intensely superficial surrounds of Shoreditch, but the effect is without question immediately immersive – an authentic inversion of the humdrum norms we’ve come to acknowledge of live performance, all of which is executed quite immaculately. But it’s once inside that the intensity of the spellbinding hex begins to really take hold: stilted literary exchanges in honour of Feltrinelli unravel between planted actors and understandably anxious audience members, while hitherto unseen secret compartments scraping the ceiling house moustachioed thesps puffing on pensive cigarettes. Given the thickness of his facial bristle; the diligence with which he both smokes and scribes; his elevation in a literal and indeed lettered sense, one assumes this to be Giangiacomo himself. Back down below, a baffling miscellany of masked extras and the resonant booming of politically active rhetoric all contributes to the explicit surreality presupposed of the show. It’s thus an if fanciful, then equivalently faithful and with it comprehensive reconstruction of a bygone time in feel – one illumined by an again oversized Anglepoise lamp. (George Carwardine’s iconic, and appositely innovatory balanced-arm incidentally, if somewhat arbitrarily sponsors the event.) Though as is so often the case this evening, it’s on an unlit floor that the magic is at its most potent, as a swell of surreptitious whisper kicks up.
I look down toward the grossly luminous glare of my phone – an at once incongruous hallmark of modern life and the rubbish habits it entails – in order to punch in studied somethings. A figure in a feline mask stares over my shoulder, seemingly censoring my every word just as the Partito Comunista Italiano sought to do when, in the latter years of the 1950s, Feltrinelli struggled to publish acquaintance and later friend Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. It then becomes apparent that the masks don’t bear semblance to any old grimalkin, but they are in fact leopards – a neat little nod to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo which was published in that same epoch aforesaid. Similarly intriguingly, the room itself has been completely recomposed in keeping with this overarching theme of incredulity to the extent whereby it barely resembles the Village Underground even in the slightest. The stage, a monolithic bookcase of course, casts meticulous shadows onto the vast brickwork walling beyond to only heighten this sense of the bafflingly immersive. It’s absolutely vivifying which, for something that is esoteric and yet extrovert in equal measure, is no mean feat. For absolutely everything is executed to unerring perfection.
By this point we’ve been rendered perplexed, left amazed, and are by now clueless as to who may be involved with the show itself for we may as well all be accessories to this glorious production. I feel as though I am, and it’s yet to begin in earnest. Two vagabonding leopards then scale the front of the stage, taking up Olivetti typewriters. The band, obscured by themselves obscure projections reading ‘A Neon Neon Feltrinelli Picture’, begin to hammer out the title track and to a degree theme tune to the new album with a metronomic precision. Drums thud and synths thrum in mimicry of the typewritten frenzy before us, another inversion taking place whereby the leopards themselves albeit only momentarily become the authors of the piece. They of course are, as Hollon and in turn Rhys reveal themselves to escalating hysteria, as another overriding theme – that of collaboration – makes itself forever more manifest. For despite his arcane demise back in ’72, Praxis Makes Perfect feels positively inspired by Feltrinelli and consequently serves not only as a perpetuation, but so too a protraction of the Italian’s eternal legacy. This really does seem a conspiracy spawned of Giangiacomo in cahoots with Rhys and Hollon, thus explicating Feltrinelli’s thirst for collusion even posthumously.
But an inspired Mid Century Modern Nightmare – even devoid of collaborator Cate Le Bon – belongs to the interdisciplinary luminaries that are Neon Neon: there’s so much going on with stark commie dance routines performed by an ensemble born of life-size filing cabinets, who are seen through a flutter of bespoke Neon Neon Monopoly notes. Onstage meanwhile, not that it’s where all eyes are centred, a runaway Race Horse in Meilyr Jones unleashes galloping bass lines which thunder along under Gruff’s inimitably, well, gruff brogue. It’s already as hot as the infernally communistic rosso in which the room is doused, the sweltering temperatures only adding to the sense of immersion, tension, and so too intrigue. It’s then that the duo’s collaborating with the National Theatre Wales begins to come into its own, an endearingly hammy am-dram interlude bordering on the histrionic introducing one of three Feltrinelli’s encountered throughout. We’re here catapulted forward toward the late ’60s, the third and indeed eldest of his three onstage incarnations questioned as to the whereabouts of a certain Che Guevara whilst writhing about atop a box slap bang in the centre of the floor. Rhys meanwhile provides a mantric incantation: “Where is Che Guevara?” he growls in an unsettlingly guttural tone, before we’re whisked further back in time in a shimmering puff of impermeable smoke.
A younger Feltrinelli of approximately a decade earlier counteracts fascist oppression to instead advocate freedom of expression, avowing to publish Pasternak’s masterwork at whatever personal cost. Perhaps confusingly, there are at this point two Feltrinelli impersonators onstage and this split personality, or character duality, is intelligently expressed throughout: we meet Giangiacomo as a hip, gunslinging young man; a bookish progressive-cum-accursed bombardier; and as a boy when played by the virtuous Bettrys Jones who incidentally escapes the ensemble at another moment to ephemerally portray his son Carlo who witnessed and was said to have thoroughly commended a previous performance. But this recollective element largely runs chronologically, so as to most lucidly inform. Entertainment, meanwhile, is in no short supply and as the sultry proto-balladry of Dr. Zhivago begins, Rhys can be seen riding high on a London Overground SkyJack, singing of burgeoning insurgence. “Dr Zhivago, I’m just waiting for my cold embargo/ To be lifted and I’ll publish all your manuscripts tonight” he soothes from his lofty pneumatic plinth, a stainless style reflecting the flawless substance of two incontrovertible contemporary genii in he and Hollon.
And thus the tone is set for an evening of brilliant contrast; of concerted contradiction, and contorted information. The early start time of eight lends itself to the openly theatrical, and yet it’s set against the clacking of cans at the nearby bar. Is this really a gig, or have we been unsuspecting lured into the realms of interpretative dramaturgy? Does it actually even matter, when conducted to such irreproachable effect?
Pasternak’s manuscript then makes its way through the audience, Rhys rabidly waving a placard reconfigured from superbly furry days which reads: ‘PASS THE BOOK’. We duly oblige, much to the consternation of interspersed militant types. Under again penetrative reds, they successfully impress a restive sense of necessary raid with our collective reaction a superbly schizophrenic mix of beguilement in some parts, and bewilderment in others. We whoop as one once it’s been found. “Let’s fucking publish it!” Feltrinelli yells this time from the stage, prior to expeditiously hurling out hefting copies – some of which are recollected with equivalent haste by Foreign Minister Dmitry Shepilov’s barbaric KGB brutes. Shepilov deemed Doctor Zhivago a ‘malicious libel against the USSR’ and intriguingly previously, we see Feltrinelli in the clutches of Eastern European henchmen when it was in fact reported that he instead deployed an envoy – an unnamed Italian journalist – over in May of 1956. A little artistic license goes a long way in those old entertainment stakes it seems, though this is of course in keeping with the key themes of mystique and misinformation anyhow. It’s now ’57, and it palpably feels it. Only an ATP flyer on the floor brings me back to the here and the now.
But it’s now time for the bombastic, blobby electro bounding of Hammer & Sickle to rush us away once more. “Got the deal and the deeds to the city/ Got the movie rights for your life/ All I know is that I’m still in trouble” Rhys keens with blithe abandon, while Feltrinelli performs sensual, if still bookish routines with German photographer Inge Schoenthal – his third of four wives perhaps best famed for her portraits of Greta Garbo and Ernest Hemingway. Names of celebrated publications from the Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore line the walls like sleeves in some culturally indispensable, if still clandestine library (Henry Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer slots in alongside Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and Chairman Mao’s The Little Red Book) as a sense of the celebratory at last predominates proceedings. For an albeit only transitory moment, all feels carefree in the turbulent life of the unlikely revolutionary: he tokes nonchalantly on a smokeless cigarette – another rare instance of technological enhancement – as we’re proffered a maybe perfunctory glimpse of a quite routine family life which is so often overlooked. He then pulls a baby from his briefcase in an implicit insinuation of his work always taking precedence, but turmoil soon returns as the comings and goings of other characters dictate where we fix our gaze. “If we’re going to defeat fascism, we’re going to have to look good” Schoenthal affirms, drawing us back in as she dolls her reluctant husband up in slightly more dapper sartorial do.
There are less of these on show during an extravagant, if agitated Listen to the Rainbow, however: we’d been forewarned of ‘some moderate nudity’ though this is full-frontal titillation, for polychromic body painting signals the dawning of the ’60s. “Don’t massacre your mind with cheap violins/ The sentimental is where problems begin/ Just feed your conscience that is lying within” Rhys implores in reference to Feltrinelli’s establishing of a ‘multicoloured publishing utopia’ removed from the perils of censorship and artistic condemnation. It’s a pertinent message which resonates unobstructed even within a contemporary relevance, and one which is transparently reflected in this reconstruction of Feltrinelli’s life – not least as he’s exposed as an individual acutely attuned to the mantra and MO of carpe diem. ‘READING IS RESISTANCE’, Rhys’ corriboard placard now reads, the floor underfoot coated with a thin patina of dismembered, though never forgotten pages. Yet it’s visually that this segment proves so stimulating, shiny balloons falling around this nude figure. Her nudity exhibits her coffee complexion, while the vibrant colours slapped onto her skin enhance this rendering of rainbow warmth and as she stands an empowered epitome of peace, over on an opposite podium an opposing pandemonium plays out as a male contemporary violent strips himself of a claustrophobic space blanket coating. This is the exact sort of undiluted euphoria at which The Flaming Lips once excelled, although moreover it’s one hypercharged with the political overtones of an infinity spent under the sheets with Yoshimi.
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was then a jocular, if allegorically active pièce de résistance which debatably remains Wayne Coyne’s finest composition to this day and if Praxis Makes Perfect may yet be deemed an LP a little light on the stone-cold stonking tunage renowned of Gruff Rhys, then the same couldn’t exactly be said of the Sabrina Salerno-featuring Shopping (I Like To). Alas, the Genovese popular culture polymath couldn’t make this evening although the song itself proves a perhaps anticipated standout: slight electropop at its effortlessly excellent best, it sees Rhys relocate to the middle of the room to work up a sweat on an interminable travelator, while pushing a motionless trolley to nowhere. A warped take on Supermarket Sweep, he collects Campbell’s soup cans (Feltrinelli was, as it just so happens, the subject of one of Andy Warhol’s notorious Screen Tests in ’66), dusty 7″ singles, and an abundance of empty Brillo carton – all of which is unceremoniously hurled into his cart with commensurate insouciance. “Retail is in the detail” Gruff advises, and appositely the attention to detail paid even to the wares splayed out lavishly across this evening’s merch table truly is second to none. Again, it’s stainless as the song itself as another shower of phoney money falls, he and his feminine foil serenading one another seductively. “I’ve got the books/ You’ve got the looks” she then concludes in what tonight seems more than ever a bastardisation of the Pet Shop Boys’ Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money), sounding a little like Shirley Manson on a generous day before we’ve an impromptu appointment with an astonishingly well played Fidel Castro in his native Cuba. He tells of his penchant for Churchill’s memoirs – a work which, a little surprisingly, neglected to come into contact with the Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore – from deep within the dense undergrowth of a stick-on Iranian beard, while negligently toting a pistol and chuffing on a smokeless cigar. Having trained at RADA, Daniel Hawksford’s unimpeachable performance is perhaps to be expected of him although his precarious round of basketball with Feltrinelli which ensues is anything but.
Hoops with Fidel, well, it’s a real three-pointer this evening: humid as the space itself, the invitation to “all drink from the same bottle of rum and smoke” is itself innately enticing, but the song’s primary function seems to be to better acquaint we, the audience, not only with the onstage artistes, but simultaneously with the historical figures beyond the personae. We learn of Hawksford’s Newport beginnings, his impassioned cries of “You want a revolution?” imbued with a Welsh lilt whilst we bear witness to a bizarre rebirthing of Guevara, who here becomes some hip hop visionary spitting reddened rhymes of communist prowess. But most importantly, we get to see how Feltrinelli might’ve behaved when at his most elusive. And consequently, the show can be so closely assimilated to a revolution in itself that it’s almost uncanny. It operates on an historical level, while resonating on a genuinely innovative cultural one as well.
Nonetheless only infrequently is it to do with Italy. We learn of el Che’s provoking of worldwide fascist panic, and the ensuing neofascist rumpus stirred back in Feltrinelli’s native Milan and beyond. The Strage di Piazza Fontana of ’69 for instance, in which Feltrinelli was of course nebulously incriminated, is dealt with in ruinous fashion, a deafening shuddering befalling the room. Then, back in Bolivia, we revert to where the show began, with Feltrinelli pulverised in an impressive torture sequence at the heavy hands of the CIA as the authorities attempt to extract information as to Guevara’s whereabouts. Whether unknowing or unwavering, he stands firm and discloses not even an equivocal clue. Glorification of the guy? I guess we’ll never really know, but as a punitive musical improvisation erupts we’re drawn back into what has, over the duration of this section, become something of a slightly peripheral element. Regardless, it’s the music which really guides – it’s the focus, and so too the effulgence which leads us through the performance. We then come into contact with what may be reckoned the album’s capolavoro in The Leopard. Facing familial difficulty and an uncertainty over even his own identity, following on from an overzealous oration composed of “eau de cologne communism” from Guevara, its wompy musical fare underlies allegorical lyricisms of circumstantial alteration and the chameleonic capacity to blend in with it. “Things have to change just to stay the same/ The leopard changed its spots again and again” and this is precisely what we’ve seen of Feltrinelli. He himself is an inscrutable enigma to the collectivist acolyte, yet whereas to the sceptical cynic he’s perhaps rather more simply a paradox – a communist born into one of the most wealthy Italian families of the early 20th century. Though just as the leopard did according to Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, Feltrinelli changed his spots to fit in with his environs and we garner an impression of his sense of leftist fervour waning throughout – or at least up until the point at which he passes over into irreconcilable implication.
Distanced from his family, the two podia – that on which he’s stood, and the other where Inge and Carlo can be seen – physically withdraw from one another before he paints on another set of dots. Adopting the life of a fugitive, he assumes a new identity and vanishes from public life. He dons leather garb, and a Cuban peak. The writing is on the wall by this point, and it tells of this transformation into doomed escapee. It’s exactly here that he appears at his most abstruse, another fragment of an already fractured personality chipped away from him. A violent reprise of Mid Century Modern Nightmare reenforces the futility of his plight, whilst also intensifying this sense of double identity as a pack of armed leopards, one stationed in every corner of the room point pistols which converge on his perspiring form. Unsure and seen to be yet more schizoid than ever before, he screams of “Fascista!” with increasing desperation – apparently uncertain of the paradoxical discrepancies between fascism and his beloved communism itself.
Thus this main portion approaches its perfectly illogical conclusion on a note of duality, and indeed irresolution. On the one side of the stage, we’ve the aggression of a ferocious rhythm section while on the other, the stoic placidity of Rhys and Hollon with their identikit haircuts. Between the two, Feltrinelli scrabbles about the insides of another briefcase – his fingers entangled with haywire fibres of various, if universally premonitory colours. Amid a further flutter of shredded pages, a figure dangles from the ceiling – its lugubrious gyration a striking reminder of the dangers of ideology overrunning the individual. It’s then that Ciao Feltrinelli begins…
Its celestially equatorial tones an intimation toward Giangiacomo’s spirit ascending as does his body, although he seems more hell-bound than heaven-sent the song brings an hypnagogic, Morricone-indebted inertia that’s soothing as it is funereal. It affords us a poignant moment of reflection, and it’s a requisite one at that for there’s been so much to look back upon – not least in these final moments. The circumstances surrounding Feltrinelli’s death remain ambiguous, with its cause unproven. Not even Senior Service contains evidence concrete enough to convince but we’ve here a pretty explicit idea, a bungled attempt to blow up a Milanese electricity pylon vividly reenacted. “Death is a junction in the road that leads nowhere” Rhys decrees, before beseeching we partake in a ‘LEFT FIST SALUTE’ in Feltrinelli’s leftist honour. Not one repudiates his plea, as we combine in a bemusing show of solidarity for like an agnostic in a chapel, it feels strangely sacrilegious to spurn the appeal.
It’s here and now that we’re entreated to swap books with a stranger, again in Feltrinelli’s esteem, and to ‘tell them why they need to read it.’ It’s a consummate continuation of his longstanding legacy – one which mirrors the commemorative feel reportedly accredited to his funeral held in Milan in ’72, which was attended by some 8,000 budding activists. Rhys’ placards condone ‘APPLAUSE’; ‘LOUDER’; ‘APE SHIT’; ‘TAX THE RICH’ and while our reaction may already be radically extremist, it’s that final missive which may yet prove problematic. Will any of us feel compelled to rebel as Feltrinelli first did some sixty-odd years ago? Questionable, although if any production could provoke antimonarchist uprising, it would doubtless be one of such great spectacle.
Indeed, we’re read the figures to what sounds a fictitious referendum with 269 votes weighing in against 134 in favour of the abolishment of the British monarchy, thus following in Italy’s leaden footsteps. It was, in early June 1946, a rather more closely contested scrap between the Republic and the then Monarchy, and the figures look oddly rigged. Though what happens next is considerably more questionable still as, ushered into “the Republic of Neon Neon”, we observe an extended coda comprising Raquel (an ode to Raquel Welch, whose father coincidentally hailed from Feltrinelli’s cherished Bolivia), I Told Her on Alderaan and I Lust U. This extension seems extraneous and similarly flimsy by comparison, so disparate are the two records and so too their respective subject matters. The début, as is now instantly apparent, was a significantly less cerebral work and as such, the transition from one to t’other is more than a tad jarring although elsewhere, conversely, the ability of basic human ideology to transcend temporal confinement must rank among my most pertinent of thoughts.
And so now, as we’re enwrapped in Stainless Style and Neon Neon wrap up what has been, even by their vertiginous standards, a multimedia triumph ‘Save the NHS’ banners and those calling for the release of Bradley Manning, or others condemning the Daily Mail are intermingled with those pertaining to antifascist patois. In short, ‘Capitalism Is Crisis’ and although the custom Monopoly cash can’t be exchanged for the memorabilia garishly decorating the rear of the room, never before has the politically energised life and style of Gruff Rhys been made so unmistakable.
An odd juxtaposition of leaves of a literary variety and this counterfeit lucre lines the floor come ‘THE END’, appearing to trivialise capitalism and so too (to an albeit lesser extent) creative writing. This residual mêlée also addled with deflated metallic balloons, it resembles the best literary gathering you never got to – the sort which would surely be chaired by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, and soundtracked by Neon Neon. Such a gathering is destined to remain a distant fantasy, but Praxis Makes Perfect and with it the spirit of Feltrinelli tonight both became tangible realities, and it’s nigh on implausible not to feel positively inspirited by it…