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Marc Almond - Ten Plagues

Wilton's Music Hall is the perfect place to meet Marc Almond. Tucked
down a lane in London's east end, one would never guess that such a
dramatic landmark exists so discreetly off the beaten track. As the
former vocalist with 1980s electro-pop duo Soft Cell Almond steps into
the high-ceilinged expanse of the UK's oldest working music hall, the
same could be said about this most singular of torch balladeers.

Almond may be about to make his first foray into musical theatre in Ten
Plagues at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, yet his shades, black jeans
and v-neck with the wings of a blue-bird tattoo peeking over the top
seeks to repel rather than invite attention. Once inside the building,
however, the shades are removed, and, as Almond settles into a chair
with a cup of herbal tea, what emerges is an erudite and open figure,
who's as willing to talk about his troubled childhood and the 2004
motorbike accident that put him in a coma as he is about his creative
back-catalogue. It is Ten Plagues, however, that's occupying his mind
the most.

“I was very daunted when I was first approached,” says Almond. “We did
a workshop at the Royal Court, and there were originally two other
singers involved, one of who was a trained opera singer, while the
other one had appeared in west end musicals. I can't read music and I
don't know how to follow bars, and there was little undisciplined me
trying to get to grips with this really serious music when I'm more of
a verse and chorus sort of man. But all I could bring to it is
something of myself, which is story-telling.”

Storytelling has always been at the heart of Almond's work, from early
cover versions of Lou Reed and Jacques Brel songs with Almond's post
Soft Cell troupe, Marc and the Mambas, right through to Ten Plagues and
the recently released Feasting With Panthers album of musical
interpretations of homo-erotic poems by Count Eric Stenboc alongside
works by Jean Genet, Jean Cocteau, Verlaine and Rimbaud.

With a libretto by Shopping and F****** author Mark Ravenhill set to a
score by composer Conor Mitchell in a production by former Citizens
Theatre director and designer Stewart Laing, Ten Plagues focuses on
London's great seventeenth century epidemic. The show's origins date
back to a visit Almond made to see Ravenhill's play, Mother Clapp's
Molly House. This tale of gay life in eighteenth century London
appealed to Almond's sense of history, and it was suggested to
Ravenhill that if he ever needed a singer he should get in touch. While
such a proposal remained vague, Ravenhill called Almond's bluff with an
entire song-cycle with him in mind that formed the basis of Ten Plagues.

Given his penchant for high drama, both in his well-documented personal
life and in his professional one, why, exactly, has it taken Almond
until now to tackle a fully-fledged piece of theatre?

“I've always been somebody desperate to stay in my comfort zone,” he
confesses. “But whenever I put an album together I always imagine them
like a musical show, with a big opening and a finale, and I always
invent my own story-line, so I've always got some kind of narrative to
work with. So that satisfied that side of me, but once I'd recovered
from my accident, I felt that it was time to get out of that comfort
zone and challenge myself. I'd lost my voice, I'd lost my confidence,
I'd lost my energy. My eardrum burst, my lung collapsed, all these
things that are a singer's nightmare happened, and I had to take
singing lessons to get it all back. Once I'd got this new lease of
life, it sounds like a cliché, but I felt I had to make the most of it.”

Before his accident Almond was offered the part of Emcee in the west
end production of Cabaret.

“I turned it down,” he says. “I was always making excuses to say no to
things. Then when I was offered Ten Plagues, with this new lease of
life I jumped at it. I just thought I had to do it, and if I fail, then
I fail, because as an artist you've got to be prepared for failure.
You've got to be fearless, otherwise you're not an artist.”

If things had worked out differently, Almond might not have become an
artist at all. Born in the Merseyside satellite resort of Southport,
Almond discovered singing at school near Leeds and as a teenager joined
an amateur dramatics group. His original ambition was to be a dancer,
but, dyslexic, with a stammer and bodily co-ordination so bad as to
“fall over my feet,” Almond sang with a heavy rock band doing covers of
Free and, crucially, David Bowie. Despite having no qualifications,
Almond applied for a place on Leeds Polytechnic's art course, and was
allowed in largely at the behest of lecturer, poet, painter, performer
and key figure in Britain's 1960s counter-culture, Jeff Nuttall.

“Jeff was an amazing inspiration to me,” says Almond. “He'd make fun of
me, but without him I would never have got in. At school I think I had
many learning difficulties which are given names now, but which then
make you appear stupid, so I went along and Jeff asked me to do some
little performance, and it was him who recommended me for a grant, and
I owe him a lot.”

Nuttall's influence on Almond's artistic practice is significant too in
the appearance of Ten Plagues at the Traverse. As a co-founder and
stalwart of live art troupe The People Show, Nuttall himself was a
regular visitor to the Traverse, making Almond and co keepers of a
loose-knit grassroots theatre flame where lo-fi cabaret and live art
meet in a way which has become increasingly prevalent of late.

Almond moved into a bedsit beneath a brothel which provided material
for early Soft Cell songs, and arrived at art school alongside members
of the Gang of Four, The Mekons and Scritti Politti's Green Gartside.
He also met future Soft Cell collaborator Dave Ball.

“It was life-changing,” Almond reflects, “just to be able to find your
own little niche in that world and to be able to express myself. But it
was the time of the Yorkshire Ripper as well, so it was a very dark
time as well as an exciting one. There was a lot of very experimental
electronic stuff coming out, and musically that changed everything.”

Through listening to David Bowie, Almond picked up on Brel, Scott
Walker and other artists who “sang things that were never sang about in
this country, but who appealed to anyone looking for something
alternative. I had quite a troubled childhood, with an alcoholic
father, and with not many friends, so I was always drawn to the
peripheries, and the rebel in me wanted to get out of where I was from.
From Leeds, Almond moved to London, then, in an ongoing journey, to New
York, Barcelona and Moscow.

“I've always found the places with the most interesting stories to tell
are those that people say you shouldn't go to,” Almond says, “but
they're the ones I've always felt most at home in.”

Which brings us back to London and Ten Plagues.

“I love the idea of doing the same thing every night,” he says. “As I
get older I look for something that has more of a regular routine. Ten
Plagues is perfect for that. Otherwise I'd go back off into chaos.”

Ten Plagues, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, August 1-28

The Herald, July 19th 2011



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