“I've always known that one day I would have my own niche in the annals of song.” During her life, in her death and through her legacy, Édith Piaf’s niche in song became a place in history. On the basis of her lifestyle she was denied a requiem mass by the Church, but an estimated 100,000 people turned out for her funeral. Charles Aznavour observed that it was the only time since the end of World War II that he had seen Paris come to a standstill. Since then she has been the subject of books, films, a play and numerous tribute shows. Elizabeth Mansfield’s Hymn to Love is one more homage in that long line.
Mansfield sensitively and fervently takes us through this life of extremes marred by tragedy.
Mansfield starts to unfold Piaf’s life as she rehearses for her last Carnegie Hall concert in 1957. Six years later, aged 47, she would be dead from the long term consequences of drug and alcohol abuse. Poverty and prostitution, fame and fortune, two marriages, the early death in a plane crash of the man she truly loved, a car accident, the death of her daughter, temporary blindness, drink and drugs all took their toll. Mansfield sensitively and fervently takes us through this life of extremes marred by tragedies. Despite, or perhaps because of what she suffered, the music continued to flow and the audiences shouted for more. She once observed, “People say that I could sing the phone book and make it sound good.”
It’s not the phone book but the phone itself that features somewhat over-largely in this production. It’s the means of communication with the outside world, but sounds and past conversations also pour out of it as though it has a life of its own, to the point at which it becomes annoying. In contrast, the projections and film clips that are interspersed throughout the monologue provide context and continuity to the discourse. They are a welcome accompaniment that adds another dimension to the piece.
Patrick Bridgeman is another accompaniment, although in his case the accompanist. His integration into the action, or mostly lack of it, is less successful. He fulfils his essential purpose in a relaxed and accomplished manner. His playing creates the mood and supports the singing. In the structure of the performance, however, he is also the mute listener to whom Piaf relates her story. His silence ultimately becomes frustrating, while giving the impression that he has heard it all before and so many times that he has now become totally numbed by it. By addressing everything to him there is a sense of audience exclusion that denies intimacy with Mansfield’s story.
What does bring the audience in is Steve Trafford’s translation of the songs into English, but this is not without its issues either. Barry Humphries in his Weimar Cabaret stuck to the original German. The songs inevitably sounded right, but for those with no understanding of the language the meaning was lacking. The translations in the programme couldn’t be read in the darkness of the theatre so were of little help. With Mansfield we lose the authenticity of the sound but have the advantage of the words in English. Many of the lyrics relate closely to events in her life, and certainly the emotions are recurring themes. Making the songs intelligible and integrating them into the storyline indicates how inextricably bound the two are. Amidst all the adversities she experienced, singing was the constant that sustained her. “Singing is a way of escaping. It's another world. I'm no longer on earth.” Sadly, the emotion is lost in translation.
Mansfield’s performance is a tribute, not an impersonation. Her height, physique, the hair and face all contain resemblances to Piaf and the black dress helps considerably in creating the signature presence. Her voice however is far purer, smoother and lacking the nasal tones of Piaf. Partly, this goes back to the language. The final song of the evening, Non, je ne regrette rien (of course) and the only one to be sung in French, by contrast sounds far more authentic. Nevertheless the fifteen songs delight, perhaps most when they become part of a concert series she gives at the end of the story.
The Sparrow once said, “I want to make people cry even when they don't understand my words.” In Hymn to Love we understood the words, but I didn’t see any tears.