In 1992 John Waters and Stewart D’Arrietta took to the stage in a Sydney pub to present their debut production Looking Through A Glass Onion. What was initially a week’s booking sold out and extended to a six-week season. This seeded a show that continues to fill houses both in Australia and overseas more than 20 years later.
‘It was really an idea for a job for myself,’ says Waters, ‘a performance piece that could be moved – just myself and some music – and I thought that with piano and guitar it would be enough. To date there had been no real theatrical presentation of the life and music of John Lennon.’
‘His autobiography was in his lyrics; they were very personal, and his ability to lay himself bare was quite extraordinary.’
Waters was a Lennon fan from early on and he recalled some of the reaction at the time to Yoko Ono, Lennon’s life partner.
‘I remember the racist diatribes that were in the British press at the time; they called her inscrutably Oriental. I think she has held herself with incredible dignity.’
So how does one tell such an immense story?
‘This is not a chronological storytelling – it’s a collage – sound bites, quotes and things I imagine he might have said about certain things. I wanted to find his anger, his humour, his redemption.’
Lennon was one of the first musicians to achieve worldwide rock-star status.
‘It’s impossible to imagine what it would be like to have that degree of worldwide fame, I know what it’s like here in Australia as an actor, but then you magnify that a hundred times – that’s the result of his wanting to be a successful popstar. He wanted the money and he wanted the fame. And then, of course, there were the critics at the time who said he’s a spoilt brat, they have all this money and then they don’t want it. I don’t think it’s a great leap of imagination to realise it doesn’t bring you happiness; everything you want is laid on a plate but that doesn’t mean you are a content person.’
Waters believes the songs of Lennon are poetic and deeply challenging.
‘There is something in each of the songs. There are some major moments in the show that are to do with the message that is to come through – there is an extremely beautiful song HOW and then GOD – where he sings that god is a concept by which we measure our pain. The song HOW is the perfect encapsulation of the disconnected nature of the identity and our purpose and this never ending search.
‘He was a songwriting genius and to me that song encapsulates his genius. I close the first half of the show with Strawberry Fields. We stripped back to a slow song with piano accompaniment with Stuart, who is an amazing accompanist. I remember when I heard this song the first time, and I thought wow this has redefined songwriting; it doesn’t have a regular structure, or a chord sequence.’
Waters closes the show with Imagine. It’s perhaps the song that Lennon is most remembered for.
‘It’s about the concept of visualisation, and that was a big thing for Yoko as well. She had a big influence on that song; she used that word a lot in her poetry. Much as Yoko gets maligned for sticking her nose in, she never claims authorship, and he uses her as an influence a lot.
Lennon’s not saying the world will be peaceful; what he is saying is try imagining it, see how it feels. He was much more attached to his philosophies – he read a lot of alternative philosophies.’
This is the third incarnation of Looking Through a Glass Onion and later this year Waters and D’Arrietta will perform the show in New York.
‘I always wanted to do it. Nowhere is Lennon more revered than he is in New York City. There is a collective guilt that he died in that city. They love him over there; I have the feeling that we will be well received. This show has evolved from my love of performing and a love of the 60s and music, so I was able to put in everything I know. I never expected I would still be doing this show at that time; it’s become the major weapon in my arsenal.’
John Waters sings the music and tells stories of John Lennon at the Ballina RSL on Friday. Show at 8pm. Tix at the club.