Eddi Reader: “This is my summer on Brokeback Mountain”

The singer-songwriter tells us about her role in the new stage production of Annie Proulx’s classic love story

Even though Eddi Reader watches Brokeback Mountain eight times a week, the play never fails to move her.

“It does it to me every night but last night was especially raw,” she says. “I don’t know why. I think I get very caught up in the actual story all the time. It’s such a beautiful story, and Dan Gillespie Sells’ music coupled with a lot of the prose of Annie Proulx…”

Brokeback Mountain recently arrived at @sohoplace, London’s newest West End theatre. It’s a very different space from its neighbour the Dominion, and from most of the theatres in the area. The cast play the famous love story in the round, with Tom Pye’s set so intimate and immersive that it’s hard to avoid feeling in the middle of it all. For Reader, sat just to the side of things as the Balladeer, singing Dan Gillespie Sells’ poignant folk and Americana, being immersed in this story night after night will, she says, never just feel like a job.

We caught up with Reader to talk about her time in the production so far and what it is that makes this story so special.

Brokeback Mountain @sohoplace | Eddi Reader sings 'Sharing Your Heart'

You have a lot of live experience – how has this role compared to your usual work as a musician?

I think theatre musicians are very controlled. They have to be, because everything has to fit with the set and the script. I found that although I have to be structured as far as “This is where you come in, when that table goes up, or when that bed goes down”, there are moments where I can try and transcend or get to the place where I don’t know what’s coming next. I had to learn a different way inhabiting music.

I play the role of the woman in the band; I’m the band’s kind of leader. I’ve got this band, I’ve got these members, I’ve got a wig on, and in my head it’s Wyoming 1968. I’ve lived. I might have had an affair with BJ Cole’s character… the bass player and me might have something together… I don’t know. But when I’m singing the songs, I have to apply a kind of Eddi-ness, a me-ness to that character.

It’s been a lovely expansion of my abilities. I think most singers can act, because if they’re embodying the soul of a song, then they’re feeling a story. And if you feel a story, then you can tell a story; and if you can tell a story, then you can make somebody feel something. And I’ve been doing that since I was three. I’m now 63 and three quarters. So I’m interested in what they’re doing [on stage], but I kind of like to keep it broad, and make sure nothing gets in the way of me delivering that emotional impact.

Also I’m doing it for me. I’m very, very selfish. I want to make myself feel good because I know if I feel good, if I feel sad, if I feel hurt by a moment, then I’m going to make you feel it at the same time. And I’ve been doing that for years.

How did you come to be involved in the show?

I was headhunted by Jonathan because he’s a fan. He’s been at a few of my gigs, and he knows I never have a setlist and that I’m as surprised as anybody else is about what’s going to come out. I said to him, “Oh, if you’re looking for some pop star from 30 years ago, I’m not doing that anymore.” I’m authentic with the music I want to sing, and I have been now for years, with Robert Burns’ songs and my own writing and others… I do revisit the Fairground Attraction stuff, but I was convinced that they just wanted me because I was ‘that thing that did something 30 years ago that made a splash of some kind’. And he says, “Honestly, Eddi, we want you because we have an idea that you will play the emotional ballast to this”.

Is that how you saw the play?

The guys [in the play] are f*cked up. Sometimes Ennis just thinks it’s sex, sometimes Jack just thinks it’s sex, other times Alma thinks he should be something he’s not… and then you’ve got Older Ennis, who is really important because he’s the reason why we’re looking back at this story – he’s a mess; he’s f*cked up his life. I do think you could set this play anywhere, any small town in Anywheresville. The world is small, and these specks of dust that we walk about grabbing and defending and feeling shame and guilt over… it can take over our joy. And I think what I’m learning in this play, what they are teaching me, especially older Ennis, who’s played by Paul Hickey, is that you can actually go back in time and forgive yourself. I mean, we were making decisions like marriage, divorce, who we were going with, who we were betraying, who we were abandoning… all those decisions were made between the space of 25 and 35, maybe 45, whatever it is, but looking back and forgiving yourself is the point.

And the play is about fear. Paul Hickey’s character is trying to look back and he’s taking all of us with him. And I get it now. I can forgive me at 30. I can forgive me at 25. If I was a spiritual person, which sometimes I try to be, I would say that [the play] is like a holy place. You can do what you like – you can kill the animals, you can have sex on me, you can have your bonfires on me, you can pitch a tent on me… But I’m watching you on stage, and Paul’s watching you. We are ghosts in this production. And we are saying, “Remember that it was all about love, all of it, at all times.”

And human beings are rubbish at that. And that’s why we keep coming back to unravel our stupid knots until we get it right. But I think it’s kind of nice that Ennis and Jack are showing us that we can’t really get it wrong. That’s why they met and collided. Their souls connected. They are one soul connecting, regardless of if they have tits or a willie. It’s a f*cking joke. These bones walking about going, “I’m important.” No, what’s important is your connection with other people. That’s what this play teaches me. And I’m hoping that when I sing some of Dan Sells’ amazing, beautiful songs and melodies and lyrics that I get to touch on that for myself. The rest of you can f*ck off. I’m only doing it for me.

Brokeback Mountain @sohoplace | Eddi Reader sings 'Hale Strew River'

What makes this story so universal for you?

I think I kind of ignored Brokeback Mountain in 2005. I saw it, it was a brilliant movie, I loved the performances. But I only recently read Annie Proulx’s original short story, and then I started to fall in love with the plot.

I do work with Robert Burns’ music and I kind of made a success of that. But the success isn’t about financial gain. The success is that I managed to reach in and take a guy off a shortbread tin and turn him into a human being that wrote a song about love. I feel like Annie Proulx’s been a bit overshadowed by the movie. Maybe in 2005 that was as far as we could get with our emotional appreciation.

But I think that this story keeps coming back because Annie Proulx’s story wasn’t really told quite accurately still. Right? We didn’t have a Paul. We didn’t have the character of the older Ennis looking back. Or if we did, it didn’t play as big a role. The idea of Ang Lee’s production, you know, is it’s so cinematic and beautiful. But there’s something about the closeness and intimacy of Nica Burns’s theatre that adds to the idea that we’re right there with them. We’re round the campfire, we’re not far away sitting on a comfy seat with a big velvet curtain in front that can open and close – we’re there, right in the middle of it. And you’re gonna feel it, and I’m gonna feel it, and you’re going to go home and you’re going to remember that you felt your heart open.

It is such an intimate space. You can hear every step that everyone takes on stage.

Which is a bit unfortunate at times! I’ve been trying to negotiate how to ignore the fact that I’ve got a stagehand giving me a guitar that might bang against my chair. I’ve got to still pretend that I’m in Wyoming in a pub in 1968. So that’s been my exercise for myself. Everybody is going to say, “You’re alright, just sing,” you know, but I’m in a wig, I’m not being me. I’m not Eddi. Eddi can hear the audience member drop a pint glass, or a cup or a bag or a phone ringing, but the character mustn’t hear it.

So that’s my challenge. I mustn’t be distracted by anything else, except the story. If I’ve got it right, I’ll die happy. I just don’t know if I’ve got it right… I think Jonathan Butterell said, “when you’ve got the thought, it carries right to the end”. At the end, I turn into Jack’s mother. And that’s an easy gig for me because I have a son the same age.

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I wanted to ask you about that moment where you become your second character, Jack’s mother, and walk onto the stage. How easy is it to then step back into the role of the Balladeer after that moment when you’ve been onstage with the characters?

It’s not easy. It has to be choreographed, it can’t just be ‘here’s me transforming myself’. I realised it’s just me as my 63-year-old self, except I put my hair up. I’m stumbling a little bit getting over the terrain. The only thing I worry about is those boots – I don’t think Mrs. Twist would have pair of boots as cool as that – but I try and ignore that. And I when I get back on, I have to become the Balladeer again. I have to put the jacket on and then I just have to play one guitar part at the end with the band. I’m not singing, so I don’t have to fully become… I’ve called her ‘Rosalie’. I don’t know why. So there’s two different characters in my head. And when beautiful Sophie Reid is doing Loreen on the telephone, I then have to try and make myself completely invisible.

It’s so clear how much love you have for the whole cast.

They’re wonderful. Sophie Reid, Emily Fairn, who plays Alma, and Meelie Traill… Imagine having a name like Meelie Traill! She’s on the double bass. She calls the bass ‘Brenda’. And she’s like Jessie in Toy Story to me. They’re all sharing a dressing room with me and they are such fun. They put on ‘Dancing Queen’ before we go on. They play lots of disco songs, dance, and then we get into the role.

And then the two boys, Lucas [Hedges] and Mike [Faist], have done it differently every single night. I can’t believe it, because how do they do that? How do you say that one line with the same emotional impact but different every time for two months?

And Emily has this moment where she almost breaks me, when Emily and Lucas are doing the bit where he’s annoyed at her getting a job. That’s the very same argument my mum and dad had in 1968. And I’ve watched it as a child. I know innately that masculine head versus that feminine head. And from that era, where girls were meant to iron the shirts and make nice food and be the second mother to these lovely little precious boys who were growing into men and doing the manly man thing. I’ve watched that happening and my mum wanting her autonomy, just as feminism was coming in. So when I’m watching it, Lucas telling her “No wife of mine is going to work…” I’m in the presence of masters. That’s all I can say. It’s a wonderful world. I don’t know if I’d like to live in it forever. But I like being a part of it for the summer. This is my summer on Brokeback Mountain.

The other thing that got me involved was BJ Cole. BJ Cole is the pedal steel guitar player of my dreams. He’s been on every album I’ve ever owned. He’s played with Kiki Dee in 1963 all the way through. He played on all the Scott Walker stuff. Then of course Emily goes “Who’s Scott Walker?” I’m like, “Right. Okay, girls. Get ‘Dancing Queen’ off! Listen to this…” I’m a little bit like the old bird from the past. And I’m a bit of an alien in this landscape, but I’m kind of an alien in the part as well. Ashely Robinson, the playwright, said he used to call me the mountain rather than the balladeer, which sounds a little bit theatre school.

It’s a lovely way to describe it though, because what you’re doing does feel quite earthy and also quite otherworldly.

It is actually, because we didn’t want over-sentimentality. We wanted authenticity. I think that’s why they picked me. Jack says a line in the play, when Ennis asks him why he keeps doing rodeo when he’s breaking all his bones and his brain and his heart. He says, “Because there’s no better feeling in the world”. And that’s what singing is for me. They tell my story all the time in that play. You know, you feel alive just by doing the thing you love. I am doing the thing I love.

It’s completely about souls meeting and souls f*cking up and the ego f*cking up the soul. We all have to deal with it.

Brokeback Mountain is currently booking at @sohoplace until 12 August. Find tickets for Brokeback Mountain here.