Bono came to London to put on a show proudly – and outrageously in the name of love. The man who has dominated arena rock on multiple continents for nearly four decades decided to “leave the arena for the Palladium,” as he put it, getting onstage without his U2 peers and “solo in.” To be Soho” – to tell a quiet, unexpectedly intimate tale of love and pain.
Even before he moved on – backed by a harp, a cello and a percussionist and musical director – it was clear this was going to be no ordinary show. Among the audience, whose phones were kept in obligatorily locked pockets to ensure a night of uninterrupted attention, were fellow musicians Noel Gallagher and Brian Eno; past and present comrades in aid and debt relief campaigns Bob Geldof, Richard Curtis and former Labor Cabinet Secretary Douglas Alexander; and the man who ran U2 when they were barely a teenager: Paul McGuinness.
Bono has signaled from the start that he is aiming for something different. When the audience tried to join in the clapping, he gestured to silence them. Only once did he invite her to join him in a choir (from Sunday Bloody Sunday). It wasn’t supposed to be a show like that.
Instead, for over 45 minutes, he unfolded what he had promised, the story of how his wife, Alison Stewart, “saved me from myself.” There were repeated declarations of love to her, and yet it wasn’t this relationship that concerned Bono. Instead, in a nod to his best-selling memoir Surrender, the singer-activist kept returning to the love he longed for but never fully expressed: his father’s love.
So yes, Bono told the story of how U2 came together and there was a brief nod to the usual terrain of rock autobiography – how we wrote the songs – with a visceral account of the making of I Will Follow. But the moments that lingered were when Bono became an actor, with no more than two chairs for backdrops — as he re-enacted the regular bar chats with his father, with Bono playing both the roles: the needy son and his deadpan father, who was stubborn refused to be impressed by his boy’s galloping, world-conquering achievements.
It was those moments of performance – augmented by brief Bono appearances as he channeled the voices of a procession of characters from Luciano Pavarotti to Diana, Princess of Wales to the surgeon operating on his “eccentric heart” as Bono died came close in 2016 – making it a real theatrical piece and not just a rock star unplugged set with a few extra talky bits in between. The show, like the book, had a narrative arc and generated moments of genuine emotion – not least from the performer himself, who seemed almost overwhelmed by curtain time.
Of course, the whole thing could have looked like hideous self-indulgence, and Bono knew it too. He said that writing a memoir was “absurd” and that performing it was “a whole other level of navel-gazing.” But he got away with it for at least three reasons.
First, there was just enough humor (and confidence) to break through with the pomposity. A brief Tommy Cooper impersonation – which was certainly lacking when he did the show on Broadway and in LA – was suitably unspectacular enough to be won.
Second, Stories of Surrender raises some questions that go beyond the life and achievements of Bono himself. He wonders about activism. Is it worse for a fabulously rich man to talk about world poverty – or not? He wrestled loudly with the pragmatism that labeled him a hypocrite for his close association with, for example, the same George W. Bush administration that invaded Iraq. On the back of Surrender is a scrawled attempt at a subtitle: “Confessions of…”. The words “artist,” “activist,” and “asshole” are all offered, but crossed out before choosing “actualist.” On stage, Bono defined the word as “people who really want to get shit done”. And there was a brief but candid discussion of an underappreciated aspect of Bono’s life and work, namely his Christian faith.
And thirdly the music, which of course made sure that everything worked. This show served as a reminder of how deeply ingrained U2’s songs are in popular memory, but they were rarely, if ever, heard that way. Arrangements were sparse, to the point of restraint – sometimes stopping just before the start, which delighted stadium audiences. The result was that in a classic like With or Without You, the pain, the pain, became distinctive and new.
When he ended the show singing alone Torna a Surriento, a tune loved by his late father, the effect was complete. This was a portrait of the artist as a young man who, although now in his 60s, still has longing. That fire still burns – and it’s unforgettable.
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