In addition to their main auditorium with eight hundred seats on six different levels, the Théâtre du Gymnase Marie Bell in Paris also has a smaller hall in the basement with one hundred seats, called the Théâtre du Petit Gymnase.
To get to this basement theater, you have to enter the building by a side door, walk down two flights of a spiral staircase and then through a sort of tunnel to reach the auditorium.
At first glance, the seats down here look newer than the ones upstairs, but they still sag when you sit down, and you notice they are worn-out from decades of use. (In German there is a word for this, durchgesessen, literally ‘through-sat’.)
The show I saw down here in the basement was called Jacques B. chante Brel (Jacques B. sings Brel), in which a singer named Jacques Barbaud was alone on the stage with just a microphone, singing fifteen songs by Jacques Brel (1929-1978).
Why Jacques Barbaud even needed a microphone I don’t know, since he has a strong voice and the room is small, but Brel himself always used a microphone, so perhaps it was just a matter of being authentic. But Brel kept a much greater distance between his mouth and the microphone — an important difference.
Jacques Barbaud was accompanied by three musicians, playing piano, accordion and double-bass, but they weren’t with him on the stage, just on a recording. Nonetheless, he thanked them individually and waited for the audience to applaud after each name. He also said that the next time he sang in Paris, his musicians would be with him. Someone in the audience asked when and where that would be, but he said it was too early to talk about it.
On his website, and on the one sheet of paper that was handed to us on the way in, Jacques Barbaud is quoted as saying that each song by Jacques Brel “is a drama with a story and characters. I try to interpret them as best and as sincerely as possible with my own style.” He said he never wanted to watch a film or video of Jacques Brel in concert, because he did not want to imitate Brel but to interpret the songs in his own way and with his own sensitivity.
Nonetheless, his interpretations are quite similar to Brel’s own, which I’m sure is part of the appeal.
He did not sing my favorite Brel song, Marieke, but he did sing a number of others I am familiar with, such as Mathilde, Amsterdam, Les Vieux and Ne me quitte pas. In one song, Les bourgeois, he invited the audience to sing the refrain, which some people did. Since I know the words, I could have sung along, too, but chose not to.
(No, I’m not bragging here, because the refrain of Les bourgeois is in my opinion the third-easiest song-refrain to learn in the French language, right after Frère Jacques and Sur le pont d’Avignon. In fact, for anyone who understands a bit of French there’s no way to not learn it, after hearing it a few times, even if you don’t want to: Les bourgeois c’est comme les cochons / Plus ça devient vieux plus ça devient bête / Les bourgeois c’est comme les cochons / Plus ça devient vieux plus ça devient c-. Here’s how Brel himself sang it.)
I was impressed by Jacques Barbaud’s performance, and would gladly see him again if it weren’t for one problem: the sound coming out of the loudspeakers was unbearably loud. This might have been because he was too close to the microphone, or because the bass was boosted too much, or simply because the volume was turned up too high for such a small room.
It took a few minutes before I realized there was something I could do about this, so I did something I hardly ever do, namely turned off my hearing aids. This had the unfortunate side effect of muffling the sound quality as well as the volume, but I decided protecting my eardrums was more important. (I’ve been wearing hearing aids for so long that I rarely even think about them or remember I’ve got them on.)
Later I learned from internet comments that I was not the only one who was bothered by the loudness of this performance, though everyone agreed that it was otherwise fine.
Location, aerial view and photos of the Théâtre du Gymnase Marie Bell on monumentum.fr.
My photos and text in this post are from 2019.