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Fringe: The New Neon Bible

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Who ever thought of Arcade Fire’s hit album as destined for a theatrical movement piece? Some school students in Canada did, and got the band’s approval.

Bounding onto the stage at T in the Park last month, Arcade Fire might not have looked the part, resembling as they do a dysfunctional family that wouldn’t look out of place in Little House of the Prairie. But they certainly played it. Cultivating a near-religious following, the Quebec-based seven-piece have risen to become international superstars and one of the most tantalising live acts of the 21st century.

So perhaps it’s inevitable then that some fans would take a fascination with their multi-instrumental, rock-indie-pop-alternative-baroque style more seriously than others.

Students at Canterbury High School in Ontario have interpreted the band’s second album, Neon Bible, very earnestly indeed. Their one-hour production—The Neon Bible Project—is centred on their dark interpretation of the band’s 2007 offering, acted out on stage by a group of 16-to-18 year old students.

“Arcade Fire’s music is so theatrical,” explains the show’s director, Paul Griffin, who teaches at the school. “Unlike a lot of groups today, they tend to make music that when you listen to an entire album you think ‘wow, there’s a story here’.”

Their version of the story is presented through a medium ambiguously described as a musical. The group have rearranged tracks from the album and added a few from their debut, Funeral. But rather than performing the tracks themselves, the original recordings bellow through speakers whilst the troupe acts them out on stage.

“We think of it more as a movement piece. We play the music and act out what are like dance pieces but aren’t really dance pieces. People who came to see it [when it played in Canada] described it as like watching modern art.”

A bit more probing reveals an intense plot, one that might not automatically spring to mind. The first act focuses on a crumbling society, managed by an organisation which has near-total control over the populace. However, its figurehead rebels after coming to understand the corrupt nature of the organisation’s work, and decides to lead a group in search of a better society.

The second section sees the same figurehead in a post-apocalyptic world, leading a small band of followers in search of safety. We aren’t told exactly what has happened, but we know that it’s not good. “In the end it all comes to nought and ends very darkly, though there is a hope at the same time” says Griffin.

It’s nine in the morning where they are and two in the afternoon in Fest’s office, yet I am the one guilty of being foggy, unsure of what I’ve got myself into. Could this be further away from 60,000 people in a field singing along to Canada’s biggest musical export of the last few years? I ask how the group came up with such a gloomy focal point?

“We would basically listen to a song, try exploring it in groups physically, then we would bring it together, discuss it and try to shape whatever we had come up with to fit the whole thing and see how these ideas connected in a story,” says Griffin. “There’s a simplicity to the songs that made it all connect.”

But for me, it still doesn’t come together. Fiona Sauder, an 18-year-old student at the school, elaborates.

“When we first heard the album and sat down to listen to it together, we thought; how does this come together as a theatre piece? The thrill of just making a collective piece where we didn’t know the end product and what that would look like outweighed the fear that we had at the start. It was just really the excitement of knowing that we could do absolutely anything with it.”

This freedom was mostly down to the fact that band member Richard Reed Perry, who can normally be found plucking a double bass on stage around the world, is an alumnus of the Ontario school. He gave permission for the album to be used in its entirety, no strings attached.

“They haven’t actually seen it yet – we are sending them a copy of the show to see what they think,” ponders Matt Rodgers, another cast member.

“It’s really exciting because they obviously made the album with something in mind and they are telling stories within their music. But we have our own interpretation in the play so it will be interesting to see what they think about it.

“Within the music there are a lot of themes of paranoia, fear and being closed in. We tried to interpret these emotions in the music into the different pieces within the show.”

But despite its apparent abstraction, there’s something attractive, even endearing about this project. The cast are excited about bringing the show to the Fringe (“the music is hugely popular in the UK so hopefully that will bring in some crowds” says Sauder) and they are intent that this is a legitimate way of portraying one of the most important albums of the last decade.

And it has been praised. Recent dress rehearsals at home in advance of their Scottish foray saw crowds exceeding two hundred, two months after receiving national press over the project. Whether it’s just because of the quirky theme or a genuine interest in how the production works, the idea of twenty teens performing their interpretation of Neon Bible has a certain strange attraction—something outside the mainstream that mirrors that band itself. As Griffin concludes, it’s the dark side of their music that deserves to be presented.

“There is a real sense of weight to everything, a kind of claustrophobia that is certain part of the music, and we feel that it’s part of the show.”

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Written by Nick Eardley

August 31, 2010 at 3:29 pm