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Cabaret
Lyric, London

Rhona Foulis
posted
16 October 2006

Based on Christopher Isherwood's 1939 book, Goodbye to Berlin, Cabaret opened on Broadway in November 1966. Cheeky, political, daring and poignant, the show makes a welcome return to the West End under flavour-of-the-month director Rufus Norris.

The opening images immediately draw a bleak picture of 1930s Berlin, as American writer Clifford Bradshaw arrives in the city. Clifford reads Mein Kampf in the dingy room that he can barely afford to rent. Anti-semitism and economic poverty are instantly mapped out as ominous dramatic backdrops, which gradually creep further into the narrative. A former friend, Ernst Ludwig, is revealed as a Nazi, to which Cliff reacts openly with fierce disdain. Avenging his disloyalty, Ludwig's Nazi allies then beat up Cliff, in a delicately choreographed fight scene that is played out like a dance, against a soundtrack of eerie carousel music. Ludwig later advises against the 'un-German ' marriage between landlady Fraulein Schneider and Jewish Herr Schultz. Too old and tired to resist, Fraulein Schneider then gives up on the wedding, deducing that 'one can no longer dismiss the Nazis'.

In a socio-political climate of desperation and depravity, greed and ambition thrive, with the hopeful dream that 'tomorrow belongs to me '. At the end of Act One, naked men and women dance in the background of Sally Bowles' bed. Beautifully choreographed by Javier De Frutos, they optimistically look upwards towards the sky, climbing a ladder, seemingly leading to heaven, before a cold, white light starkly shines upon their naked flesh. Similarly, the end of Act Two presents a powerful final scene, as metallic letters of 'KABARET ' are knocked down one by one by a Nazi officer. The cabaret performers again turn their backs to the audience and, naked, huddle together upstage. This time, the men and women do not face upwards, but outwards, towards death.

The politics implicit in Cabaret's narrative are both social and sexual. Berlin was renowned for its comparatively relaxed attitudes towards homosexuality in the late 1920s. Here, the Kit Kat Klub is a place of sexual experimentation and hedonism, where both men and women are exposed; both wear similar outfits of stockings and suspenders, so that gender becomes almost indistinguishable. But the cabaret represents sexual transgression, rather than subversion. Berlin's 1920s and 1930s cabaret clubs provided a fantasy world of play and display; they were titillating and sensationalist, not revolutionary. Cliff remarks that the people of Berlin are 'like a bunch of kids playing in their room '. Cliff's own sexual identity is confused, but the cabaret allows him to experiment. 'This is Berlin. Relax, loosen up, and be yourself,' he is advised by a male admirer. Interestingly, Cliff's gay kiss still roused unashamed vocal disgust from a few audience members at the Lyric.

Cliff Bradshaw is ably played by Michael Hayden, and Emcee by a robust James Dreyfus. The audience might carry a preconception of Dreyfus's campness, although this very slight tendency in his performance is entirely in keeping with the sexual transgression of the cabaret. Dreyfus's surprisingly strong voice and physical presence enable him to take the stage, where Anna Maxwell Martin seems simply uncomfortable. Although the Sally Bowles of the novel is written as an ingénue, Martin lacks the vocal power and musical confidence to enjoy her numbers on stage; instead, she just appears awkward. Martin succeeds in the comedy of Bowles's scattiness and self-obsession, but simply fails to convey her confidence and energy in the club that is supposed to define her character. Norris has made a clear choice to cast 'straight ' actors as his leads, perhaps in a well-intentioned move away from re-creating on stage the notorious Liza Minelli film. However, where one questions his casting of Martin, Sheila Hancock is excellently suited as Fraulein Schneider. With graceful acting and a gorgeous singing voice, Hancock plays out the poignancy of her love story subplot with Schultz.

A rigid mover and frail singer, Martin is distinctly unsexy and unconfident as fun-loving Sally Bowles. The musical numbers invite more interest in the backing dancers than our protagonist. Like rubber band girls and boys, the dancers relish the show's sexy choreography. De Frutos creates clever visual imagery and symbolic movement. For instance, in 'The Money Song ', a gluttonous Emcee appears in an inflated costume. Two dancers use pins to pop the balloons in his trousers and deflate Emcee's sense of self-worth: money is a flimsy basis for identity. Later, during 'If You Could See Her ', Emcee wears a suit on his front, but a pig costume on his back, reminding us of the anti-semitic imagery that the Nazis used to depict Jews. The two halves dance with each other in stunning symmetry.

Rufus Norris' long-time artistic partner, designer Katrina Lindsay, also produces striking stage pictures. The opening lines of Goodbye to Berlin read: 'I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. ' On stage, a large stage screen has 'Willkommen ' spelt out in large metallic letters, with a central 'o ' designed as a camera shutter, out of which Emcee appears at the very beginning. Cabaret records a transitional, socio-historical moment in close-up. Berlin's 'Willkommen' is not extended to everyone.

Cabaret takes its spectators into a mesmerising other world. Norris' direction and De Frutos' movement are full of ironic and sexual humour, rendering the political ending all the more pointed. As with Norris' recent productions of TinTin and Market Boy, the audience feels spun around amid the stunning visual effects, design and sheer brilliance of the show, but with a misplaced Anna Maxwell Martin as Sally Bowles, the axis of the production is disappointingly weak.


Booking till 7 April 2007.

 
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