Ernst Krenek, Erich Korngold, Frank Schreker, Erwin Schulhoff and Mischa Spoliansky were not household names in the late 1940s when a young Barry Humphries in Melbourne, Australia came across a stack of sheet music in his local bookstore published some twenty years earlier in Vienna, Austria by the distinguished Universal Edition. Friedrich Hollaender and certainly Kurt Weill were perhaps better known, or at least they are today, and they too were among the composers whose works appeared in the treasure trove Humphries had purchased for next to nothing. With the natural curiosity of a child he embarked upon a research project to reveal the people behind these mysterious names. It took around seventy years for that journey of discovery to reach its culmination in the form of Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret.
The opportunity to listen and learn, to be charmed and entertained and to be treated to the rare rendition of a remarkable repertoire.
The vast brutalist expanse of the Barbican Theatre is not an obvious choice for a cabaret show, yet it works very well, for this production is not a casual night out in a cocktail bar, but the acceptance of an invitation to enter a man’s home, to harken as he opens his heart, to become informed as he expounds his passion and to be rewarded with a musical treat from a singer and a complex orchestra he has brought along to give life to his discoveries. He sits comfortably in his armchair, in a cosy downstage corner, with the trumpet of the gramophone close to his ear and the dim light of a period standard lamp providing a warm hue to his drawing room.
It’s difficult to watch Humphries without seeing shades of the famous characters he created years ago for the shows that made him a celebrity and it’s hard to believe he is now aged eighty-four. His illustrated history of Weimar music is delivered in an easy-listening blended style of reminiscence and academic lecture. It also has humorous moments so characteristic of his art. He flaunts the distinctive shuffle across the stage and the outstretched arms wriggling in the air, he dances with comical faltering steps and sings unaffectedly, clearly enjoying the moment. He also retains the raised eyebrows and the wide-open eyes with their sparking sense of naughtiness and the knowing glint when he’s delivered a comic line; it’s all endearing physical jocularity. What’s distracting is his reliance on the autocues to deliver the script and the sometimes fumbled delivery, but in the context of this gem both are almost forgivable.
Needing no apology are the combined efforts of cabaret artist Meow Meow and the Aurora Orchestra. Located in her own room in the other downstage corner Meow Meow rises suitably costumed to passionately deliver the lyrics and melodies of an array of songs to which she devotes sleaze, seduction, strength and subtlety as required. The sight of the orchestra layout filling the vast stage has an immediate wow factor. The musicians stroll on stage instrument by instrument, incrementally building up Mack the Knife. They number just under twenty but the compositions require an array of instruments. The assorted percussion section requires two players, there’s a guy on accordion, another switching between guitar and banjo, the pianist, four people playing seven woodwind instruments, the saxophonist, and then the strings. Leading them all is musical director Satu Vänskä who as much as Humphries holds this show together. Her talent becomes more impressive as the music unfolds. She conducts from her seat as the first violinist (is that really the 1726 ‘Belgiorno’ Stradivarius of which she is custodian?) and also seizes the opportunity to play the rarely heard or seen Stroh violin. Later she rises to join Meow Meow in a comic duet before singing her more serious solo piece.
It all fits together very well and, despite some shortcomings, it’s a wonderful evening that affords the opportunity to listen and learn, to be charmed and entertained and to be treated to the rare rendition of a remarkable repertoire.