Hitler. He was a wrong ‘un, and no mistake. So what to make of a cabaret full of goose-stepping, Nazi salutes and a leggy swastika on the flyer?
Is it a history lesson, or entertainment?
Things start well enough, with a warm wilkommen from the cabaret girls as the audience find their seats and chit-chat with those already settled in for the show. There are frilly basques aplenty and the stage is bookended by two boys with clown-white faces wearing tight tops that suggest they will be as much the eye-candy as the buxom ladies showing us into the auditorium. The atmosphere is very much the hedonistic Kit Kat club of Christopher Isherwood’s 1930s Berlin. A recreation of the Weimar Republic’s taste for sexual freedom. It’s Liza Minnelli’s Cabaret with all the Disney removed.
The doors are closed and our MC appears. He’s the gender-bending ringmaster you’d expect for these kind of proceedings. He toys with the audience to get everyone in the mood. An introductory song and dance routine is then followed by a sketch featuring the aforementioned bookend boys, which would appear to be a jibe at Hitler. The audience don’t really get it (if it was supposed to be funny), but we move on anyway and out comes one of the cabaret girls to kick off one of the running-themes of the evening involving a perverted doctor checking up on the girls’ sexual habits. This gives way to a song and then another Hitler sketch with the boys and so on.
Not having first-hand experience of 1930s Berlin, and my knowledge of the era mostly coming from Isherwood’s writings of the period, I can’t be completely sure whether what was being presented was a faithful recreation of Weimar culture cabaret. Potentially it was, but the anti-Semitism, celebration of pedophilia and embracing of all things Nazi sailed dangerously close to crossing the line between condemn and condone. In one number, one of the cabaret girls dons a shtreimel and sidelocks while the ensemble sing Blame The Jews to a Nazi salute. I was desperately looking for the sarcasm or ironic twist that would assuage my fears that they were being frighteningly sincere about this material, but I couldn’t find it.
As I say, this may have simply been an attempt to stage a faithful recreation of what actually was happening in Berlin in those pre-war years. It’s perfectly understandable that a nation who had been gobbling up the Nazi propaganda for a decade were ok with the social mores that had been drummed into them. But this is a late-night slot at the Fringe where you’re probably expecting more kick line and bustiere from your cabaret than fascism from the Third Reich.
I still don’t know what to make of Berlin Cabaret. On one hand I applaud their efforts to bring that era back to life – and probably quite accurately; but I do wonder whether the audience know what they’re in for. Is it a history lesson, or entertainment?