This cabaret of 1920s and 1930s Berlin songs is billed as an homage, a reclamation, of the female cabaret performers of the Weimar Republic. It references forgotten names such as Valeska Gert, Gabriele Tergit and Blandine Ebinger, as well as the better-known, even legendary, Marlene Dietrich and revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. Though Luxembourg doesn’t striclty fit in, as she was murderd in January 1919 before Weimer cabaret really took off. Neither does Gabriele Tergit, a journalist mainly remembered for her coverage of Hitler’s treason trial in 1923.
However, the show does little to create the presence of these spiky, angry, talented, multi-sexual women, nor recreate the essence of the acts that they performed. Claire Waldoff is represented by a routine in which she puts on men’s clothes over her women’s garb to music while grinning inanely. It fails to convey why or how her act was both shocking and charismatic. Anita Berber, a train wreck of a women – junkie, alcoholic, exhibitionist, you name it – was famous for dancing in the nude, but all we get here is a discreet basque. The biographies presented offer little more than Wikipedia entries, and raise more questions than they answer. How, for example, did open lesbian Waldoff and her partner survive when the Nazis came to power and all the old subversive cabaret clubs were closed? When other homosexuals went to concentration camps wearing pink triangles, she managed to keep performing (where? what?) until 1939 and the couple lived quietly in Bavaria throughout the war without hassle.
This show is not really concerned with reality, reclamation or sexual politics. Despite some token girl-on-girl action, it remains a fairly conventional cabaret show. This is not a show on which a great deal of research, love and attention to detail has been lavished. The giveaway is in the treatment of the words. No lyricists are credited, nor translators. Since the success or otherwise of these songs, like most cabaret songs, depends on the words and the relation they establish with the audience, this is cavalier. The lyricists Kurt Tucholsky and Marcellus Schiffer should be honoured, for Weimer cabaret is as much their creation as the original performers’, and tragically both were driven to suicide by political despair. For the record, Eric Bentley’s translations of Brecht are limpid and perfect, Jeremy Lawrence’s for the Lempe album are slightly clogged and have a whiff of academia about them – there are better versions around. This is particularly true of what should be the signature number, the Lavender Song, Kurt Schwabach’s 1926 gay anthem which is remarkable for being the first occasion on which homosexuals are referred to as ‘we’ and not ‘them’. (This didn’t happen in the UK until the late 1960s). As it is, Mischa Spoliansky’s haunting tune, a rousing march tinged with melancholy, has to carry the emotional weight, as the words of the verses are lost.
The performances are never less than competent, but rarely more. Where angularity, eccentricity and aggression are needed, we have smoothness and ingratiation. In short, these performers want to be liked too much. The one truly outstanding feature of the show is the band, in particular Philip Mitchell’s piano and Roger Moison’s trumpet. Moison’s sound, rather anachronistically, owes more to Baker than Beiderbecke, but he phrases beautifully and blows a storm when needed. The show is worth seeing for them alone and is solid throughout, though lacking in overall originality.