Mayhem at the Cabaret Voltaire

The apologetic opening to Mayhem at the Cabaret Voltaire, explaining the failure of the actors to turn up, might seem out of place in any standard piece of theatre, but then it would be far too conformist to have a stage full of actors ready to open a show about Dadaism that is not a cabaret despite its title.

faithfully utilises the styles, images and objects associated with Dadaism

They are, of course, in the wings, otherwise there would be no performance, but it’s important to establish that, in keeping with the faith, to not perform is as much a piece of theatre as to perform. If that is a turning of conceptions on their head then it is truly a Dadaist action and should be appreciated as such.

Further examples follow but let’s deal with the basics first. Cabaret Voltaire was born on February 5, 1916 when Hugo Ball (Chris Gates), and Emmy Hennings (Char Brockes), opened what was to become the infamous nightclub in Zurich. It attracted artists from all genres who were reeling from the horrors of the First World War and the rationalism that had allowed it to happen. As Ball explained, "For us, art is not an end in itself ... but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in." In the words of Donna Budd, “Dada rejected reason and logic, prizing nonsense, irrationality and intuition.” Supporters had their own perceptions of the concept. Tristan Tzara (Liam Murray Scott) sought an interpretation through nihilism, while Hannah Hoch (Charlotte Tayler) developed the ideas of disassembling and restructuring images in her photomontages, though as a feminist she was marginalised by her views.

Cabaret Voltaire had closed within six months, but its members spread their message across Europe and to the USA, Russia and Japan where it transitioned over time into surrealism, modernism and postmodernism. It contained the seeds of its own destruction. If the aim was to shock, that could only be sustained until such time as the outrageous became the norm.

Writer Timothy Coakley and director/producer Margot Jobbins have created a performance piece that provides historical insight and faithfully utilises the styles, images and objects associated with Dadaism, most notably a variation on Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, though it dates from 1917. Having a urinal on stage is far too good an opportunity to miss. The irony of a free-thinking iconoclastic venture formulating a manifesto is also exploited; the heterodox drawn to the orthodox. Tom Jobbins, responsible for technical, sound and lighting and Pat Bryant as stage manager both made obviously significant contributions to this show.

The cast entertain well. Each member contributes to a balanced ensemble and if by mayhem is meant a lot of silliness then it is in plentiful supply. Arguably, however, there is far more real mayhem in a standard farce than is found here. It’s also a tightly structured piece. Scenes dealing with Dadaism in relation to poetry, music, art and drama follow in succession. All of which points to the issue which confronted the movement as to where you turn when people can no longer be shocked or surprised.

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Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

The Cabaret Voltaire was a notorious nightclub in 1916 Zurich run by the Dadaists. Anti-art, and anti practically everything else, they set out to satirise and even destroy civilisation as we have known it. Their influence lingers on, even today. You can expect to experience colourful costumes, shenanigans, comedy, fascinating characters, passionate performances, striptease, poetry, twists, explosions, raucous singing, a bizarre ballet, a play-within-a-play and wicked humour. Total mayhem, unlike anything you have ever seen on stage. Expect to leave the theatre with a lot to talk about.

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