I’ve already talked about Goodbye to Berlin and the wonders Bob Fosse managed to show in Cabaret (1972), but Rebecca Frecknall’s new West End production deserves separate consideration in its own right. A theatre revamped from top to bottom specifically for the show, with a strict anti-photography policy – “keep it in the KitKat Club”, they say, and how nice it is to get rid of the need to photograph – especially appreciated if you put a glass of champagne in my hand. The price of the ticket (for which I had to touch some money that normally should have remained in the piggy bank, so it has been a wee painful at first) is already paid back at the entrance. The revival itself is a spectacular success.
The first performances that are not yet fully consolidated are reasonably called “previews”. They make a point for a kind of product which is not quite finished and could veer in different directions. This one I saw was a preview: it showed the framework of a surprising, coherent, rough and tumble show, but more than once I realised how it had warmed my heart. It doesn’t pretend to copy the “real thing”, something admittedly I’ve noticed in other productions, and not just Cabaret‘s – you can see, feel and touch the limits of the acted performance compared to the desire to give real substance to the scene. You float. You can hear it in the accents, in the elision of the lines, and this is a deliberate effect. The cabaret as a show is dragged to its extremes, it is the show at the end of the world, as Joel Grey used to say, and as Frecknall obsessively repeats: “leave your troubles outside: in here, life is beautiful”.
The pace of the play is brisk, it feels like theatre, the separation between audience and performers is applied by the book, but the fourth wall is in constant shift. You are sitting in a real 1930s cabaret club in Berlin. Actors and performers move among the spectators, mingle, interact, dilate that fourth wall, which thus encompasses the audience and then spits them out again. The very atmosphere of the club, tawdry in a way, is an exemplary rendering of the decadence of Berlin on the brink of the abyss. Perhaps fashionable a couple of decades earlier, now miserably kitsch (columns covered in heavy gold leaf, graffiti on the walls left by club patrons): unusual but oh, so successful. I wanted to see cobwebs on the corners, tired artists in old melted make-up, second-hand clarinets, bakelite telephones at chipped wooden tables, terrible yellowed art deco lamps: I got all that and more.
The first half is dynamic, perfectly fitting into the light atmosphere the cabaret claims to create for its patrons, all under the impeccable direction of the Emcee – and the Emcee is omnipresent, even outside the club, watching how the characters act and react. Light atmosphere, I was saying, at least until Herr Ludwig, the courteous, friendly, elegant Herr Ludwig takes off his coat, revealing the swastika armband. The Emcee is still there, separated from the action, the deus ex machina role pulling the strings of his puppets is increasingly relevant. A deus ex machina who transforms himself from guest to ghost to a puppet submitted to the regime, and fails miserably in his primary intent of entertaining, dragging the rubble of the KitKat Club in front of an audience of Nazis with the same spirit of a condemned man.
From cradle to tomb
It isn’t that long a stay.
The performance of the Kristallnacht is truly masterful: after a very delicate parenthesis with Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, motionless as in the frame of an unrolled film, the Emcee appears, no longer a physical person but something halfway between nightmare and hallucination. The scanty set design, the play of lights – icy cold, there is nothing of the cabaret and its welcoming intentions – help to stop the moment in time, the Emcee grins, quietly shushes the audience, stamps on a glass goblet in a void silence. The lights go out. All that remains is the empty feeling of walking down the stairs and missing a step. Air is sucked out from your lungs. Hindsight is an ugly thing: Germany is lost.
Of lesser visual impact, and this is just because the cinematic version offers more freedom of representation, was the part devoted to Hitler Youth. A smiling child: those who remember the film will know that the splendid music of Tomorrow belongs to me starts as a traditional German song and fades into a military march, while the camera pans out to show more and more people with swastikas on their arms. Less visual impact in the theatre maybe, but no less convincing.
Sally is finally no longer the garishly sweetened version presented by Liza Minnelli. Frecknall’s Sally has returned to being the original Isherwood’s girl: an ostentatious, spoilt, delusional, shallow, loud-mouthed child. The only thing the two versions have in common is the singing – utterly superb. And the intensity they manage to convey with every single word they utter. Eddie Redmayne lit up the stars as the Emcee and Jessie Buckley’s Sally Bowles tore my heart out. The voices still haunt me to this day. Tomorrow belongs to me left me speechless, drinking tragedy by candlelight. Maybe this time and Cabaret moved me to tears. The supporting cast and crew are simply incredible; the costumes and design are total feast for the eyes. Rebecca Frecknall has polished an already well-cut gem and if possible made it even more unique. What a night.