Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Adelaide Cabaret Festival review: 'Dancing on the Volcano' and 'The Weill File'

Dancing on the Volcano: performed by Robyn Archer, piano Michael Morley, accordion George Butrumlis, Space Theatre, 11–12 June; The Weill File: MC Robyn Archer, piano and musical direction John Thorn, accordion George Butrumlis, performed by Robyn Archer, Barb Jungr, Eddie Perfect, Hew Parham, Ali McGregor, Dunstan Playhouse, 13 June.

Two scenes of extraordinary artistic and cultural foment were as good as extinguished when the Nazis came to power. There was Vienna, home to Klimt, Karl Kraus, Mahler and others, its cafés later fanning the essays and spoken wit of an unrivaled intelligentsia—mostly Jews—that included such lights as Arthur Schnitzler and Peter Altenberg.

And then there was Berlin, awash in the 1920s with American money that gave buoyancy to an unprecedented hedonism and, following the Weimar Government’s relaxing of censorship rules, a new cultural form, conservative at first but soon acridly satirical and preoccupied with sex, politics, and street life: Kabarett. ‘Berlin,’ wrote Stefan Zweig in horror, ‘transformed itself into the Babel of the world’. No wonder one of the Nazi’s first orders of business was to silence its nightclubs; in light of the horrific events in Orlando on Sunday, just one of the era’s innumerable parallels with our own dark times.

Dancing on the Volcano, performed by Robyn Archer with musical accompaniment by Michael Morley and George Butrumlis, is a potted history of Weimar cabaret, focusing on its key partnership of composer Kurt Weill and lyricist Bertolt Brecht, with supplementary excursions into the work of many others: Hanns Eisler, Frederich Hollaender, Wilhelm Grosz, Kurt Tucholsky, Frank Wedekind and Henrich Heiner.

Archer opens with ‘Benares Song’ from The Little Mahagonny, Brecht and Weill’s 1927 small scale concert work for voices and orchestra (it was later incorporated into the full opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, banned by the Nazis in 1933). ‘There is no money in this town,’ Archer croons, eyebrows knowingly raised as the audience titters uncomfortably.

Surprisingly, the ‘Alabama Song’ from the same opera—a signature of Weimar cabaret on account of covers by David Bowie, The Doors, and Ute Lemper—isn’t performed. The most well known song here is ‘Mack the Knife’, the murder ballad-cum-popular standard originally from The Threepenny Opera. Archer sings it with relish, eyes widened, teeth bared, r’s rolled. Though unafraid to foreground her Australian accent elsewhere, here her voice is clipped, businesslike, nerve-jangling in its furious detachment.    

We’re in the same theatre where, forty years ago, Archer played the role of Anna I in the Australian premiere of Brecht and Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins, and it shows: you would say she could do this stuff in her sleep if she didn’t seem so alive in every moment, whether channeling the oily salesman of Weill’s ‘Petroleum Song’ (‘all the rest can go to hell/Shell! Shell! Shell!’) or, accompanying herself on ukulele, the young murderer Jakob Apfelberg. Archer remains our foremost interpreter of this music, the seeming effortlessness with which she performs it a con enabled by a lifetime of devotion to understanding its ethos and socio-political context.

But Archer knows, simply, how to sell a song too, proving the point by dipping into the repertoire of Berlin émigré Wilhelm Grosz (Hugh Williams once, having fled from the Nazis, he washed up in England and then America). ‘Harbour Lights’ and ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’ are given brief but fulsome treatment by Archer who, though wryly acknowledging their ‘beautiful schlock’, can’t help but, along with the rest of us, marvel at Grosz’s ear for a transcendent melody.

After the burning of the Reichstag in 1933, Brecht and Weill’s remarkable partnership came to an end as they too found themselves in exile, Weill in America where he began writing for Broadway, Brecht flitting all over Western Europe and Scandinavia. Archer tells us, in one of her many insightful asides, that pretty much anyone who was anyone in the Kabarett scene had left by this time (and to think the outbreak of war was still six years away!). Kurt Tucholsky was one of the few artists who refused to join the exodus, unable to believe, as many others did, that Hitler’s dictatorship would soon collapse. He killed himself in 1935.      

‘Look back on us with indulgence’, Archer quotes Tucholsky as the show ends, the stage plummeting into darkness. And so we have.

Kurt Weill returns as the sole subject of The Weill File, a revue under the direction of Zac Tyler and musical direction of pianist John Thorn. A small orchestra—drums, violin, and double bass—is completed by George Butrumlis on accordion, and Michael Morley, who accompanies MC Robyn Archer during her musical numbers.

Unsurprisingly, it’s Archer who opens the show, a spirited reprisal of Dancing on the Volcano’s ‘Mack the Knife’ (this time with the first verse sung in German for extra flavour) setting a high bar. Eddie Perfect follows with a less than perfect ‘Lost in the Stars’. The song’s poignancy, deepened by the knowledge that the musical of the same name from which it comes was Weill’s final work for the stage before his death the following year, is somewhat neutered by Perfect’s harsh, ill-controlled delivery.

An inevitable mixed bag, the show’s best performances are provided by its female artists, especially Barb Jungr whose ‘Alabama Song’—finally!—is a delightful mess. Even better, though, is her bitter, histrionic ‘Surabaya Johnny’ (‘no one’s meaner than you/my God and I still love you so’). The format is rewardingly disrupted by the appearance of comedy duo Die Rotten Punkte, the supposedly Berlin-based art rockers turning out a grungy ‘Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife’ with Otto Rot (Daniel Tobias) on guitar.

Although Archer convincingly argues that, contrary to popular perception, Weill, unlike Brecht, was not fired by political concerns (the ‘Petroleum Song’ again), The Weill File nevertheless makes the case for the composer as tunesmith par excellence rather than dissident artist. Never able to, as he once told his wife, the singer Lotte Lenya, ‘set the communist party manifesto to music’, what we are left with instead is an enduring legacy of songs and shows that altered the face of popular entertainment for all time. Anybody can be a didact; it takes real skill to write a tune you can hum for days after hearing it just once.                                  

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