In true cabaret style, ‘A Berlin Kabaret!’ at the Old Fire Station was an eclectic jumble of recitation, song, and drama. Very much a show of two halves, the evening combined readings of newly translated poems by Brecht and writers’ responses to the poems, and a separate ‘Berlin Kabaret’ show by Sphinx Theatre that resurrected cabaret and propaganda songs from the 1920s-1950s.
The first half, billed as ‘Words as Weapons: Two Worlds Collide’, involved readings of poems both by Brecht and by authors from Crisis Skylight’s writing workshops. Crisis works with those who are currently homeless, or who are facing homelessness or have been homeless in the last two years. The reading was introduced with an explanation that the workshops had been focused around responding to Brecht poems, newly translated by Dr Tom Kuhn (Oxford University) and poet David Constantine. Tom Kuhn joined the authors as they read a combination of Brecht and their own work, covering topics from homelessness to the power of words to both heal and abuse. There were some astonishingly powerful lines and images; in one poem, ‘teeth begin to scream like scissors scraped down rusty metal bars’. ‘A Writer’s Answer to Bertolt Brecht’ offered a thought-provoking challenge to the assumption that Brecht is still relevant today — and this was answered by Brecht’s poem ‘On the label emigrant’, which seemed to resonate particularly strongly in light of newspaper headlines about migrant crises and bombastic political rhetoric about immigration quotas.
The first half seemed confused as to whether it was a showcase for work coming out of the Crisis workshops, or for Kuhn and Constantine’s Brecht translations. If the former, it would have been useful to have less of a fanfare about the translations in the introduction, as this put Brecht at front and centre and risked overpowering the voices of those reading their work. If the latter, a programme with information about the poems being read would have been valuable. Given the emphasis on the importance of the poetry’s context, it would have been fascinating to read more about the background for Brecht’s writing. Although it’s likely that most audience members would be familiar with at least the outline of Brecht’s career, Kuhn is a world expert on Brecht and it was a missed opportunity not to share some of his expertise here.
The second half comprised the cabaret. Sphinx Theatre performed a set list of songs spanning decades and continents, from Weimar Germany to McCarthyist America. The ensemble shone under the musical direction of Joseph Atkins — his arrangements were fantastically crafted to the abilities of the quartet, giving each a moment to shine. Alison Arnopp’s and Lynwen Haf Roberts’s performances particularly stood out, both for their superb voices and their ability to capture contrasting characters with complete conviction. Haf Roberts appeared as Marie Sanders, the woman persecuted for having a relationship with a Jewish man in Brecht and Eisler’s ‘The Ballad of Marie Sanders’. Only three songs later, she was cavorting about the stage as Uncle Sam in Irving Berlin’s ‘Any Bonds Today’, a barn-storming, tub-thumping number encouraging Americans to buy government bonds to help the war effort. Altogether the group’s performance exuded confidence and passion, and was a real delight to watch.
The set followed a rough narrative of the decline first of Germany and then of America — the exuberant, flamboyant cabaret songs of Weimar Berlin give way to murder and oppression in Brecht’s songs written during the Third Reich, and the focus then skips over to America. A similar pattern emerges as Americans turn on themselves at the end of the war, becoming a mirror of the Germany that they condemned as they persecute and exile those accused of being communists. The audience is shown Brecht’s writing partner Hans Eisler being convicted as a communist and exiled from America — he becomes a counterpart to Marie Sanders, both victims of others’ fear and bigotry.
Given that this is a show that relies so heavily on context though, it was extremely confusing not to be provided with any information about the songs being performed. The American songs in particular would have benefitted from contextualisation. ‘I’d like to give my dog to Uncle Sam’, for example, was written in 1944 and is sung by a blind little boy who gives up his guide dog for the war effort, saying ‘I’d like to do my part / To show what’s in my heart … They say he can enlist just like a man.’ Here, it received an extremely tongue-in-cheek performance, and the song became something of a comedy sketch provoking a lot of laughter from the audience. But ‘I’d like to give my dog’ was not written as a contemporaneous satire on war policy. It was a chart-topping hit when it was first released, alongside other similarly patriotic numbers including ‘There’s a Star-Spangled Banner Somewhere’, in which a disabled boy expresses his desire to fight for his ‘country fair and our sweet liberty’. Similarly, ‘Any Bonds Today’ was sung as a parody, too hyperbolic to be anything other than caricature, but originally it was written for a propaganda film starring Bugs Bunny that was decidedly not a critique. (The cartoon in question is now particularly controversial because of Bugs Bunny’s appearance in blackface while performing the song.)
Dislocating these songs from their context without explanation runs two risks. The first is that the performance becomes another form of propaganda. The way the set’s narrative was structured, some of the original message of the propaganda songs was preserved, painting wartime America as unproblematically democratic, liberal, and a bastion against the horrors of the Third Reich as presented by Brecht. The second risk is insinuating that, in songs like ‘I’d like to give my dog’, potentially destructive patriotism has always found a sceptical audience, and was the source of critical commentary in its own time. For a company whose motto is ‘those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it’, this seems a dangerous line to tread. Learning from the mistakes of the past rather depends on recognising them as mistakes. The American songs were written in quite a different mindset to the Brecht numbers they appeared alongside, and I felt that this should have been acknowledged. Obviously inserting a commentary into the performance would have broken the flow of the show, but a more informative programme would have been immensely appreciated.
‘A Berlin Kabaret!’ was an absolutely kaleidoscopic whirlwind of an evening. Although both halves had issues with a confusion of direction and a lack of explanation, there were fabulous performances throughout making it a wonderful production that was by turns enjoyable and uncomfortable, hilarious and heart-rending. The show eloquently foregrounded individual voices, reminding us that every political movement, every group that suffers and every mass that attacks is ultimately made up of people — people like us.