I Am a Camera, the John Van Druten play adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s 1930s Berlin stories, opened on Broadway in 1951 with Isherwood playing his homosexual self, although the character was called William Prince. The title was taken from the first page of Goodbye to Berlin which said, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, not thinking.” Shutter open or not, I would have thought it difficult to be passive in those dark, dangerous days with the sound of the approaching jack-boot getting closer and closer. But I digress.
Homosexuality was not encouraged by the Nazis and it should also be understood that for more than twenty years after the war it was still enthusiastically illegal in the UK and most other places besides. In the 1955 British film of I Am a Camera Isherwood, played by Lawrence Harvey, is hardly queer at all, trying first to seduce Sally Bowles and then offering to marry her. It was not a great success – the film nor the nuptials.
But this was a story that just wouldn’t go away and in 1966 it resurfaced again in the form of the hit Broadway musical Cabaret with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb and book by Joe Masteroff, and Isherwood now known as Clifford Bradshaw.
The iconic film followed in 1972 with Michael York as Isherwood, re-named again, for some strange reason, as Brian (Brian???). Although the UK’s The Sexual Offences Act 1967 had made homosexuality legal or, more precisely, not illegal, it was still barely tolerated and then only on the condition that it didn’t frighten the horses. Consequently, the film had a glossy, socially acceptable sheen applied. It was a world-wide sensation with all the sensitive issues dealt with discreetly and in the best possible taste.
QETC’s production of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret certainly could not be described as discreet with bare bottoms on display on more than one occasion but it did retain a certain decorum. But this is a loud, fairly brash and very camp, in your face (if you’ll pardon the image that conjures up) production. The emphasis was very much on the Isherwood character. Pádraig Turley was ideally cast as the struggling writer, completely believable as a young man struggling with his sexual orientation and his sense of responsibility as the world around him took a very sinister turn.
This was a very ambitious show for a small company to take on but director Mark Winstanley, with choreographer Carolien Canters, managed to present a production that had been simplified without cutting any corners. The uncluttered (maybe too uncluttered) set consisted of two large metal-framed structures which were constantly on the move, representing the KitKat Klub, a boarding house, a train and lots more besides. There were, of course, lots of suspender belts and bare thighs on show from the ladies at the Klub. The boys’ costumes, all torn shirts, big boots and extra short shorts, owed maybe more to some top-shelf gay magazine than to 1930s Berlin, but hey-ho, this was a bit of fun, not a History Channel documentary.
But Cabaret is more than a bit of fun. There are parts which are very serious indeed, not least seeing Ernst Ludwig, nicely play by Tony Sal, metamorphosing from a friend into a swaggering Nazi thug and the old Jewish neighbour (Ties Jansen) sure that the brick through his window was a prank by mischievous children. Herr Schultz is convinced that fascism is passing phase which will soon blow over, not realising that what would soon be blowing over would be the smoke from concentration camp crematoria.
The performance garlands must go to Jonas Boukaert and Mimi van Ameronger. Boukaert’s pivotal Emcee was both sinister and endearing. He sang beautifully and commanded the stage whenever he was on. Ms van Amerongen, as landlady Fräulein Schneider, gave a beautifully judged performance as a character who believed that pragmatism was probably the safest and best reaction to what was going on. Her rendition of What Would You Do? summed up perfectly the attitude of the German people who allowed Hitler’s rise to power.
The six-piece, off-stage band (I would have liked to have seen them on-stage) provided an authentic sound under the flawless direction of Lori Evans.
Cabaret is an important work and, in its day, a ground-braking one. It provided a breath of fresh and realistic air to a world that had been fed on inoffensive, easy-going Hollywood or Broadway musicals (with the exception of West Side Story) which offered some nice light-hearted songs, big sets and costumes, butch heroes (with a few exceptions) and a ballet half way through.
As Mark Winstanley says in his programme notes, “Cabaret will always remain one of the most successful and produced musicals. That’s because for Jews, the queer community and their allies, its message that we can never take our freedoms for granted, is one we must never let out of our sight.”
The show will be back at the CC Amstel in Amsterdam in mid-December and I would certainly recommend that you see it. Michael Hasted 20th November 2022