Barbican Theatre, London – until 29 July 2018
This is two hours of treasure. Barry Humphries of course always was one, in all his characters, and this time he puts on “the most subtle and intricate disguise” as himself, amiable in a purple velvet smoking-jacket, only occasionally bothering with deadly one-liners when necessary. As when Hitler – who, as a future horror overshadows this marvellous exposition – gives him the chance to muse gently and topically: “Incredible that a great nation should hand over the reins of government to a loud-mouthed psychopath with a ridiculous comb-over…”
But never mind Trump. This is his tribute to a long fascination with the short, fertile period of the Weimar Republic with its snarling cabaret songs, yearning romanticism and destructive political despair: “a fusion of naked liberation and bitterly gay pathos.” Germany was ruined by the First World War, its currency chaotic, the Kaiser gone and corrupt opportunism everywhere; with a reckless sense of rolling the dice the last chance saloon and speeding up the tawdry roundabout of life to see what it flung off. It gave us Brecht and Weill, Bauhaus, Expressionism, Klee, Schoenberg; painters, composers, anarchic thinkers, breakers and re-creators.
The rising Nazi party as the 1930s progressed saw only decadence: dangerous and often Jewish wit subverting of the neat Aryan dream. When they rose this “degenerate art” was banned. But the fascination of Weimar years, and especially its cabaret, endures. Today there are half a dozen chanteuses, often in underwear, whose act is Weimar wannabe. But the best, the Queen of them all, immaculate in technique and reckless in sexual self-awareness, is Meow Meow from Melbourne. She and Humphries are a perfect pairing: he in exposition of the period’s music, she bringing it to life, sharp and sour and heartbreaking.
She growls into “Life’s a swindle – get what you can/from your fellow man”, into a fierce ’Pirate Jenny’, a heartbreaking ‘Surabaya Johnny’. Once there is a terrifying rendering of an erotic solo ‘Sonata Erotica’ by Erwin Schulhoff which consists entirely – with sheet music she flings around page on page – of a simulated orgasm. Twice she duets with Humphries, heartbreakingly in ‘The Ruins of Berlin’, in the three languages of the Occupying Powers of 1945 after the war. Behind her the Australian Chamber Orchestra delivers a sawing angry passion: its remarkable violinist Satu Vänskä steps forward once to sing with her a lesbian duet by Spolianski, Meine Beste Freundin, again quite brilliantly.
Barry, with an enthusiast’s modesty, talks a little in between: remembering how he met Spolianski, who wrote for Dietrich, and asked him to write one for Dame Edna Everage; he explains how it began for him with a box of forgotten sheet-music, and how in respectable Melbourne he heard, on crackling vinyl, the orignal cast recordign of the Threepenny Opera; and how long before that, as a child collecting stamps, he would be given Germany ones – with Hitler on , latterly – by a Jewish lady down the road. Whose letters from her husband, of course, stopped one day..
It is balanced artfully between his drily bufferly scholarship and Meow Meow’s louche sexuality and impassioned growling voice: there are jokes – at one point a supposedly comatose Barry is jerked awake during a spirited jazz tango by the slinky Meow Meow hurling a black-stocking leg over his shoulder and getting stuck in ridiculous flame headdress. But always there is that intensity of emotion: as he reflects, this was a different kind of jazz age to the merrier Parisian and American 20s and 30s. Always the dark was growing. The orchestra plays the wrenching Lament for Doomed Europe with its final pleading trumpet. Your eyes fill. They should.
box office barbican.org.uk only to 29 July.