I don’t know why I have ended up at matinees at The Fugard twice in a row. I should have learned my lesson the last time, at David Kramer’s Orpheus in Africa, where all I wanted to do was kill the people around me, with their sweets and things in wrappers and coughing and cellphones and generally disgusting behaviour. I walked into the gorgeous Fugard foyer yesterday, took one look at the special matinee audience and felt sick. A Saturday matinee audience is the worst collection of old and deaf, parents and children, out of towners who don’t want to drive home too late, and me. So, what I am about to say about this extraordinary production of Cabaret is tainted by who I experienced it with. Just so you know.
As you, dear meganshead readers, are aware, I made a deliberate and hard choice not to write review style posts about theatre anymore. It stopped working for me, for many reasons (written about here in old posts). So it is interesting that I am returning to it so passionately with this show; mainly because I feel emboldened and want to declare why I thought this production was superb, on many levels, and why it is exactly this that has been its failure.
Matthew Wild’s vision for this production is dangerous and beautiful. His design is awesome, and his choices are strong. But, even just mounting this production was a huge risk for the hero director of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and The Fugard management, who must have wanted to come up with a successor to Rocky. Initially I questioned the choice. There have been recent productions of Cabaret to compare it to, and of course there is the dangerously dated Liza Minelli movie that has locked this story into that version. Ok, so Rocky suffered the same conditions, but Rocky is fun, and outrageous, and cheeky and naughty (in that join in ‘I can be a little naughty too’ way). Cabaret is dark. Cabaret is proper horror. Cabaret is bleak, and historical, and complicated, and tragic. In a nutshell, it is not fun. This is a problem that many musicals face, but there is the promise of fun in Cabaret and I think it is what people remember. Liza Minelli as Sally Bowles; a ditzy, big-eyed innocent who just loves to be on stage, is what people remember. Cabaret has been disneyfied in memory.
Before the show even started I became aware of the loudness of the gran and her friend next to me, and the clacking of the ice in the miserable teenager’s plastic cup in front of me. “Ooh look, it says Berlin!” said the gran to her friend after repeating word for word the typing as it appeared on the scrim. Clack clack clack went the ice. Everything was more or less ok until the first boy on boy kiss. Then the gran got loudly disgusted and I knew we were in for it. They didn’t even know the story. And, unfortunately, this is how it was for most of the audience; some of whom didn’t even make it back after the long first half.
Charl-Johan Lingenfelder’s performance of the emcee is totally inspired. He is a marvel in this role. It is a performance that is multi-layered, disciplined, articulate, magnetic and riveting, as well as beautiful, painful and exquisite. He moves from being charming and bold to horrifying and then exhausted, and every moment is a commentary on the world his character inhabits. And he plays the piano accordion. And he sings like a demon angel, and he dances his ass off. It is almost unbelievable.
The rest of this superb cast are extraordinary too. Everyone. Claire Taylor’s interpretation of Life is a Cabaret is the best I have ever seen. I thought everyone was fantastic. I loved the choreography, and styling and costumes, and I even loved the set (although it was a bit clunky).
This well thought out, clever, harsh, bleak, challenging show is not cute, or sentimental, or full of heart. It is ugly and raw. The girls are too thin. The boys are cruel. The main characters are complicated failures; the world is on its head. The choreography is clever; sordid but context conscious. The protagonists are weaklings, and self-absorbed. Nobody is loveable. The closest we get to liking someone is the Nazi sympathiser. He is personable. How clever. How complicated.
It is no secret that I am not a fan of musicals. The singing always gets in the way of everything. And in the real acting scenes here this is a great challenge. Also, the acting scenes are dated. They are old fashioned and long. This is also a huge challenge that I think has been handled boldly and bravely, but it is a high risk choice for a Disney ready audience. They want it offered to them. They don’t want to do a stitch of work.
I think this production is the best Cabaret I have seen. But, during the interval, in the toilet queue I heard old ladies complaining that it was too weird, and one old lady said, ” I’ve seen it twice before and this isn’t the same.” That is what they wanted it to be; the same as something they remembered.
So here we are. Between a rock and a very hard place. Thank you for this amazing but totally misunderstood piece.
(I think Jesse Kramer took this pic that I lifted from the Fugard website)