I’m writing this after seeing the Arctic Monkeys at the Albert Hall – and the reasons I’m showing off about this is because:
- I now need to be a rockstar… how can I do this and who wants to be in a band with me?
- If Hitler and his delinquent mates had had their way – he’d have thought the Royal Albert Hall one of the best places to adorn with his diabolical logo – he’d have loved to attitudinize around that place spouting his grim rhetoric.
Anyway, as we all know, Hitler didn’t succeed (Bye, Girl, Bye!). He’d have loathed last night’s show, in all it’s wonderful bawdy, rowdy, pissed-up glory – and not least because some of the Arctic Monkeys’ big influences are the likes of Leonard Cohen, Serge Gainsbourg, David Axelrod, Nina Simone & David Bowie. You don’t need me to spell out why he’d have hated them…
You may know this already but when Hitler and his gang were rising through the ranks, they gathered a whole load of opinions regarding, what they deemed as, ‘degeneracy’ in modern art. In 1933, the Nazis established the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture) – the aim of which was to control all aspects of cultural life in Germany, and to promote art that was consistent with Nazi ideals. Goebbels was the boss of it, and god only knows what a snore-fest of dismality their approved list must have been.
In 1937, the Nazis published a manual stating their full terms on what they deemed depraved – they hated jazz, expressionism, surrealism – and in regards to artists: no Jews, black, brown or queer people – only Aryans allowed. Besides the antisemitism, racism and bigotry, it was a reactionary stamp of control against the previous years of Weimar culture, that had seen an emergence of modernist art, innovation, and theory.
Weimar Germany was all about saying farewell to censorship – and cabaret in cities like Berlin became a big deal. Cabaret did not stand on ceremony and it was (as it still is) all about intelligent words and satire, great music, dancing, and a whole load of camp and sexy escapism.
I went to see Effigies of Wickedness at the Gate Theatre last month, which took its audience on a journey of German cabaret from 1920 – the wake of the Treaty of Versailles – through to 1939 – the year that World War was declared. As the audience waited for the show to start, the sounds of a saxophone and lone, inimitable Yiddish violin introduced the company who pranced in singing Lavender Song (Das Lila Lied).
Lavender Song is considered one of the first gay anthems. The music is by Mischa Spoliansky, lyrics by Kurt Schwabach and it was written in dedication to Magnus Hirschfield, a pioneering advocate of gay rights. Hirschfield was born in Poland in 1868, he was a German physician who asserted that sexuality was a natural and inherent part of a person, he advocated scientific understanding of sexuality and promoted tolerance. In David Tushington’s translation of the song, the lyrics are wonderful, full of glorious pride:
We are the buds that grow a little different
Different to all the stiff and rigid trees
Watching them all is actually pathetic
We live in colours they can’t even see
We are a garden flourishing and growing
They are a desert that is just the worst
We all deserve to live among the living
Where every flower is its own mad burst
The determination, resistance and celebration is effervescent: “Our blood is pure, pure joie de vivre!” And with that, the motley company assembled on the small cramped stage, in what (as Lucy McCormick pointed out in the interlude between the first songs) felt more like a cupboard than a theatre.
But the Gate is the perfect place to house such an immediate show – everyone was visible, audience and actors alike – and the performers had to weave their way through the audience for costume changes. It’s was all fabulously haphazard – props propped on the side of the stage, picked up and dropped as required. The audience was kept occupied by the funny ramblings of McCormick:
“If you’re feeling anxious about your day, just take a look at us and you’ll feel comforted”
… and the divine Le Gateau Chocolat, whose voice is sensational and who is alive with C.U.N.T (if you don’t know what this acronym stands for, then get to know). Le Gateau moves from outfits that turn him from a Greek goddess, to a Tudor Queen, to a slinky black negligee-clad sex icon:
“…that moment, when the lights are off and you feel all sexy and sensual – then the lights come on and you’re just in M&S shapewear”
In 1938, the Nazis put on an exhibition called Degenerate Music, which aimed to showcase “effigies of wickedness” and to energize public animosity towards music considered ‘un-German’ (the Nazis also did this in 1937 with an exhibition dedicated to ‘Degenerate art’ – over one million people went to it, which is actually pretty funny, because with their 650 pieces of confiscated art, they basically curated an art lover’s fantasy).
Effigies of Wickedness at the Gate was an homage to the music, composers and lyricists who created what the Nazis deemed as ‘spiritual insipidness’. It was a big middle finger up to oppression, and a beautiful sigh of relief that freedom (at least from where we are standing) reigns.
The opening songs were funny – Mischa Spoliansky’s Special Girlfriend was done so well by McCormick and Katie Bray. Here’s an original recording of the song sung by Marlene Deitrich and cabaret-writer Margo Lion (It’s in German, but you can find a translation text here):
[arve url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UaGXFPUf_tU” /]
Other highlights were when all four performers recreated a scene on Margate beach. Btw, who knew that Margate was considered a queer utopia back in the 1920s? The idyllic, iconic seaside town was casually recreated with rubber rings, snorkel masks and a broken sunlounger. Le Gateau Chocolat adorned himself in a huge shimmering gold throw, and elegantly strummed a lyre with a wooden fish. But thesubtext of the song is more serious: an early critique of the oil industry and the effect it had on the seaside town. Le Gateau Chocolat ended Mussels from Margate, by spinning and spinning, uncontrollably before finally settling and taking a refreshing sip from an audience member’s pint.
And one of my favourite moments was: Holleander’s Sex Appeal performed by Lucy McCormick, in which she single handedly portrayed the breakdown of an actress trying to cling onto her ‘sexappeal’. Here’s McCormick doing her thing:
But as the years progress, the songs reflect the twisted turns of the times. Hollaender’s Munchhausen, has stayed with me ever since. Le Gateau Chocolat sang the verses which were about the distant dreams of courts, “where all the justices were just again” and where you could be “rich, you could be poor, you could be Christian or a Jew / Your politics would not have sway on how a judge would rule on you”. About a poor and destitute woman, “trying hard to feed her family of ten”, and worse than being poor, she was “pregnant once again” and, to make matters worse the doctor said, “if she had the child that she herself might well end dead”. Le Gateau dreams that the doctor then turned to her “in a calm and gentle voice” and said: “the law says it’s your choice”. And the penultimate verse:
I saw a brave republic where
one banner flew for all to see.
Its stripes of black and red and gold
proclaim a new democracy.
All banners from the past were banned
the empire’s black and white and red.
Yes now the black and red and gold
is flying everywhere instead.
And nowhere will you see those flags
which sport that thing that zigs and zags.
To every verse that Le Gateau sang, the chorus replied:
Liar, Liar, Liar, Liar, Liar, Liar
I’m sick and tired of lies from you
but how I wish your lies were true.
Life is built on logical conclusions
What’s the point in fairytale illusions?
Liar, Liar, Liar, Liar, Liar, Liar
Truth is as hard and tough as nails
that’s why we need fairy tales.
I’m all through with logical conclusions
why should I deny myself illusions.
The melody of the song is so beautiful, like a mournful lullaby. And from my privileged position of experience that hasn’t lived through the first hand effects of war and despotism – that believes in freedom of identity, sexuality, politics and religion, it’s so terrible to imagine hearing this song performed in the midst of such an oppressive reality. To listen to this whilst remembering a time when life was better, whilst knowing that certain elements of a person’s identity are enough to get them killed.
But how smug am I, in my little liberal corner of the planet? When I watched this play, Ireland was yet to have its referendum on their 8th Amendment – thank god sense prevailed there. Needless to say, there are still plenty of governing bodies that deny women agency over their bodies. In the US, with every Republican that enters office, changes are made to abortion policy – I shudder to remember this photo from last year:
Racial cleansing might not be immediately on our doorstep, but it certainly is on the doorsteps of others. Extremist groups are finding a way of legitimising their fetid big talk by mildly labelling themselves ‘alt’ – hell, you could even be extreme enough to get a retweet from POTUS. Worshipping in a mosque might be enough to see it burned down, raving in a club might be enough to get you shot. Stats on the rates of suicide attempts amongst Trans people in the UK alone are shocking. And, speaking of the UK, as it has demonstrated so dismally of late: you could live in a country all your life and the people in charge might one day turn around and say – ‘sorry, you’re actually illegal’. Being deemed ‘illegal’ can even be enough to get you killed. Whilst there is no comparison to be made with the devastation and evil of the Nazi regime, there seems to be a lot that remains dolefully relevant in the songs they tried to ban.
Effigies of Wickedness ended where it began – with the Lavender Song belted out loud and proud. The company exited the theatre mid-song, singing all the way, their echoed voices reverberating through the corridor… while the audience faced and eventually applauded an empty stage.
[arve url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqULd0DOv7g” /]