Sunday, May 29, 2011

I liked the Weimar Republic much more the second time


I suppose I can understand why some people find Ute Lemper a bit much.
There's an element of deliberate artifice in her showmanship than can be read as insincerity, and her affectations - the facial contortions, the gurgling tongue-rolls, the ear-splitting yelps, the slightly mocking exuberance - presume rather than request our adoration.
But then, idiosyncrasies always divide opinion. When I talk to people who love Barbra Streisand, it's no use listing the things about her performing style I find so repellent - the grotesque sentimentality, the self-veneration, the pretence of profound emotion - since these are not denied by them but read as something else, indeed as the very tricks with which she enchants. And even I love these things when it's Anthony Newley doing them. Where I look at Streisand and see only a pampered, pompous medusa, they see a shaman, and quite right too.

Anyway, we both loved Ute's Last Tango In Berlin show, her customary musical tour (through Brecht and Weill, and Brel, and Dietrich) performed with her customary energy, intensity and sinewy grace.
Not easy, I should think, to hold a large room with just two musicians and yourself (though she did add to the instrumentation with a pretty convincing imitation of a trumpet solo, which she prolonged, as she does most things, to the point where amusement is spent and only admiration - for her accomplishment as much as her gall - remained).
A mistake to think of her as an exclusively shouty kind of performer, as she also reminded us. Fully fifty percent of the show was conducted at the level of such a still intensity you could sense the audience leaning forward as one to meet it; the magical transformation of a large theatre space into the closer and more revealing environs of a cabaret room, achieved purely through theatrical presence.
She drifts into rambling soliloquies, with a cultivated but no less convincing spontaneity, occasionally into stream of consciousness comic monologue, blending in and out of fragments of song, carried on the breeze like memories. She's at her most affecting when at her quietest, and it makes the subsequent explosions all the more effective for it. A one-woman variety bill, blown back from Berlin, 1929.

To think I would have travelled far for this - twice in the past I have nearly been to see her in London but couldn't make it - now I find the wait rewarded by being able to stroll to the venue ten minutes before the curtain rises, and be back home ten minutes after it falls again. (Eventually I will stop going on about how amazing it is to live in Bath, but it's still new at the moment, so your tolerance is kindly requested.)

Her mad talent convinces me more than her commitment to the wonder of Weimar, though. It's an era better recalled than endured, I would have thought.
Decadence, in recollection, has obvious aesthetic appeal, but freedom is a nebulous concept, applied to the absence of government and to wise government both: the first a recipe for tyranny, the second the only freedom really worth having.
Any cultural moment that romanticises prostitution, pornography, corruption or dissipation of various kinds is clearly one of little use, until it's over at least: this is the kind of freedom that tramples on people who can't keep up with it.
It seems to me that if we are entitled to give the vindictive terms of the Versailles agreement a measure of responsibility for the rise of Hitler - a very different thing from offering excuses for it - then the provocative and confrontational nihilism of Weimar culture must stand accused also. It made it far too easy for Hitler to recruit political reactionaries to his cause, without whose support his otherwise uncompromisingly progressivist stew of socialist-revolutionary citadel-storming would have been far harder to get off the ground. Consensus may insist that the Cabaret was the last stand against Nazism; little imagination is required to see it, instead, as a vital facilitator.
That the music was good is never enough until afterwards - but it is good, and as long as we're in the business of looking backwards then fine. Theme park Weimar cabaret-land, with Ute as your guide, is terrific: actually being stuck there at the time, I should think, would have been hell.