There’s something fascinating and tumultuous about the fifteen years of the Weimar Republic in Germany. Following World War 1, Berlin was a unique crucible of extreme poverty, a disproportionately high proportion of youth and fertile ground for bourgeoning political extremism of both left and right. The decade and a half saw a vehement rejection of the norms and morality of previous generations which coincided with the rise of cabaret, and indeed Kabarett, as art forms.
Such a fevered milieu has attracted the attention of many creatives over the years although the results have often taken liberties. American composers Kander and Ebb filleted Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical novel to construct their iconic musical, Cabaret. It has become totemic for Weimar cultural happenings. It looms large over every subsequent musical about the era – which is problematic in that Cabaret isn’t particularly accurate as a representation of Weimar Berlin culture. The acts on the stage and the heterogeneous audiences of the Kit Kat Klub would never have been found within one single venue in reality.
Even though Fury and Elysium never escapes the gravitational pull of the 1966 musical, it does neatly sidestep that particular issue. Drawing upon a wider canvas, its declared intention is “to pay homage to six highly influential Weimar Republic icons who put their idiosyncratic stamp on Berlin”.
On a setless set (apart from two step ladders and a large upturn cooking pot), Fury and Elysium is presented mostly in a revue format. Each of the six women featured are representative of the political, social and sexual revolutions taking place and each gets a section in which they are foregrounded.
Rosa Luxemburg is a socialist. If you didn’t know this, the production has “The Socialist” written on her costume. “Now that the Kaiser is gone, the old order has gone” she declares, adding that it has given me new ways of thinking. Michal Horowicz makes the most with what she is given but the pickings are slim. Called upon to dispense conversational wisdoms such as “Aim to something more than loving one person”, she is more pamphlet than person. Even if you were unaware of Luxemburg as a historical figure, the moment she scoffs “I won’t be killed as there will be riots”, you know it’s not going to end well. She’s duly shot during her big number. It’s a pleasing ballad and well-sung but it feels like it’s something from an American musical rather than conveying the European aesthetic you’d expect in the Weimar Republic.
Valeska Gert is an artist (as per, it’s written on her costume). Conveniently, she is being interviewed, so we learn that she’s not just an artist but specifically a Dadaist. “It’s about everything and nothing” we are informed ahead of an entertainingly kooky song about eating who you want and fucking who you want. Rosie Yadid energetically infuses it with a Puckish energy and a vocal reminiscent of Kate Bush’s idiosyncrasies.
However, the reductiveness of the show’s format begins to be exposed. A decade of the Dada movement is reduced to a few lines that might have been gleaned from ‘The Dummies Guide To Weimar Germany’. Fury and Elysium‘s intended approach is build up a kaleidoscopic picture of what was happening in the era but instead it’s too fragmented and superficial. It’s the theatrical equivalent of taking an open-air bus tour to understand a city.
Claire Waldoff is woefully skimmed over. Waldoff was a renowned Kabarett singer in Berlin. She was famous for singing her repertoire of over 300 songs usually in a Berliner slang, wore a shirt and tie and regularly smoked and swore while onstage. This production depicts her anachronistically as The Drag King, a term not used until 1972. Ashley Goh gives their musical number King of the Night a geezer-ish and precious little else.
The writer Gabriele Tergit (spelled as Terget in the electronic programme, presumably so the lyrics can rhyme with “target”) is particularly badly served. Focusing on the writer beginning her journey as a refugee as Adolf Hitler’s forces rise to power, it should be highly emotive material but Siri probably could inject more colour and feeling into the dialogue than Maya Kristal Tenenbaum‘s anesthetised delivery manages.
The show does boast two stand-out performances. Danielle Steers is superb as The Madam. Kitty Schmidt / Katharina Zammit ran a famous brothel that opened towards the end of the Weimar era. In a section dedicated to “Berlin: City of Whores”, Steers’ imperious Madam adopts a voice that mixes posh and louche, akin to Leigh Bowery without the accent. She succeeds in delivering the show’s info dump stylistics (“most girls are widows”) alongside hilarious faux-filth (“dripping candlewax in an arsehole” is a particularly deliciously-delivered line). Madam Kitty and her girls perform another Kander and Ebb style number complete with coin-operated Fosse robotic movements. It may be a simulacrum of the more famous musical but at least it entertains. We can easily see the sassy Danielle Steers as a future Matron Mama Morton in Chicago.
Providing the shows most-explosive moment, Iz Hesketh is electrifying as the dancer Anita Berber. Berber’s dances pushed the boundaries of Berliner nightlife at the time with her androgyny and nudity. She was addicted to cocaine, opium and morphine so quite the ask for Hesketh and yet they manage to portray her potency. Appearing first on the balcony upstairs then amongst the audience, Hesketh imbues Fury and Elysium with an authentic flavour of cabaret decadence. As well as equipping themselves as an able dancer with some effortless high kicks, Hesketh’s mines their solo for every emotional thread. The song recalls the vibe of Taboo, that other musical which delved into the filth and debauchery albeit in a more recent nightclub era. The musical scale is challenging but Hesketh delivers it with passion. They nail that jittery nervous energy of an addicted star in a spotlight that evokes a Judy Garland as much as Berber. Their magnetic performance contains more goosebump moments than the rest of the musical offers.
As a new musical, Fury and Elysium aims high and wide but the scope of what its hoping to convey is too broad a canvas. It never finds a foothold to get to grip with the subject matter. The revue-format scenes skim through history, never allowing the audience to get anything other than a glimpse of these iconic figures.
Musically, the nearest the show feels to Weimer is when it apes Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. But even that musical is an American reimagining of the Berlin scene. The pre-show and interval music is filled with songs written in the Weimer period by Mischa Spoliansky (The Lavender Song, I am A Vamp and It’s All A Swindle). It showcase the musical dexterity and lyrical acerbity of that era’s songs – and yet there’s nothing like that in the score of Fury and Elysium. Sadly it’s more Milquetoast and a Lost Opportunity.
A cautious cabaret turns Weimer Berlin bland ★★