17th February 2018
This extraordinary, iconic, intoxicating work is a remarkable phenomenon and should be approached very much in the manner in which it is intended to be understood. Full of the most wonderful melodies, and infused with a rowdy sense of bullish Berlin life, it is a bouncy, rough-hewn wonder that sweeps you along with its sheer determination to be as flippant, and as crude, as possible, while bombarding you with one delicious tune after another. Composed originally at the end of the 19th century by Paul Lincke (in Germany, known as the father of ‘Berliner Operetta’) to a libretto by the Heinz Bolten-Baeckers, and then tinckered with for more than two decades before finding its more or less ‘final’ form in 1922 – the version on show here – it is like nothing that we in Britain have seen, although if you think ‘Benny-Hill-meets-Franz-Lehar-meets-Panto’ you might not go too far wrong. Frequently revived in ‘respectable’ state funded theatres and opera houses, twice adapted for television, and filmed in 1941, it has seen off both World Wars and maintained its popularity regardless of the wild fluctuations of German political and cultural orientation. For anyone curious to discover how Germany can achieve that often elusive quality, ‘continuity’, then here is a rare example of it being attained, albeit in a temporary tent thrown up beside the very permanent looking concrete walls and steel railings of the headquarters of one of the longest serving German chancellors since Bismarck, Frau Merkel. The coincidence of the titles of these two ladies is, I’m sure, entirely accidental.
First of all, it has to be said that if you do not have a good working knowledge of German, and at least a passing familiarity with Berlin dialect, then this show will present significant linguistic challenges: not insurmountable ones, but should the language be a problem, a thorough study of the plot is advisable before going, because there are no surtitles. Although the story is a simple one, you really will need to know exactly who all the characters are – there are plenty of them, and their varying relationships to one another, in order to grasp the essence of what is going on. The director, Bernd Mottl, has a lot of experience in musical theatre, but directs here with broad, illustrative rather than interpretative strokes, and favours simple gestures over detailed exploration. The same goes for the choreography by Christopher Toelle, which is generic rather than narratively based. Friedrich Eggert’s elegant monochrome design achieves some splendid effects in the basic space afforded by the venue, and Heike Seidler’s costumes grow increasingly magnificent as the show progresses, but you will appreciate them more if you have get more than just the gist of the story they have to tell.
Put simply, this is in essence a typical ‘Moon Revue’ of its period: a few people, bored with life on earth, decide to enliven things by escaping to the moon for a visit. And that’s it. There’s nothing else to be striven for: the hero who leads the way there, the lowly mechanic, Fritz Steppke (Benedikt Eichhorn), thanks to the gormlessness of the script, leaves his love interest (his landlady’s neice, Marie, sung by the splendidly accomplished Sharon Brauner) back on earth, thereby robbing the book of its chief point of emotional interest for almost all of its running time. While on the moon, when she finally appears in the shorter second act, he gets to flirt rather meaninglessly with the title figure, Ruler of the Moon, Andreja Schneider (giving her all and flashing as much thigh and cleavage as possible in their smutty and puerile scenes). Dragged along with Steppke are his boozing mates, the tailor Laemmermeier (Thomas Pigor) and Tax collector Pannecke (Max Gertsch), and also somehow his scary landlady, widowed Frau Pusebach (a travestie role taken by Christoph Marti). Also on the moon, they encounter the Frau’s brisk maid, Stella (Anna Mateur), who is pursued by the disgustingly grotesque Prinz Sternschnuppe (another drag role for Katharina Thalbach), as well as some ‘star’ turns by other visiting deities, the equally brashly attired and mannered Venus (Fausto Israel) and Mars (Gert Thumser). Tootling around amongst all these is the fuddy-duddy Fraeulein Groom (another drag part for Ades Zabel). The line up is complemented by a lunar girl chorus of 9. There are no boys. The moon, it is made clear, really belongs to women.
All of these are characters who are well known in the Berlin cabaret scene, mainly through their long years of service at the Bar Jeder Vernunft – the actual fountainhead of this ambitious production, and they are clearly much loved and admired by the crowds who are turning up to pack out the cabaret-style seating of the auditorium night after night. It’s got to be said, though, that these are rather more cabaret acts than dramatic artists. However, a bold contrast between them is established by the one figure who seems to hold the stage with a characterisation, rather than by the mere force of his own personality, and that is to be found in Tobias Bonn’s brilliant ‘Liberace-esque’ creation of Theophil (all in sparkling black suit shot with silver details), Frau Luna’s majordomo: he alone manages not to sink under the lumpen weight of the coarse humour ladelled out by the libretto, and manages to preserve some dignity for his character, even when faced with some of its tackiest particulars. That is some achievement. His mastery of gesture, movement, line, intonation and timing is faultless and a wonder to behold. In stark contrast, mainly, once you become au fait with the nature of what these people are saying to one another, you will gawp at the lowness of their humour and the irony-free cheapness of the attitudes struck by all concerned (with the exception – pitifully – of the neglected and under-used Sharon Brauner). Equally, quite possibly, you will be appalled by the delight shared by the audience at all this vulgarity and shallowness. Berliners love to shock! But just as panto seems to offer the Brits a way of releasing dark and worrying psychological stresses, so too, it would seem, this type of entertainment provides the locals with just the same necessary outlet: hence, no doubt, its longevity.
Be all this as it may, the enduring glory of this work is its frankly stunning score by the greatest melodist of his era, Paul Lincke. Not for nothing does the man have an entire street named after him (close to where he lived, along the tree-lined Landwehrkanal in elegant Kreuzberg). His ability to spin beautiful music out of this tosh is astonishing, and there are several numbers that will linger with you long after you leave the theatre, not least the thumpingly catchy – and endlessly reprised – ‘Berliner Luft’, although, a word of warning: you may find it impossible to catch the words of the most popular songs, because the crowd will insist – as indeed I suspect they feel they are expected to – on clapping along, in a vigorous, perfectly synchronised, tonal imitation of the ‘Stechschritt’, making the whole structure vibrate to their insistent rhythms. Alarming. This is all the more incredible when you consider that MD Johannes Roloff captains a massive orchestra of new fewer than 27 instrumentalists, who perform with panache – even when buried under all that interminable clapping.
No matter. For me, the real musical appeal of this work is the haunting ‘Schloesser, die am Monde stehen’, a simply enchanting waltz (Germans have not yet worked out how to clap along to waltzes), whose unforgettable power will not fail to bewitch you, especially when you finally discover its brilliantly unexpected and yet perfectly delightful relationship to the rambunctious march of ‘Die Berliner Luft’. The show may be bizarre and odd and weird, but it will take your heart captive.
Until 11 March 2018