On June 27, the centennial of the first world war, I went to Shaw to see Cabaret. Like most people in the boomer generation, I consider this musical iconic. Set in 1939 Berlin at the Kit Kat club where life is amusing and every sexual fantasy is for sale, Cabaret is deceptively playful and saucy with sudden revelations of the darkness to come.
The Shaw Festival has given us a Cabaret noir. The set is not the KitKat club, as we expect, but a double helix staircase. Around this monolith, which in turn serves as a run down tenement, a nightclub and an eerie train, the stunning music of Cabaret is performed. The lithe and magnificent actors hang over rails or push to the front, squeezing into gaps to do leg kicks and bends. The emcee, played brilliantly by Juan Chioran, directs the cast vertically from above, from below, as though the stage lacks width. This tower of pride and failure, of ignorance and disillusion is never– changing. By the end of Act two, it has almost worn us down. But this is the point.
When society crumbles, as Germany did in the aftermath of the ‘great war’, an entire generation suffers post traumatic stress. Disempowered by hyperinflation and defeat, Germany was a breeding ground for hatred and fascism. This trauma is Hinton’s starting point. His characters are ghoulish and mechanical. When not performing, they hang around the set in a daze. In this commemorative year of a brutal war that led to a hundred more years of conflicts, Hinton is saying wake up. Russia is invading Ukraine. Iraq, re–drawn by the oil hungry Brits after the first world war, is exploding.
Hinton, who last year brought magic to Lady Windermere’s Fan, brings dystopia to Cabaret. Devoid of charm but brilliant in every other way, his production gets ovations every night.
Along with diverting attention from the club, Hinton diverts attention from Sally Bowles, the ebullient yet world weary prostitute/singer who left London in search of stardom. He keeps the emcee of the nightclub on the stage at all times, acting like a cross between a Prospero and a mimetic Caliban. He extends the role of Cliff (played with Billy Crudup care by Gray Powell) a writer from the States looking for liberated sex and inspiration, by turning him into a puppet of the emcee. This forces Sally out of the musical’s traditional leading role. Deborah Hay, with her tight compact body and bruised, ball–busting voice, is a triumph as Sally. She seems unbreakable, so her rendition of the final title song, in which she breaks, blows the audience away. It’s the only time anyone is on the stage alone, and the sense of interior narrative feels profound.
A foil for the love affair of Sally and Cliff is the wooing of the landlady Fraulein Schneider by Herr Schultz, a Jewish tenant, who is usually the show’s touchstone for kindness. In this production, played convincingly by Benedict Campbell, he looks like a bumbling fool. A fool because he underestimates the tribalism of Nazism and its hatred of the wrong DNA. Fraulein Schneider, played with strength and pragmatism by Corrine Koslo, is a survivor who will not be made vulnerable by love. Somehow this production admires her for that.
As armbands and a curious swastika/sun appears, we see the cast enter the next layer of hell. Yet we are mesmerized by the boundless talent on the stage, the extraordinary costumes and the ageless appeal of the book and the score. The choreography is slithery and surprising. Percussion is enhanced by tapped typewriter keys, pounding chairs, and synchronized coughs.
No one escapes the iron mess on the stage. A sad faced clown who does light shows with his hat is found hanging from a girder. Cliff, who traditionally hightails it to the States, is banished to a hell of his own. This is an angry Cabaret, with the director trying to wring out new meanings from the script and new feelings from an audience about the sleep walking idiocy of our own time. It’s brilliant and, in the main, it rings true. V
Until Oct. 26
@ Festival Theatre, 10 Queen’s Parade,
The Shaw Festival, Niagara–on–the–Lake