If you’ve followed Barry Humphries’ career this past half-century – and be honest, possums, most of you have – you won’t be entirely surprised by his idea of compiling and hosting an evening of music and song from the Weimar years.
If you weren’t aware of quite how strong this preoccupation has been in the course of his life’s eight and a half decades, this is probably because he was busy upstaging himself with his own menagerie of grotesques, Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson being the most prominent.
Look a little closer and his fixation with the produce of Berlin’s interwar culture is quite consistent with him – outwardly decadent but inwardly disciplined, socially transgressive but emotionally scrupulous, sometimes complex in form but plain in meaning. There is another, perhaps crucial point of identification; much of the music is doused with a defiant hedonism in the face of depressive forces, just as Humphries’ own much earlier years fell, by his own admission, into an alcoholocaust which might well have exterminated him. This stuff is serious.
The evening, naturally, is frequently a hell of a laugh, what else did you expect? But it also springs from the strange, poignant and particular tale of a boy growing up in suburban Melbourne, the very seedbed of Dame Edna,
during and after the (second) war. Here the young Humphries, trawling through the city’s second-hand bookshops, discovered a pile of sheet music published in Vienna in the 1920s. Most of the composers’ names were obscure, but their publishers was not. This was the esteemed Universal Edition in Vienna.
There was a single stamped name, presumably that of the music’s rescuer, one Richard Beyer, on the sheets. As Humphries explains to his packed Barbican audience, he started wondering why someone would bother to put all this stuff into a suitcase and schlep it across the world to Australia. Years later, when he was in Los Angeles visiting a recreation of Hitler’s exhibition of so-called degenerate art, he put this to his companion, David Hockney, whose simple reply was that “somebody loved them.”
Humphries goes on to recall how, in Vienna in the early 1960s, he searched in vain for recordings of work by the composers he had discovered. Even the best of the record shops had never heard of them. “Hitler, it seemed, had done a very good job in suppressing a whole generation of music makers whose exciting work is still in the category of unfamiliar repertoire.”
This context gives the evening a strong sense of redemption as the superb Aurora Orchestra plays the work of such “Weimar” composers as Misha Spoliansky, Wilhelm Grosz and Ernst Toch; also Hans Eisler, Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill and Max Brand, the last of whom later became, with Robert Moog, an early pioneer of electronic music.
As the music plays, Humphries, in his role as Conferencier, sits back in his stage-side armchair, listening on an elaborately retro phonograph to this elegantly mongrel music, jagged and mellifluous all at once. Then he is on his feet, duetting more than passably with the evening’s star singer, the cabaret artiste Meow Meow. He even dances with her, moving across the stage like a slow vertical fish in his red velvet jacket, and not seeming to care too much what people think of him. He was always good at that.
This is an evening full of musical exiles retracted, of cultural transports reversed. Humphries, of course, was part of that migration of Australians fifty-odd years ago which was to include the author and academic Germaine Greer, the poet and broadcaster Clive James and the late historian Robert Hughes, whose controversial 1986 book The Fatal Shore told the story of penal journeys in the opposite direction.
Humphries was the oldest of the four, the first to England. He was also the one most adept at concealing the intellectual beneath the comic. In fact, the two were working together all along, and this evening is further celebration of that fact, as well as of Weimar’s many-bodied music.
Review by Alan Franks
Barry Humphries is our masterfully seasoned emcee and cabaret diva Meow Meow our chanteuse in this risqué, sophisticated and seductive tribute to the jazz-infused music of the Weimar Republic.
Some describe it as cabaret’s golden age: the remarkable period in 1920s and 30s’ Berlin when hedonistic partying and social revolution turned nightclubs into hotbeds of decadent entertainment. Reawakening that spirit, our hosts acquaint us with the oft-forgotten composers of the time, many Jewish, whose art would be condemned as ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, dancing as it did on the edge of a precipice.
Best known as Dame Edna Everage, Humphries shares his personal passion for a period that has long fascinated him, his witty anecdotes and irreverent asides providing interludes to a treasure trove of songs and instrumentals. Meow Meow gives us Kurt Weill standards alongside rarities from Friedrich Hollaender, Ernst Krenek and Erwin Schulhoff, both world-renowned Australian artists are accompanied by London’s trailblazing Aurora Orchestra.
Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret
Booking to Sunday 29th July 2018
London EC2Y 8DS