Let’s get one thing straight, guys – Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels kick timid, heterosexual butt! Taut, shrewd studies of fascism and ethics debased by situationism, they’re literary gold, with the iconic, 1972 movie only slightly less so. So how come virtually every stage version sucks? Well, in two words, sweethearts, consummate evil, or rather, its absence!
See, no stage producer has ever fully embraced Isherwood’s lethal cocktail of seductive sin. In fact, only one other movie’s even come close; Mephisto, the stunning take on Klaus Mann’s eponymous novel.
Should we blame political correctness? You bet; corporate producers freak over the slightest, possible offence, crippling theatre in the process. So no stage shows of Raoul Moat relishing his sex life, then, except in your wildest dreams. Why? Should full-grown, intelligent adults be isolated from even the suggestion of trauma or moral complexity? They are in this case!
What a shame; Rufus Norris’s supposedly bold ‘re-imagining’ treats good and bad like spoon-fed slops to a baby. Sure, visually, it’s a naughty scratch-mix of Art Deco and discount Ann Summers scanties, but psychopathic evil, honey-bunnies, is disturbingly fascinating; no comedy moustache imaginable explains the allure of Hitler or Saddam!
So what do we get? Well, most potently in terms of crowd draw, Will Young’s MC in lederhosen prancing like an impotent Pinocchio. Attractive and appealing sure, perhaps even magnetic to teenage girls ‘n’ boys, but dead from the chin up in suggesting Joel Gray’s twinkling malice.
Then there’s Michelle Ryan’s hugely underpowered Sally Bowles, struggling to stain even one scene with distant ghosts of Minelli glamour. Tragically, she hits the notes, but religiously avoids confronting emotion or content. But don’t get me wrong -that approach is brilliantly effective!
Understand, Isherwood’s Sally is described as utterly second-rate, and director Norris’s take superbly realises the episodic, ensemble nature of the novels unaddressed in the movie. With Sally peeled from the butcher’s hook of attention, the dramatic focus dilates far more lusciously.
The rewards? Many. Gay choreographer Javier de Frutos’ replaces Bob Fosse frenzy with swooning eroticism and shockingly sexual, gorgeous ultra-violence. And beyond Sian Phillips’s ageing, twilight love-affair with Herr Schulz, there’s the dizzying, multi-storey mazes of fascism, depravity and desire that ultimately paint Cabaret’s gyrating sex-stars as increasingly desperate, anti-Nazi freedom fighters.
Sceptical? Don’t be – German sexual diversity was soon exterminated, a sordid bigotry this Cabaret screams should never happen again.
• Savoy Theatre, Savoy Place, The Strand, London WC2R 0ET. http://savoy.londontheatres.co.uk/