The characters of Barry Humphries have always been exceptionally well connected. Dame Edna was once the confidante of Queen Elizabeth and Ronald Reagan, and Sir Les Patterson has travelled the world in his role as the Australian Cultural Attache.
This time round, Humphries appears at the Barbican, “heavily disguised as himself” as the host of a concert celebrating the music of Weimar Germany. And now its his turn to drop some names.
In amongst anecdotes about Billy Wilder, and Christopher Isherwood, Humphries tells us he once visited an exhibition which recreated the lost artwork of the Nazi period. He was amazed that so many pieces had survived, to which his companion – David Hockney – replied that it had only managed to do so “because somebody loved it.”
All of the pieces of music presented at his uber-stylish Weimar Cabaret were similarly suppressed as a result of Hitler’s opinion of what was ‘degenerate’ and what was not. And thanks to a serendipitous discovery in his Melbourne youth, Humphries can be counted as one of those who loved the work enough to ensure it found an audience.
Rooting through the stock of a second hand bookshop in the late forties, he came across a collection of obscure German sheet music, from which the evening’s programme is drawn.
His love for the period is clear as he narrates us through the work of Kurt Weill, and Paul Hindemith et al, weaving in his own history and relationship to the music. One such story tells of how he befriended one of the featured composers, commissioning Mischa Spoliansky for a Dame Edna number. It was a neat fit, given Spoliansky had previously written songs for Marlene Dietrich.
Another celebrated diva accompanies Humphries on stage, the fabulous Meow Meow. She sings in both German and English, duets with Humphries, and covers for him in the occasional dance step they take together.
Humphries is in his eighties now, and reads from an autocue. For the most part, he sticks to script, but the occasional quip has the audience in raptures. He is just as warm and funny as ever.
Meow Meow is sensational. Her rendition of Brecht and Weill’s Surabaya Johnnyis mesmeric. She imbues it with haunting sadness, desperate longing, and devastating fury.
If you know any Weill – and most people will – you will recognise the milieu of which he was a part in 1920s Berlin, as it reverberates around the rest of the programme. The influence of jazz, Broadway, and the movies is apparent as the evening goes on, with distinct echoes of Gershwin at times. But the sound is resolutely European – blunt, sparse, and deeply seductive. The music is wonderfully performed by the magnificent Aurora Orchestra, in particular Satu Vanska on first violin, who not only duets with Meow Meow, but also sings solo.
It makes for a lovingly told musical history, a wicked dose of cabaret, and a celebration of some wonderful, rediscovered music.
Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret is on until 29 July 2018 at the Barbican. Click here for more details.