Review: Effigies of Wickedness ★★★★ – A riot of colour, challenging ideas and songs with bite that the Nazis tried to ban

When the Nazis branded music by Jewish composers and ‘negro music’, the so-called ‘degenerate’ music of the Weimar cabaret, an ‘effigy of wickedness’ – they banned it too. But not before staging a Degenerate Music Exhibition, complete with listening booths to teach the public what to deplore, and people queued round the block for the chance to hear it. Eighty years later you may still have to queue to see this compelling, provocative and wildly colourful cabaret.

This collaboration between the English National Opera and Gate Theatre, directed with a light touch by the Gate’s artistic director Ellen McDougall, fills the intimate stage to bursting. A pair of stunning opera singers are perfectly matched by a pair of artists adept at solo performance and a quartet of extraordinary musicians, all gorgeously clad in an assortment of exotic garments and headgear and garlanded with flowers.

Mezzo-soprano Katie Bray and baritone Peter Brathwaite sing with passion and clarity, their rich voices, so used to filling huge auditoria, now thrilling in this small space. These consummate actors relish the comedy and this close to their audience the rage and pathos in so many numbers is palpable. Award-winning solo cabaret artiste Lucy McCormick and hugely popular (and aptly-named) Le Gateau Chocolat, equally at home in drag and on the opera stage, bring cheek and outrageousness to the party, orchestrating audience participation en masse – and often one to one.

Violinist Fra Rustumji, saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi and Geri Allen on sax and accordion provide classy accompaniment and add to the glam line up on stage too, all conducted by MD Phil Cornwell from the piano.

Designer Ellan Parry crams the stage with artfully ordered disorder. It looks like she’s raided ENO’s costume and props store to create a platform overflowing with a cornucopia of flowers, fruits, hats, uniforms, statuary and images conjuring the Weimar Republic, all backed by glittering curtains. Everyone wears a succession of outrageous dress – and undress (there’s some nudity), girls and boys all cheerfully slipping in and out of glittery robes and into puff-sleeved period frocks for little girls and slinky glitzy numbers for big girls.

The show, the brainchild of Brathwaite, overflows with ideas. It opens with an anthem to difference, a version of Spoliansky’s Lavender Song, Kurt Schabach’s lyrics playfully redrafted (lyricist Seiriol Davies) into an introductory manifesto for this equally exotic mix of performers:

“We are the bugs that grow a little different,
We are a garden flourishing and growing,
Where every colour is its own loud burst”

Brathwaite sets out his stall (with dramaturg Christopher Green) early on. He lugs onstage the Nazis’ weighty exhibition catalogue to read out excerpts from the long list of banned musicians and lyricists. Their words and music make up a playlist from 1920 to 1939. From relatively carefree times through years of increasing persecution and censorship, ending with a bleak repeat of that Spoliansky manifesto. The gaiety is qualified and there are thought-provoking resonances for now. It all makes for an edgy evening of variegated delights.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Helen Murray

Effigies of Wickedness (Songs Banned by the Nazis) runs until Saturday 9 June. 7.30pm. £25 (limited number of £15 tickets released each Friday). Gate Theatre, W11 3HQ. www.gatetheatre.co.uk

Read more about Effigies of Wickedness in the Apr 2018 issue of JR, p30

Read more of our latest theatre reviews.