Cabaret (currently in a revival at London’s Playhouse Theatre until October 1) is about decadence. Here, to emphasize the production’s submergence in the libertine, this flashy iteration has adopted the extra subtitle “At the Kit Kat Club” as well as an extra-top-dollar price of around $340 a seat. If that’s not decadent, what is?
The ads for the show also have another piquant irony. “Leave your troubles outside” is the tagline, in keeping with the musical’s rueful confection of frivolity and Fascism. But just don’t try to leave your seat to go to the bathroom during the show, because, as the ushers warn, you won’t be let back in. That said, there’s no doubt that the innovative director Rebecca Frecknall and the talented production team, who have redesigned a proscenium theater into an intimate, evocative circular showroom, have succeeded in making John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 56-year-old fun machine feel like a brand-new musical event.
When you step inside the theater, where every prospective celebrant is first checked for the coronavirus, you enter a noisy, louche universe selling another kind of contagion: thoughtlessness. (“So, life is disappointing? Forget it! / In here life is beautiful,” the Emcee coos, welcoming the patrons to the club.) On balconies jutting above the scrum of paying customers in the lobby, the twerking, tattooed, cross-dressing chorus grind away in their underwear and Doc Martens, working up an atmosphere of lewd transgressiveness.
An alcove saxophonist in her scanties wails her melancholy riffs into the crowd, and a strolling accordionist adds an Alpine touch to the masquerade of licentiousness. In our L.G.B.T.Q.+ era, the show of sexual fluidity in Cabaret feels a little passé, but the political implications certainly aren’t. This revival has met its perfect winded historical moment. In the current climate of moral and emotional exhaustion, on both sides of the Atlantic, populist authoritarians have exploited the cultural sense of collapse. There’s a whiff of Weimar in the air. Cabaret feels as fresh as yesterday’s MAGA rally.
Having it all ways is not just the sexual predilection of the Kit Kat patrons; it’s the paradoxical strategy of the musical itself: jubilant and bitter; gorgeous and ugly; spellbinding and disenchanting. The incarnation of this ambiguity is the lubricious Emcee, who is both the show’s provocateur and its prophecy. The role is a star turn.
In the original Broadway version Joel Grey played him as pandering; in the Broadway revival Alan Cumming made him salacious; and in Eddie Redmayne’s current thrilling interpretation, he is reptilian. With his long expressive fingers and his sinuous, lithe body, Redmayne uncoils before us as if he’d slithered out from under a rock, some kind of pale androgynous demiurge.
With a pointed turquoise party hat askew on his copper-colored wig, Redmayne is a puckish portrait of violent innocence, a cross between Peter Lorre and Peter Pan. The Emcee begins as an insinuating, lascivious angel of delight; by the finale, he is an angel of death.
In our L.G.B.T.Q.+ era, the show of sexual fluidity in Cabaret feels a little passé, but the political implications certainly aren’t.
The metamorphosis is never more chilling than when Redmayne sings in his clear, crisp voice “If You Could See Her,” a piece of romantic folderol, pleading for understanding for his inamorata, the enormous gorilla who cavorts around him. “Can one ever choose where the heart leads us?” he asks to the audience’s great amusement before launching into the final stanza:
I understand your objection,
I grant you the problem’s not small;
But if you could see her through my eyes,
She wouldn’t look Jewish at all!
The Emcee’s gleeful anti-Semitism demonstrates the unacceptable being made irresistible. The Kit Kat high jinks are studded with nuggets of jocular coded Nazi hate. Its manic nationalist fantasies (“Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and “Money, Money”) are counterpointed in the musical by the manic personal show-biz illusions of Sally Bowles—the young, promiscuous, self-destructive middle-class British Kit Kat singer—who was blessed with neither looks nor talent.
Jessie Buckley’s exciting brutalist interpretation makes Bowles more Bolshie and broken than frothy and fun. She is every bit Redmayne’s equal in amperage and expertise. The Kit Kat’s bohemian dream of denial is at the core of Bowles’s self-loathing flippancy. “Life is a cabaret, old chum,” she famously sings. But a dream is something you wake up from, and nothing, not even love and a proposal of marriage, can burst her escapist bubble. “Wake up! The party’s over,” Bowles’s American lover, the erstwhile gay novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Omari Douglas) tells her; he sees the Fascist violence coming and urges her to flee Berlin and return to America as his wife.
The plot works well enough, but the chemistry between Buckley and Douglas does not. The big dramatic moment is clear without being emotionally clinched. As a result, the secondary love story between two oldsters in Bowles’s boardinghouse, the Jewish tenant Ernst Ludwig (Stewart Clarke) and the landlord, Fraulein Kost (Anna-Jane Casey), feels more credible and compelling, especially during Casey’s heartrending “What Would You Do?,” where she spells out the existential quandary of marrying a Jew and risking the loss of her license to rent rooms.
Grown old like me,
With neither the will nor wish to run;
Grown tired like me,
Who hurries to bed when day is done;
Grown wise like me,
Who isn’t at war with anyone?
She is every bit Redmayne’s equal.
Frecknall, who had a great success a few seasons ago with a clever deconstructed version of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke, has really tested her prowess in this ambitious and complicated production. She’s the complete dazzling directorial package: a fine critical mind wedded to a confident sense of fun. Every nanosecond of the experience is informed by her forensic intelligence.
Directing a musical is like going to war; her sure-handed generalship is what gives the show its subtle intellectual and scenic authority. It also calls out gorgeous work from her collaborators Tom Scutt, the scenic and costume designer, and Julia Cheng, the choreographer. Frecknall makes effective use of the risers and the revolving circular stage to create haunting pictures. At the finale, led by Redmayne, whose blond hair is combed suavely to the side like the pukka Old Etonian that he is, the entire libidinous crew becomes a crowd parading in suits. The disturbing and sensational moment plays as both a terrifying vision of the Fascist past and an augury of our future. Barbarity has been normalized.
Theater is a handicraft industry in a technological age. It’s expensive. Nonetheless, what you get for your money at Cabaret’s latest revival are two spectacles. One is the scintillating show itself; the other is the equally rousing spectacle of the next generation’s theatrical talent on the ascendant.
John Lahr is a Columnist for Air Mail and the first critic to win a Tony Award, for co-authoring Elaine Stritch at Liberty