Music, Stage

Lighthouse Berlin theatre review (QPAC, Brisbane)

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As if being one of the famous Kransky Sisters weren’t enough, young Mourne (sister to Dawn and Eve) has been branching out on her own as a cabaret performer, and is becoming well-known outside her home town of Esk by her real name of Annie Lee. For many years she has been researching the bitter-sweet music of the Weimar Republic, with a special interest in Agnes Bernelle, chanteuse extraordinaire, friend of Bertolt Brecht and the other intellectuals and artists who characterised this twenty-five year period of so-called decadence. Bernelle escaped from Germany in 1936, around the same time as other members of the left-wing modernist culture fled to the USA and the UK. During World War II she broadcast with the British Special Operations, feeding anti-Nazi propaganda directly into Germany, and supplying code messages for resistance fighters in Europe. But she also made a career after the war as an international cabaret singer, with daring witty songs like Father’s lying dead on the ironing board and Mother, the wardrobe is full of infantrymen. 
Annie Lee had read about this brilliant songstress, and her research into her life and work developed into a private passion. She tracked down ancient recordings and sheet music, and eventually met Bernelle and for many years was her close friend. Bernelle, who by this time was an old woman, encouraged Lee to perform some of her long-forgotten songs in public again, and by the time Bernelle died in 1999, Lee had assembled a big enough collection to put together this superb presentation, seen last week in a second showing at QPAC’s Cremorne Theatre. I saw a couple of years ago when it was still in the development stage, and was impressed even then by the potential it had to become an important cabaret piece, not just because of the quality of the performance, but because of its unique content.
That early show has developed into an almost faultless production, from David Walters’ subtle lighting and Sean Young’s set design evoking those smoky jazz cellars of the 1930s where clandestine performances thrilled and titillated audiences hungry for subversive underground protest against the totalitarian regime that was taking over the country. The music, performed by John Rodgers, Sallie Campbell and Rob Davidson, had just the slightly off-beat edge characteristic of the period, the period of Christopher Isherwood’s I am a camera, and of the musical Cabaret. Here, though, it’s a little less raunchy and more understated, and director Michael Forde has captured the zeitgeist of the underground theatre in a way that makes it come alive.
Annie Lee is a performer with a fine voice and a passionate understanding of the period, and we can trust her interpretation because for many years she was the friend and confidante of the artist. And the songs themselves are enticing, a little like Brecht and Weill but rather more atonal, and not as overtly political, but with an undertone of bitter satire that has resonances even today.
Funded by Arts Queensland in one of its more innovative moments, this show deserves to go further and be seen by a much wider audience. Talent of this quality is too important to be confined to a two-performance run, and although it’s not part of the Australian Performing Arts Market currently taking place in Brisbane, I hope some of the interstate buyers were able to see it and recognise its value as a piece worthy of any fringe or cabaret festival in the world. Artists of the quality of Annie Lee are rare, and this production, although it may never be appreciated in Esk, or by the devoted followers of the Kransky Sisters, shows that Mourne Kransky has more than one string to her bow.
[box]Lighthouse Berlin: the songs of Agnes Bernelle and the lost poets of Weimar, devised and performed by Annie Lee, was performance at Cremorne Theatre, Southbank, Brisbane, 14 February[/box]

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