This new collaboration between the English National Opera and Gate Theatre brings together a collection of songs from Weimar era Germany, banned by the Nazis for being ‘un-German’. The title itself is taken from a Nazi document produced for propagandist Hans Ziegler’s 1938 exhibition of these banned songs, intended to highlight their degeneracy and justify their banning. Many of the songs were by Jewish and black musicians, as well as containing themes that ran counter to Nazi ideals. Effigies of Wickedness features a selection of these songs, performed in order of chronology, effectively creating a journey through time, starting in 1920 with songs celebrating Weimar subversion, through to 1938 and the advent of the Second World War. It combines elements of opera, musical theatre, and cabaret in an ambitious effort to combine the genres.
The production stars opera singers Peter Brathwaite and Katie Bray, alongside actor/performer Lucy McCormick, and cabaret star and drag performer Le Gateau Chocolat. Whilst they all deliver excellent performances, their different backgrounds are clear from the beginning. Whilst Bray and Brathwaite are clearly amazing singers, their lack of cabaret experience is clear in their audience interactions. Bray is brilliant in her duet of ‘Best Girlfriends’, a 1928 ode to lesbian love by Misha Spoliansky, but fades into the background outside of her song performances.
Lisa McCormick is almost the very opposite: she starts out uneven – there is even a remark following her duet with Bray in ‘Best Girlfriends’ that this ‘isn’t her strongest number’ – but as the we progress further in time, towards the 1930s and darker subject matter, she really comes into her own. Her performance of the song ‘Paragraph 218 (Abortion is Illegal)’ about a young woman being denied an abortion despite being almost destitute, is one of the most haunting and powerful performances of the night. The clear star of the show, however, is Le Gateau Chocolat, who stands out in almost every performance, transitioning effortlessly from comic to saucy, and, towards the end of the night, to tragic figure. Its almost impossible to focus on any of the other performers when Le Gateau Chocolat is dominating the stage.
The staging of the show is in some ways the weakest link in this production. The Gate Theatre is an unusual location, notable mainly for its small size and somewhat claustrophobic seating arrangement. This is referenced by the stars on more than one occasion, with remarks comparing it to a ‘cupboard’ and Lisa McCormick’s joke on it being a far cry from the ENO’s usual home at The Coliseum. What the jokes say are true though, and the production really is rather let down by its venue – the stage is small, and limits what the cast can do, especially as they are joined by their musicians on the stage.
Its shiny black design, and the jumble of props at centre stage, are a brave choice, but one that doesn’t pay off. If the aim was to capture the air of a location in 1920s Berlin, it fails miserably and comes across more like the stage of an amateur performance. It has one advantage though: it creates a sense of intimacy with the performers, enhanced by the performers’ interactions with the audience. The interactions with the musicians does also go towards capturing what might have been the atmosphere of a 1920s Berlin bar. Even so, you can’t help but think that such an ambitious collaboration is worthy of a larger venue.
Overall, I wasn’t sure what to make of this production. It combines opera, cabaret, and dramatic theatre together to create something almost wholly new. This feels like a mishmash, but an intentional one, and the combination of genres and artforms perhaps adds to the spirit of subversion it is trying to capture. It’s a bold endeavour and one that pays off: it succeeds in combining the genres into one enjoyable evening. If you’re a fan of cabaret, opera, or just fancy something different, then a trip to this production at Gate Theatre is definitely one worth taking.
EFFIGIES OF WICKEDNESS
Where? The Gate Theatre When? Until 9th June How Much? From £15