Cabaret / King Lear / Krapp's Last Tape / Caroline, or Change
Various venues
October, 2006

Sometimes the tiniest things can get my goat.  I hope, though, that usually the little things are simply emblems of wider problems.  At the interval in Cabaret my companion, heading to the bar, asked me what I’d like.  To even my own surprise, I exploded, “I’d like a cast that knows how to pronounce ‘Fräulein’!”  That was excessive, certainly.  However, I’ve seen so many student productions of Cabaret – with the Kit Kat Club’s performers played by middle-class girls who think it’s a bit of a hoot to dress up in basques and suspenders, even though their self-consciousness confirms at every instant that they’d be more at home in sensible skirts and navy blue woollen tights – that I expected a little more attention to detail in a West End revival.  It’s probably the most frequently uttered German word in the show, after all.  I wouldn’t even have minded (well, not as much) if everyone had at least got it wrong in the same way.  But it seemed that Rufus Norris had all his attention on… well, on what?

To judge by appearances, on pretending to be Daniel Kramer.  Norris is a director with a strong visual sense, but in my experience that sense has hitherto always been in the service of the piece itself rather than of a “concept”.  Too far down that other road and one enters the territory of Kramer’s visions of Bent (a comparison made by more than one reviewer of Cabaret, though not in detail) and, especially, his joyless revival of Hair, which missed the central idealism of the hippies just as Bent misses the point that the Nazis were not inhuman monsters, but people like us, i.e. that we are capable, given the circumstances, of atrocities as heinous.  Without the recognition of such basic elements, the point of the whole production may easily be lost.

So with Norris’s Cabaret, I suspect that the idea of the Kit-Kat scenes was to evoke the graphic work of George Grosz and Otto Dix to a certain extent (as Charles Spencer notes), but principally to push the kinky aesthetic as far beyond 2006 norms as Bob Fosse did beyond the 1972 mainstream in his film version.  Fair enough; similarly, the aim of conveying an ambivalence about the sexual licence of the Weimar era is fine… except that, in cases such as this, that comes at the price of also introducing a comparative ambivalence into the portrayal of the Nazis, an ambivalence that goes deeper than simply having a smiling child sing “Tomorrow Belongs To Me”.  Make the Kit-Katting too extreme, too devoid even of sensual pleasure but just focusing on the meat and the motion for their own sake, and you find yourself inadvertently suggesting that maybe the Nazis had a point.  Which is the opposite of Kramer’s implication in Bent, but the other side of the same coin, the same problem of – to mix a metaphor – letting the visual tail wag the interpretative dog.


Lev Dodin fell into the same trap at a number of points with his King Lear.  I keep saying that I try to avoid using this column to expand on my Financial Times reviews in the body of the issue, as a second bite at the cherry is unfair.  (And I keep breaking my own rule… well, more of a guideline, really.)  On this occasion, though, I’d like to recant to a certain extent from my review.  That piece ends where my main argument with the piece really begins: that Dodin does what he does with Shakespeare’s play terrifically, but that the result isn’t really Shakespeare.  Some other reviewers have said as much, but it’s not simply a matter of cutting away the public dimension to the plot, but of fundamentally misunderstanding or flatly ignoring or contradicting the text at various points.

I admit that my attention was wandering a little during Act Five, and so it took me a few minutes to realise that that was Edmund who had just been casually killed by Edgar, rather than Oswald the uppity steward who normally gets dispatched at that point.  That’s all right.  What’s not all right are moments such as when the Fool says, about Edgar’s near-nakedness when he is disguised as “poor Tom”, “Nay, he reserved a blanket, else we had been all shamed”… and then immediately snatches the blanket off him, thus shaming us all… though not nearly as much as when Lear, Kent and Fool all join him in nakedness.  The point of that escapes me, as does the point of the line “Look, here comes a walking fire” heralding the entrance of a Gloucester without any kind of torch or light whatever.


More broadly, Dodin’s entire version of Edmund is based on either misunderstanding of or disdain for the meaning of lines.  For him, the early description of Edmund as a “whoreson” is sufficient to motivate him to his subsequent villainies.  Two things, though: firstly, “whoreson” as an expletive in Shakespeare’s time was not particularly strong; one would not have turned a hair at it.  And secondly, well, in this case it’s literally accurate: Edmund is a whoreson, he is illegitimate and is in any case Gloucester’s younger son – these details are not cut from Dina Dodina’s version of the text (if one judges from the surtitles provided, which may be problematic in this instance), so Edmund is not being denied a jot of his birthright.  To motivate him through a desire for revenge, rather than simple envious rapacity as written, is to tinker far beyond the latitude afforded even by such an accommodating writer as Shakespeare.

(My late friend Val Widdowson once explained to me a remarkable interpretation of Hamlet, in which the Ghost was in fact Osric in disguise: Claudius and Osric, you see, had been lovers, and conspired together to murder the King on the understanding that, when Claudius took the throne, Osric would wield secondary power at court… so when, instead, Claudius married Gertrude in order to strengthen his claim to kingship and also continued to favour Polonius, Osric came up with the Ghost idea as a means of leaking the details of the murder to Prince Hamlet and so indirectly revenging himself on Claudius.  It’s wonderful, isn’t it?, and it scarcely contradicts anything in the text except a remark or two about the Ghost’s likeness to the dead king – and even those refer more to costuming than to facial resemblance.  It doesn’t require flying in the face of whole tracts of the script like Dodin’s version of Edmund.)


Some texts, of course, are protected by copyright and various authorial or other regulatory strictures; I love Susannah Clapp’s euphemistic description of Samuel Beckett’s literary estate as “famously vigilant”.  While it was certainly one of those cathedral-hush events to see Harold Pinter playing Beckett’s aged protagonist in Krapp’s Last Tape, part of me couldn’t help thinking, well, at £25 a ticket for 45 minutes, he could at least eat the bloody bananas.  As you’ll see from the reviews reprinted, nobody mourns the omission from this production of the slapstick business with bananas and their skins, tending to look on it as a more than acceptable trade-off for seeing Pinter’s Krapp negotiate the stage in a motorised wheelchair. No-one, however, remarks that the younger, taped Krapp’s confession – “Have just eaten I regret to say three bananas and only with difficulty refrained from a fourth” – remains.  Whether this was director Ian Rickson’s decision or the Beckett estate’s suggested compromise, it strikes me as egregiously confused and confusing: dispense with the set-up, yet retain the pay-off to a gag that no longer exists?

Last issue, I noted that Wicked received a no-star review in one of the Sunday papers, but a five-star rave in another  I am indebted to Kieron Quirke’s blog at for pointing out that this has happened again with Caroline, or Change.  Tim Walker of the Sunday Telegraph, who led the cheers for Wicked, is this time wielding the butcher’s knife on Caroline.  Without repeating Kieron’s observations, I’ll just say that Mr Walker should perhaps consider the vastness of critical geography that exists between the poles.  Personally, I was less than overwhelmed by Tony Kushner’s musical.  I wasn’t exactly underwhelmed either, just… well… whelmed.  I think a large part of the problem is that if you’re writing a musical in, broadly speaking, the soul genre, and especially one set in 1963, you need something approaching period tunes.  Or at least, tunes of some kind.  Jeanine Tesori’s score is in the right territory as regards arrangements and feel, but melodically it seems to think that it’s enough to include a handful of generic chord progressions and a healthy gospel-tinged dose of the kind of coloratura which, 40 years on, is so brilliantly lampooned by Hannah Waddingham in Monty Python’s Spamalot.  I’m afraid that doesn’t cut the mustard: vocally, it’s very gaudy when it should be Berry Gordy.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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