Picture: Roy Tan
Ute Lemper: Rendezvous with Marlene continues at the Arcola Theatre, London until 19 May 2019.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
In the late 1980s, German actress Ute Lemper was playing the role of Sally Bowles in a Parisian production of Cabaret, for which the French press dubbed her “la nouvelle Marlene”.
Lemper dismisses the comparison with Marlene Dietrich lightly, suggesting it’s a journalistic shorthand due to both actresses being German. But there is more to it: there is a definite physical resemblance, and a similar sense of mischief behind the eyes.
After Lemper wrote what amounted to a fan letter to Dietrich, who at that time lived as a recluse in Paris, she was surprised one evening to receive a phone call in her hotel from the woman herself. Whatever that telephone conversation actually contained, Lemper has fictionalised it into a full-length show, examining Dietrich’s life’s and loves and performing songs from her extensive catalogue.
As Lemper illustrates, Dietrich’s career started in the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, a time when Germany was one of the most socially progressive. That era helped produce what Lemper’s Marlene describes as a “woman of the future”: unashamedly sex-positive, revelling in a series of relationships with men and women.
But the shadow of the Nazi regime fell long upon her life after that. She emigrated to Hollywood following the success of her small role in Josef Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. Of a move which was not popular with the German populace, she says, “they didn’t forgive me – but I didn’t forgive them” for bringing Hitler to power.
By framing the evening as the reminiscences of an 89-year-old Dietrich, Lemper allows for the selection of songs which fit the mood of the recollection rather than just the time period. Marlene’s anti-war sentiments are thus expressed through bilingual versions of Pete Seeger’s ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ and Dylan’s seminal ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.
Lest that give an impression that this is an overly serious evening, Lemper brings out Dietrich’s wicked sense of humour throughout. In cabaret numbers such as Cole Porter’s ‘Laziest Gal in Town’ and ‘The Boys in the Backroom’ (written by Frank Loesser to music by Friedrich Hollaender and a huge hit for Dietrich after she sang it in the Western film Destry Rides Again) we see both Dietrich and Lemper at the top of their game, for it becomes impossible to discern where one ends and the other begins.
And while many of the reminiscences that Lemper puts in Dietrich’s mouth, from meeting director Billy Wilder and discovering his collection of priceless paintings, lying dusty and rotting in his apartment, to a series of dalliances (“JFK was boring – I did prefer his father”), these work best when they lead in to the sort of torch song that Lemper makes look so easy.
A reminiscence about Dietrich’s year-long affair with Edith Piaf forms the fulcrum of a series of French language numbers, allowing a softness to Lemper’s timbre that is not often in evidence in her performance of Weill numbers for which she is so renowned.
The music is dominated, though, by compositions by Friedrich Hollaender, from ‘Lola’ and ‘Black Market’ to perhaps Dietrich’s most famous number, ‘Falling in Love Again’.
Dating back to that debut in The Blue Angel, a role Lemper has herself played in a stage adaptation, it demonstrates how these two German actresses share more than just a German heritage. La nouvelle Marlene, indeed.
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