Photo: David Andrako
Date: 9 February, 2020
By: Peter Callaghan
When an artist instructs her drummer to “pull the plug” you’d be forgiven for thinking that their gig is going south faster than Ruth Davidson’s taxi to the House of Lords. But Ute Lemper’s cry from the stage was in reference to an errant smoke machine which brought a blast of Storm Ciara in from the cold to fill The Queen’s Hall with a Hound of the Baskervilles mist.
Plug duly pulled (not to mention technicians duly eyeballed) it was back to business: the exceptional Lemper’s spellbinding homage to Marlene Dietrich inspired by a late-night phone call, over thirty years ago, between the rising star Lemper whose Moliere Award-winning performance as Sally Bowles earned her the title of “the new Marlene” and “a woman of the future” in the shape of the enigmatic Dietrich who had been holed up in her Paris apartment for over a decade.
The call itself prompted by Lemper’s letter to apologise for the comparison and thank her for being an inspiration.
Based on the titular “rendezvous”, which is given added spice by recollections from one of Dietrich’s legions of lovers (of both persuasions) film director Billy Wilder, and shaped by the reclusive star’s preference for asking rather than answering provocative questions, the show isn’t so much a conversation, more a one-way purging of the soul in which Dietrich not only reflects upon her life and career, but more importantly invites Lemper and the audience to never forget the horrors of war.
Pete Seeger’s Where Have All The Flowers Gone? and Bob Dylan’s The Answer, My Friend, Is Blowin’ In The Wind bookmarking the concert to perfection.
Having publicly renounced her German citizenship in revulsion at the rise of Nazism, Dietrich parked thoughts of killing Hitler with a poisoned hair needle in favour of supporting the Allied forces by “serving” under many a General. Not to mention politician, writer and movie star. Though Judy Garland proved true to her torch song in being The Man That Got Away.
The real (and perhaps only) love of her life to merit such a description, however, was the French actor Jean Gabin whose absence left her “nursing an empty space in my heart that I cannot fill.” As did her strained relationship with her daughter Maria Riva who later penned an unflattering memoir. Hence Lemper’s initial description of Dietrich as being “sad and bitter”.
Such personal and political strands intertwine to form the golden thread which runs through Lemper’s commanding performance as she owns the stage, the material and her instrument. Proving that her star qualities have not diminished since she shot to fame in the early 80s as a “young and stretchable” Grizabella in the original Vienna production of Cats.
Her performance, together with that of the band (Vana Gierig on piano, Cyril Garac on violin, Matthias Daneck on drums and Romain Lécuyer – when he emerged from the toilet – on bass), drew a standing ovation and many of the songs generated prolonged applause. However, Rendezvous With Marlene is not a typical biographical concert with a formulaic intro and number structure; more a series of dramatic monologues spliced with shards of songs which are so seamlessly bonded to the text that their passing often goes without acknowledgement.
Unlike Dietrich’s whose funeral was tarnished with stink bombs and civic memorials for whom were curtailed by death threats! In stark contrast to her current iconic status which like Lemper’s performance can best be described by the closing lyric of Friedrich Hollaender’s Black Market – “Enjoy my goods, for boy my goods are hot!”
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