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Effigies of Wickedness

Lyrics by Seiriol Davies from a literal translation by David Tushingham except Paragraph 218 and Solidarity Song
Gate Theatre, English National Opera
Gate Theatre

The cast of Effigies of Wickedness Credit: Helen Murray
Peter Brathwaite Credit: Helen Murray
Katie Bray Credit: Helen Murray

In a very fine performance created by the Gate Theatre in collaboration with the English National Opera, Effigies of Wickedness is a selection of German cabaret songs dating from 1922 to 1939 which were banned in Nazi Germany.

The songs, often wittily satirical, are interspersed with brief comments about their social context along with a good deal of playful humour that encourages audience involvement by perhaps helping a performer put on a costume or introducing a song.

The show’s mood shifts from an early confident celebration of difference to a later sombre unsettling tension.

The performers arrive to the stage singing joyfully, “we are the buds who are a little different.” Party poppers scatter bits of coloured paper and flowers are thrown into the audience.

The early numbers reflect a rich confident Weimar culture that inspired the world.

There is the upbeat Spoliansky and Schwabach’s “Lavender Song” of 1920 which is regarded as the first gay anthem.

If you lived in Berlin at that time with its many gay clubs and a number of transgender clubs, the threat from the political right could seem very far away, particularly since the combined left of SPD and KPD numbered over a million members.

In contrast, Adolf Hitler had the year before become the fifty-fifth member of what was to become the Nazi party.

However, the detonating economic climate brought discontent with big corporations and increasing social conflict.

Weill and Gasbarra attack the oil companies in the 1928 “Petroleum Song (Mussels in Margate)”.

In an extraordinary, moving performance, Katie Bray sings Brecht and Eisler’s “Paragraph 218” which asserts a woman’s right to abortion against the doctors who insist “You're going to be a lovely little mother/You're going to make a lump of cannon fodder."

The lights are gently lowered on her song as they are raised on the other side of the stage to Peter Brathwaite delivering Brecht and Eisler’s “Solidarity Song”.

This sequence concludes with Le Gateau Chocolat slowly emerging from the audience singing “Munchhausen” which in each verse claims wondrous things happen from cacti bearing fruit to a legal system that didn’t discriminate against people on the basis of race or wealth.

The rest of the cast respond with the words “Lair Liar Liar Liar...” “But how I wish your lies were true.”

In February 1933, the Nazis won 43.9% of the vote and, becoming the government, proceeded to ban other political parties along with books and songs.

Hundreds of laws were introduced to exclude Jewish people from any kind of life including “interracial” relationships.

Brecht and Eisler’s 1939 “Ballad of Marie Sanders” depicts a woman caught sleeping with the wrong kind of man being driven round the city with a shaved head denoting her shame.

The cast leave the stage singing again the words that began the show: “we are the buds who are a little different.”

This time they do so in anger as defiant outlaws banned by the State.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna