Rendezvous with Marlene

Ute Lemper
RLN Music
Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester

Ute Lemper

There is a rather excellent podcast entitled, Something Rhymes with Purple which entertains and informs through etymological dissections of words familiar and unfamiliar. (Excellent, that is provided the mere sound of Gyles Brandreth’s voice doesn’t provoke you to thoughts of murder—for it is he, in tandem with the gifted lexicographer, Susie Dent)

Were Gyles and Susie ever to tackle the word ‘consummate’ in its adjectival form, as in the phrase ‘consummate artist’, they would no doubt tell us that it derives from the Latin roots ‘con’ (meaning ‘altogether’) and ‘summa’ (meaning, in this context, ‘supreme’).

Alternatively, for the several hundred of us packed into the RNCM’s theatre for Rendezvous with Marlene, the true meaning of ‘consummate’ has to be ‘Ute Lemper’.

Developed from an actual 1987 phone conversation between Lemper (then 24 years old) and the aged (but clearly still compos mentis) star of Weimar Germany and Hollywood, Rendezvous with Marlene is two and a half hours of wonder and delight.

Lemper enters in a black gown, split almost to the hip, singing Marlene’s song, “Falling in Love Again” in Marlene’s deep, dulcet tones before shifting multiple gears (and keys) to scat with that precision and vocal range that is her own trademark.

Lemper frames her show with a brief (impressive and amusingly recited) autobiography of her own, before leading us into her “rendezvous” with Marlene.

At the time, the 86-year-old Dietrich was dwelling reclusively in her Parisian apartment, with barely enough cash to keep her beloved Moët & Chandon flowing once a week.

“It prickles,” she tells Lemper, attempting to communicate the enduring sensory delights of drinking champagne.

Lemper had written to Dietrich out of humility, begging her pardon for critical reviews drawing comparisons between the young upstart and the Grande Dame of cabaret and silver screen.

She wasn’t expecting a reply, especially by telephone, and wasn’t quite sure how to handle it. The mere suggestion she might be allowed to ask questions met with a firm rebuke:

““This is not an interview,” snapped Dietrich down the line, “I just want to talk. About myself.”

And talk, she does, with wit and verve and unapologetic frankness.

If I speak as though Dietrich is there on stage tonight, that is because Lemper makes us feel this. Her embodiment of ‘the woman of the future’ (as she calls Dietrich) is so persuasive one feels that to call it acting is almost to undervalue it. Both women are there onstage. (Edith Piaf also makes a brief “appearance”—Lemper’s sorcery here is equally unfussy, equally compelling).

We should take a moment to pay tribute to Lemper’s stamina and powers of concentration. One woman (with a very fine quartet of musicians) holding an audience rapt for two and a half hours, during which she barely falters. (For prospective audience members of lesser stamina, let me reassure you, there is a fifteen minute interval after the opening ninety-minute set).

Of course, a good deal of the captivation is due to the incredible autobiography of Lemper’s subject and her deliciously aphoristic manner of telling it.

“If I had my time again, I would make all the same mistakes only start earlier, so I could enjoy them more.”

The brutal, unflinching honesty (both given and taken):

“Your legs aren’t that good, Marlene. You just know what to do with them,” said her dear friend, Billy Wilder.

The name dropping (hey, if Marlene can’t, who can?!) Gable, Carole Lombard, JFK, George Bernard Shaw, Burt Bacharach, Mae West… and dozens more, many of them (male and female) her lovers.

The demands:

“No Dior, no Marlene.” (This to Alfred Hitchcock: “I got my Dior, he got his Marlene.”)

Even the most prolific of lovers, living the most open of marriages, was always bound to have someone special, the love of her life. For Marlene, this was the great French actor, Jean Gabin—a passionate and turbulent affair.

“Come over,” says Gabin, at one point in Marlene’s account, “I have whisky. We can fight all we want.”

The pain of their break-up (due to his desire to be a father) stays with her. Her rendition of Jacques Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas” is one of the evening’s most beautiful and tender moments.

The rendezvous does not shy away from two other sources of pain in Dietrich’s life. One is her estrangement from her daughter, Maria, whom she had to bribe to postpone publication of a hostile biography until after her death. The other is her fraught relationship with her homeland—so cultured, so monstrous.

The fact that Dietrich’s decision to relocate to Hollywood, take US citizenship and work for the Americans in World War Two was down to her intense hatred of the Nazis was not sufficient excuse for many of her compatriots. Right wing protests and stink bombs accompanied her rare post-war returns to Berlin. Even her funeral (attended by Lemper) had to be low-key.

“My soul belongs to France, my heart to England. Germany can have my dead body.”

The set is simple: downstage left, a single armchair, draped with throws, surrounded with bottles of booze and Lemper’s album (which Dietrich bought). Occasional back projections (mainly of the war and of postwar Berlin in ruins). Other than that, it’s just Ute and her quartet of exceptional musicians—“my boys” as she calls them, with warmth rather than condescension. What a team they are!

Ute Lemper. She acts, she sings, she dances.

Altogether supreme.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson