Singer and Weimar conservationist Annie Lee presents the songs of Anges Bernelle (1923-1999) in Lighthouse Berlin at this year’s Melbourne Cabaret Festival. What lighthouse is this that illuminates with such darkly compelling, twisted energy?
To answer this question, it may help to know something of the times that fomented the music. Lee (also Mourne of musical comedy troupe The Kransky Sisters) was gifted a conduit to these many years ago through a tape of Bernelle’s songs. Bernelle, daughter of a Jewish/Hungarian librettist mother and a Berlin Theatre owner father, had a childhood at the epicentre of Weimar Republic poetry.
Poets such as Joachim Ringelnatz and Klabund called at the family home to rehearse their gigs for her father’s cabaret club: The Naughty Boys. As the 1930s wore on, Nazis considered the political protests of these poets more than troublesome, some being declared degenerate artists and having their books burnt. With the onset of the Second World War, Bernelle and her father fled to England, starting her involvement in propaganda against the fatherland. She began to translate Weimar poetry into English and set it to music, starting the chain of events that would lead Lee to contact Bernelle, and the two to become friends.
Under the direction of Michael Forde, the story of Bernelle’s diverse life, interspersed with her songs and Lee’s reminiscences of their life-affirming friendship, makes Lighthouse Berlin an utterly authentic cabaret experience. Those only familiar with Lee’s character Mourne, will see that Lee is capable of a much wider range of emotions, from vein-popping musical fulminations to the solitary burden of conflicted loyalties Bernelle experienced upon her return to Berlin twenty years after the war.
As for the stories wrapped in music, here’s meat for the intellect that requires more chewing than some shows this festival. The Weimar poets were intellectuals in the original sense, pursuing ideas regardless of their moral or legal standing. Bernelle’s songs continue that disregard for convention as they play out in unexpected ways, and we were suitably advised by Lee that this would be a “nutty” night. Nutty ¾ but not insane ¾ as the songs exposed human compromises; the teacher of ideas who learns to be quiet and love his chains, the woman looking for love who allows herself to be bought. With Queensland musician Salliana Campbell on piano and atmospheric Scandinavian keyed violin, the tales had the metallic taste of dreams put to the sword, of crescendos diminished, and, more hopefully, of cruelty and come-uppance.
The only discord to be found in this show was in the lyrics. This lovingly prepared tribute to Bernelle was a captivating story with music as an integral part. It was good to see that Campbell was given some opportunity to play solo and show the range of her talents.
It is not often that I could see a show again, but with so much unfamiliar, I would welcome a repeat viewing to help me retain the textures of the experience. Officialdom still tries to intimidate its critics, indifference still makes us complicit in the erosion of freedom, and Lee and Campbell know that lighthouses are still needed to alert us to forgotten perils of the past. See them before they’re exiled.
Melbourne Cabaret Festival 2015: Lighthouse Berlin
The Loft – Chapel Off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran
Performance: Saturday 20 June 2015
Season: 19 – 21 June 2015
For more information, visit: www.melbournecabaret.com for details.
Image: Annie Lee in Lighthouse Berlin – photo by Sean Young
Review: Jason Whyte