Weird Jazz and Weimar Punk
Review by ZENOBIA FROST
Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse, July 11–14
A “real punk”, Agnes Bernelle (1923–1999) is a hero of the Weimar Republic cabaret era: translator, performer, and WWII spy. She grew up in the company of Weimar poets (Berthold Brecht, Joachim Ringelnatz, Klablund and Aunt Tilly — Frank Wedekind’s widow — among them) and transposed their work into English to be sung in underground cabaret joints with “transvestite choir girls and weird jazz” and, later, with performers as diverse as Elvis Costello and Tom Waits.
The Kranksy Sisters’ Annie Lee was a personal friend of Bernelle, who, on her deathbed in Ireland, entrusted Lee with her musical legacy. Lee’s love of Bernelle lights up the Powerhouse’s Visy Theatre, here transformed into a cabaret den. It’s the venue’s most effective use to date; behind the stage, the back room is smoky with sultry lights illuminating graffiti and Weimar-era posters. The three-piece band (John Rodgers, Sallie Campbell and Rob Davidson) shares the stage with fairground horses in miniature.
Lee, a trim figure in a newsprint dress with a strong, effortless voice, evokes the joyous menace of Weimar-era cabaret. In line with Bernelle’s lyrical content, the show is by turns sensitive and subversive. Lee directs the tribute through a mix of memoir and song that, while captivating, isn’t 100% smooth yet. But this is only Dangling My Tootsies’ second night, and any transition issues will surely resolve themselves.
Bernelle’s songs are, as it turns out (I had never heard of her), very memorable indeed. Though she released three albums between 1977 and 1988, they seem (according to Google) quite hard to track down — a crying shame, because I’ve been singing morsels of them non-stop since Thursday’s show. Murder ballad Hurdy Gurdy (lyrics by Jacques Prevert) is delightfully sadistic — as is the song during which Lee has the band play, supine, on the floor after a (simulated) car crash. The Horse (Joachim Ringelnatz) is particularly splendid, as is the eponymous Tootsies (Klablund).
Dangling My Tootsies is a dark, shimmering, wide-eyed homage to the music, poetry, and aesthetic of the Weimar Republic, as well as to Agnes Bernelle herself. There’s a twist in Bernelle’s tale: in her role as secret radio agent, broadcasting coded messages to allied forces in Germany, she had a hand in the destruction of the architecture of Weimar cabaret. Her father’s theatres in Berlin were reduced to rubble and glitter to be cleared away by the Trümmerfrauen. Cabaret was collateral damage to Berlin’s surrender, and so an era came to an end.
In Queensland in 2012, art’s intrinsic value is under scrutiny. The audience’s standing ovation tonight saluted Bernelle as a symbol of art’s significance and worth — a heart-warming thing in Brisbane. Weimar-era cabaret allowed counterculturalists and artists to communicate with the people. It stood for beauty, weirdness, and the exquisite grotesque, and illuminated the strength of the human spirit.
Five-minute follow-up: ANNIE LEE
ZF: How can we hear more Agnes Bernelle — or Annie Lee performing Bernelle’s music? We want more!
AL: That’s lovely to hear. You can check out more about Agnes at online at agnesbernelle.net. Unfortunately the CDs are out of print and hard to get. I will put out a recording as soon as I can get around to it.
ZF: The Visy was completely transformed into a sultry cabaret space. In what ways did the space complete the picture for you?
AL: It was my good friend and mentor Donald Hall who suggested to me that I should open up the Visy right to the graffiti-covered back wall, and it worked so well. It helped give the atmosphere of a Berlin back street and gave it a depth and rawness that suited well the type of cabaret I was performing. Just what the good Doctor Theatre ordered.
ZF: Years ago, a German audience member told you that she was intrigued by (and cynical of) an Australian performing German cabaret. How do you feel as an Australian performing music so closely tied to its origins?
AL: Well, I love Germany. I love German art and culture from the 1920s and ‘30s. I love German writing, plays and poetry of that period. I speak some German — I’ve gone out with Germans and I have German descendants. So it feels totally natural to me to be performing what I feel in my bones. If we look back, I think a lot of us can find a connection with European culture in some way or other. For me, it’s the writing and the art, and the feel of the place — the history. It makes me feel at home.
If you rather liked the sound of Dangling My Tootsies, RRAMP features another Kranksy Sister, Christine Johnson, telling stories of love, loss and chicken romance through animation, metal and dance. Brisbane Powerhouse. Jul 25–28. Ph: 3358 8670 / www.brisbanepowerhouse.org