Joining the Berlin Party – The exhibition: Happy in Berlin?

Postcard from Christopher Isherwood to Stephen Spender. (c) Oxford, Bodleian Librarries, MS. Spender 53 – Photo: Sabine Schereck

The exhibition ‘Happy in Berlin?’ follows in the footsteps of a small party of literati Brits in Berlin. It’s fittingly presented at the Literaturhaus (Literature House) in Berlin. Christopher Isherwood and Vita Sackville-West lead the way.

When you enter the grand building, the tune of ‘Exactly like You’, sung by Louis Armstrong in 1930, transports you back to the period while you climb the stairs to the first floor where the exhibition rooms lie. The staircase, with its dark vintage wallpaper, already makes you feel as if you were in one of the tenements Christopher describes in ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ as “monumental safes”. The first image that greets you shows a vending machine providing information for tourists. A choice of 180 buttons offered the visitor different addresses of shops, police stations, consulates, theatres etc – all free of charge. Who knew that these existed in 1925?

Staircase leading to the exhibition – Photo: Sabine Schereck

Various quotes accompany you en route to the first floor, among them “Paris is the place to loaf in; London is the place to work in; Berlin is the place to do great things in with great, grand gestures” from John Chancellor’s 1929 travel guide ‘How to be Happy in Berlin’, which also lends the exhibition its title. Chancellor was the penname of the British crime writer Ernest Charles de Balzac Rideaux Willett (1900–71). A quote by Eddy Sackville-West, taken from a letter to E.M. Forster in 1928, reveals: “[Berlin is] triumphantly, aboundingly ugly – so ugly that the mind is left quite free to pursue its own fantasies, unhindered by Beautiful Buildings. […] I was dragged about at night from one homosexual bar to another. The behaviour is perfectly open. There are even large dance spaces for inverts. And some of the people one sees, huge men with breast like women & faces like Ottoline, dressed as female Spanish dancers.”

Exhibition ‘Happy in Berlin?’ – Photo: Sabine Schereck

The exhibition at the Literaturhaus is mainly made up of two rooms. The first introduces you to the addresses which were key to the visitors presented. Among these places was the radio tower, constructed in 1926 and a symbol of Berlin’s progressiveness. Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf dined in its restaurant, high above the city, when Virginia came for a visit. There are also the cabaret The Eldorado, the hottest joint in the city where queer folk enjoyed Berlin’s decadent night life, and the Cozy Corner, a shabby working-class gay bar and one of Christopher’s favourite haunts. The coffee house culture, represented by the famous Café des Westens and the Romanische Café, contributes another aspect to the life of Berlin’s bohème. At their tables, news and jobs were brokered. Psychoanalyst and Bloomsbury Group member Alix Strachey spent many happy hours at the Romanische Café reading, writing and soaking up its vibrant atmosphere. A lesser-known attraction of Berlin’s cultural life was Russian cinema. Soviet films were censored in Britain but could be seen in German cinemas.

Camera from the 1930s – Photo: Sabine Schereck

The second room immerses the visitor into Christopher’s world. A postcard from him to Stephen Spender is displayed and you can listen over headphones to the message on the card, read by Justin Reddig. Various objects in the room are linked to passages from ‘Goodbye to Berlin’. A camera with photos of his lovers prompt the lines: “I am a camera with its shutters open…” A projector shows extracts from films, which Christopher would have seen, e.g. ‘Pandora’s Box’ (1929) and ‘Comradeship’ (1931). The latter is set in a miners’ milieu and pictures the men with their well-built bodies taking a thorough shower after work; certainly a very pleasing scene to Christopher and his friends. A small radio by the exit stands for an interview with Christopher and it’s touching to hear his voice.

Literaturhaus Berlin – Photo: Sabine Schereck

While Christopher felt very much at home in Berlin, Vita and Virginia were more reserved towards the rough city. Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell captures Vita’s feeling in a letter to her son Julian Bell in 1929: “Vita is in a state of rage and despair. She hates the Germans, who don’t let her take her dog for a walk freely, drive in her car without passing 3 medical exams or do any of the things she likes […] The Germans are ugly, incredibly badly dressed, kind. The food tasteless. I begin to long for France.”

The exhibition section at the Humboldt University in Berlin – Photo: Sabine Schereck

Although, it is always nice to be in Christopher’s company and to catch a glimpse of Vita’s aristocratic life, it would have been nice to learn a bit more about Eddy Sackville-West’s or Alix Strachey’s adventures in Berlin. Also, painfully absent from what is otherwise a gem of an exhibition, curated by Stefano Evangelista and Gesa Stedman, is the lesbian scene with its clubs, such as the Violetta Club or the Topkeller, which Vita might have explored during her stay. The exhibition would have equally benefitted from a slightly wider angle, including the American writer Margaret Goldsmith, Vita Sackville-West’s lover in Berlin, who later moved to London. She wrote the 1928 novel ‘Patience geht vorüber’, a lesbian romance with a love triangle. She is only briefly mentioned in a different part of this exhibition, located miles away at the Humboldt University. That section covers the areas Politics, Psychoanalysis and Pleasure, which are described as three ‘major draws to British writers to Berlin in the early 20th century’. It revolves around lesser-known figures such as Evelyn, Countess Blücher, Alix Strachey, Elizabeth Wiskemann and Diana Mosley, and delves deeper into the circle of Brits in Berlin.

Introduction to the exhibition ‘Happy in Berlin?’ – Photo: Sabine Schereck

Happy in Berlin?’ is a joint project between the Literaturhaus, the Centre for British Studies at the Humboldt University and Oxford University, where the Bodleian Library focused, until 11 July, on the political clashes between Communists and Fascists as seen by Stephen Spender.

The exhibition is accompanied by a series of talks, which can still be followed online on its Youtube channel.

In addition there is the website ‘Berlin through English Eyes, an ongoing project set up by the makers of the exhibition.

Also, if you want to find out what exactly John Chancellor recommended to his fellow countrymen, a PDF version of his book is available online.

Last but not least, something to take home and keep after the displays have been taken down on 31 July 2021, is the catalogue to accompany the exhibition: ‘Happy in Berlin? English Writers in the City. The 1920s and Beyond’.

By Sabine Schereck

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True Blue – Review: Torch Song at The Turbine Theatre

Torch Song is the inaugural production of The Turbine Theatre, which is based in a new development next to Battersea Power Station.

Matthew Needham in Torch Song – Photo: Mark Senior

New York in the late 1970s. It has a buzzing nightlife, where gay men can be at ease – but not every gay man has the same aspirations. Arnold is longing for someone to set up home with and share his life. He works as a drag queen, which already is a sign of his gentle nature, but also one that does not make any compromises: “I am, what I am,” to quote a fellow drag queen from that period, Albin in La Cage aux Folles. Dignity is something Arnold values highly.

Arnold meets Ed, but his dreams are shattered, when Ed decides he is better off with a woman at his side. Of course, he loves her… but differently from the way he feels about Arnold, to whom he can truly open up his heart. Arnold’s heart, however, has gone through too many agonies already to let himself in with someone who does not stand up for what he feels – because Arnold knows exactly what he feels and even dares to dream of a fulfilled life, which includes, for example, adopting a child… New York was the first state at the time to accept gay applicants.

Dino Fetscher and Matthew Needham in Torch Song – Photo: Mark Senior

The Turbine Theatre shows an abridged version of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, hence only Torch Song. The trilogy version was first shown on Broadway in 1982, and revived to great acclaim not too long ago at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, in 2012, with David Bedella playing Arnold. Fierstein revised the piece two years ago.

It’s a magnificent play with lots of witty lines, which capture the complexities of human relationships in a very heartfelt way. At the same time, it offers a telling picture of gay life and the continuing struggle within a predominantly straight society, even after gay liberation in the early 1970s.

The first act deals with Arnold and Ed’s fraught relationship, which stays within the gay community; the second branches out and includes Ed’s wife, who considers it ‘cool’ to get to know Ed’s former boyfriend; and, by the third act, Arnold’s dream has finally come true, but we also see an example of the cruel reality that the gay community was still exposed to. Arnold’s lover was brutally killed and sparks fly when his Jewish mother (Bernice Stegers), visiting from Florida, regards it as a catastrophe that Arnold, as a gay man, should raise a child. It’s clearly the strongest act, with emotions running high, but also with Arnold’s adopted teenage son (Jay Lycurgo) bringing a refreshing playfulness and lightness to the piece, which counteracts the family drama. He is a joy to watch.

Matthew Needham and Jay Lycurgo in Torch Song – Photo: Mark Senior

Matthew Needbham’s Arnold has a slender figure, which gives him an air of vulnerability. His relative youth also adds a different twist to the story. You can sense his struggle to find a meaningful relationship but also his anger at life. Unfortunately this comes at a cost and more varied and nuanced tones would have been welcome. A performance highlight is his sexual adventure in the backroom of a nightclub, which is truly funny and sad at the same time.

After having choreographed and directed major musicals on Broadway and in the West End, Drew McOnie now stages his first play. It’s a pleasant production, but the brilliance of Fierstein’s humour and humanity could have been brought out more to let the characters sparkle.

Nevertheless, it’s great to be reminded of this masterpiece and to share it with a younger generation.

Torch Song runs at The Turbine Theatre until 13 October.

By Sabine Schereck

For more information about the play, Out In South London spoke to David Bedella in July 2012.

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Souls of an Unbuilt City – Review: The Unbuilt City

Jonathan Chambers and Sandra Dickinson in The Unbuilt City – PND Photography

Keith Bunin’s play The Unbuilt City receives its European premiere at the King’s Head Theatre.

Brooklyn. Jonah (Jonathan Chambers) has come to visit Claudia (Sandra Dickinson) one Saturday afternoon to inspect her collection. He hopes to acquire it for the university archive. Yet it is unclear what her collection actually consists of – there has been rumour of an ‘unbuilt city’. Will he find out the truth?

This is a wonderfully moving, funny and thoughtful play, brilliantly brought to life by Jonathan Chambers and Sandra Dickinson, under the direction of Glen Walford.

Jonah has to tread carefully. Most elderly ladies can be persuaded to part with their collections through the means of attention and flattery, but Claudia turns the tables on him. She also wants to find out about his life, so we not only hear about her background as an immigrant, which shaped the person she is today, but also about his story. It is a journey into the past to understand their hopes, dreams and fears and enables the audience to sympathise with them.

It also reveals the humour of everyday life, when, for example, Jonah talks about working in an archive, where boxes are unpacked, and he explains the skill of removing staples without damaging the paper. It’s a joy to hear his passion about archives, which offer journalists and historians unexpected and inspirational finds.

Claudia however has a less idealistic view of archives. She feels sorry for the orphaned pieces being trapped in a dark padlocked room.

The play explores what we do with our lives and whether it actually matters. Claudia came to recognise that while she had no talent for the arts, she did have the talent to recognise art, and so she devoted her life to supporting it. Although she has had a rich life, a hole remains in the form of a companion to share it with, and so she is accompanied by a deep sense of longing. This is something Jonah shares, foregrounded especially when Claudia asks him: ‘Who is waiting for you when you come home?’ Jonah is gay, he doesn’t need to hide in the closet anymore. He has his romantic adventures, but nothing lasts. He devotes himself to the book he would like to write. And if Claudia were to sell the collection, a small percentage would fall to him – enough to buy himself the time to write it. But the question of money brings more twists and turns and their story remains engaging to the very end.

It is refreshing to watch a contemporary yet timeless play with characters you care about, questions that leave you thinking and a performance you are grateful you saw.

The Unbuilt City runs at the King’s Head Theatre until 30 June.

By Sabine Schereck


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Entertaining with Splendour and the Spectacular

Milano from the series Fratelli d’Italia. Photo: Matthias Schaller

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is the V&A’s latest big exhibition. These keywords might underlie the genre itself but not necessarily the exhibition. Its draw is the worlds of the different periods that are brought to life and form the context of the seven operas that are presented. Ground-breaking works in the history of opera – from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea in Venice in 1643 to Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Leningrad in 1934. In between we stop at Handel’s Rinaldo in London, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro in Vienna, Verdi’s Nabucco in Milan, Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Paris and Strauss’ Salomé in Dresden.

Venice dection of the exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics. Photo: V&A

The visitor steps into a dimly lit passage way that introduces him/her to the Venice of the 17th century. A buzzing city by the sea, where the trade market is flourishing and rich merchants and sailors seek pleasure and entertainment alike. One of them is the emerging opera. Public opera houses not only showed off the owners’ wealth but were also a profitable business. The city’s carnival already provided a good ground for entertainment and an eager audience. Pictures, instruments, costumes, accessories, scores, maps, letters and stories bring time and place to life. For example that there was a blurry line between female singers/performers and courtesans, and paitings often showed musicians with well-shaped bosoms as in the picture The Viola da Gamba Musician.

London section of Opera: Passion, Power and Politics. Photo: V&A

Handel’s London of 1711 shines with an enchanting replica of Italian stagecraft that shows a scene from Rinaldo: Il Vostro Maggio in which a ship crosses a stormy sea inhabited by mermaids. Rolling waves, changing light moods and moving clouds give the perfect illusion of the journey.

An interesting note is that theatres often worked with retired sailors, who were experts in handling the ropes that are a vital part of the rigging system backstage. Alongside we are introduced to influential people of the time such as Queen Anne, who supported the art. We also learn what controversies the Italian-style opera caused in London and why the story of Rinaldo resonated with its audience.

Vienna section of Opera: Passion, Power and Politics. Photo: V&A

Although opera is now regarded as highbrow, in Mozart’s days it was less so. Of course, it might not have been an entertainment of the masses as we understand it today, but back then it was part of popular culture as Mozart makes clear in his writing. After the success of his Le Nozze di Figaro in Vienna in 1786, he visits Prague and remarks that the songs of his opera are just sung everywhere.

The exciting thing about this exhibition is that it allows you to discover the periods and explore the relationships between the operas and their times and find out why they were so revolutionary – an aspect we nowadays don’t associate with this art form. It gives a cunning insight into social history, for example when the servants in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro receive the same dramatic value as their masters rather than just being comic figures. Verdi’s Nabucco in Milan in 1842 captures the Italians’ desire for independence while striving for national identity and unity. Strauss’ Salome, which premiered in Dresden in 1905, presents a woman with her sexuality, which shocked the public. Freud’s occupation with hysteria and psychology made headlines at that time. Almost 30 years later in Leningrad, a woman’s sexual desires are still a hot topic in Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk. However, despite the new image and emancipation that women experienced in the 1920s, the fact that the main character kills a few men along the way to be with her lover did not sit comfortably with Stalin’s image of the Soviet Union that he wanted to create and the opera was banned.

Leningrad section of Opera: Passion, Power and Politics. Photo: V&A

In addition to the wider picture, the exhibition also positions the operas in the context of their composers’ lives. Its strength is also that it does not burden you with mountains of information but offers short and easily digestible notes on the wall – like a scrap book, where the bullet points are spelled out. That refers to the time as well as to the operas, where it is explained why this opera is so significant.

There’s music, too, of course. What would opera be without it? It comes through headphones. Yet it’s hard to take in all the fascinating exhibits while listening to music, if you are not familiar with the subject as in my case. Opera admittedly does not belong to my pastimes, so the music is only sampled in short extracts.

Nevertheless, the exhibition is highly recommendable as it makes opera not only accessible to an opera ignoramus like me, but apparently also appeals to connoisseurs. So, you don’t need to be an opera expert, or even a fan of the art form, to appreciate this exhibition, which itself has the grandeur of an opera.

It was curated by Kate Bailey and realised in collaboration with the Royal Opera House.

The exhibition is on until 25 February 2018.

By Sabine Schereck

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Naomi Paxton speaks to the creators of The Blue Hour of Natalie Barney

Sex, affairs and literary wit are at the centre of The Blue Hour of Natalie Barney at the Arcola Theatre. Barney was an American poet who moved to Paris in 1898 and ran a literary salon for over 60 years. She lived an openly lesbian life, counting Romaine Brooks, Renée Vivien and Dolly Wilde  among her many lovers.

Frances Bingham wrote this one-woman-play, which is performed by Amanda Boxer. Naomi Paxton spoke to both after the opening night and discovers how they brought this witty, adventurous and courageous woman to life.

The Blue Hour of Natalie Barney runs at the Arcola Theatre until 11 November and is available as a book.

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