City Recital Hall, August 22
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The euphoria of the end of the war to end all wars – with its consequent artistic, social and sexual bravado – collided with the crunch of the Great Depression and then impaled itself on the rise of Nazism. Yes, the Weimar Republic had it all, and so did its songs.
While this material has been mother’s milk to Robyn Archer’s career, here her intent was less about replicating or celebrating an era of intense creativity than of warning of the potential for history to repeat itself, with the jaws of the extreme Right snapping shut on liberties the world over, while, as she put it, promising “growth and jobs”. That’s why she called her show Dancing on the Volcano: no pirouette pulls us back once we have stepped over the lip.
Archer presented the material chronologically, and, of course, no figure was more central to this repertoire than Bertolt Brecht, with and without his musical alter ego, Kurt Weill. A highlight was Moritat (Mack the Knife), so many singers (Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and more) having sweetened with glib swing a song that gloats in the shadows of menace.
From another defining songwriter of the era, Friedrich Hollaender, came a worldly and world-weary Falling in Love Again and, even better, Eine Kleine Sehnsucht (A Little Daydream), a beguiling song darkened by the first silhouette of Hitler. Walter Mehring’s spoken The Stock Exchange Song savagely indicted the Depression’s causes, and Hollaender’s The Jews even more furiously satirised anti-Semitism.
For The Bilbao Song (an encore) Archer suddenly ushered in a quality previously lacking: one of the paint peeling off the walls of these songs. As good as she was, too often this had felt like a polite recital rather than a show to leave us gasping for air and drained of blood. Similarly her accompanists, Michael Morley (piano) and George Butrumlis (accordion), were super-competent, but eagerly filled holes, where sparsity may have been more haunting.