Bruiser Tackle Cabaret at The MAC
From September 16 The MAC transforms into the Kit Kat Klub in this immersive production of the classic musical
In all my time as a journalist, I have never previously found myself sitting, at 10:30am on a normal weekday morning, opposite a man wearing black tights and suspenders, studded leather gloves and smeared-on, morning-after make-up.
But now it has happened: and the man across the table is actually the Belfast-based actor, writer and director Patrick J O’Reilly, fully garbed-up as Emcee, the strutting, provocatively gender-bending character who cues proceedings at the Kit Kat Klub in Cabaret, the iconic stage musical by Kander and Ebb, which first excited audiences on Broadway nearly half a century ago.
The show will come alive again this month in Belfast, in a collaboration between The MAC and Bruiser, one of the city’s punchiest theatre companies. The project has been four years in the making, partly because, says Bruiser artistic director Lisa May, Cabaret is the kind of production that needs a lot of careful planning.
‘It’s not a traditional musical, it’s a concept musical,’ May explains. ‘And therefore the book, the script side, is a really deep, meaty piece of work. The balance between having the big, wham-bam numbers in the Kit Kat Klub, married with normal people struggling with daily life in Weimar Germany – I think that’s the difficulty, so that those scenes don’t go flat, that you thread them together and make them work together in the same space.’
Kerri Quinn, the local actress playing the central part of Sally Bowles, agrees that integrating the upbeat musical numbers with Cabaret’s more serious and sinister content is the major issue confronting any new production. ‘Act Two is so dark from start to finish,’ she comments.
And for Quinn in particular there is another potential difficulty lurking in the shadows. Two brief words define it: Liza Minnelli. For many, Minnelli’s electrifying performance as Sally Bowles in Bob Fosse’s classic 1972 film of the musical is simply unimprovable, and inevitably looms large for any actress creating a new stage performance.
Quinn, though aware that comparisons are inevitable, seems generally unfazed by them. ‘People will have this impression of how Sally is going to be played, and I just hope the audience are prepared, because the stage version is darker, it’s riskier, sexier. There’s more to it than the film.’
Quinn has, moreover, been firmly resisting the temptation to pop a copy of the Cabaret DVD into her player. ‘Leading up to the auditions people were saying to me, "Watch the film". I said, "No, I’m not going to watch the film". I did watch it after I’d been cast, and I loved Liza Minnelli’s performance. I thought it was beautiful – completely wacky, eccentric. She is buck-mad. But we’re going in a completely different direction.’
Quinn found further evidence that Minnelli’s portrayal of Sally Bowles may not exactly be the most reliable template by reading the Berlin novels of Christopher Isherwood, on which the story of Cabaret is founded.
‘Everybody imagines Sally Bowles as being this kind of glamorous girl, but Isherwood’s description of the character is that she had dirty fingernails, she had chipped nail polish. It was like she’d just got up out of bed. Very unglamorous.’
Emcee O’Reilly has been listening patiently all the while, twiddling pensively with the silver-topped cane he’s wielding as a prop this morning. He agrees with his co-star that although the film version of Cabaret is a useful reference point, it should in no way be allowed to shackle or stymie the process of developing a fresh conception of the work for the 21st century.
‘When that film was made,’ he argues, ‘it had to be made for commercial reasons, and decisions were made to appeal to a broader audience, whereas in truth the story of Cabaret is actually a lot grittier, a lot more vulnerable and upsetting. And so I think the route we are taking it down is very truthful.’
The awful truth of Cabaret, the toxin which gradually affects and infiltrates the lives of all its characters is, of course, Nazism, and its brutal, mercilessly authoritarian approach to those in society it disapproves of, or feels the need to eliminate.
It’s an aspect of the work that director May views as crucial to the way she envisages The MAC staging being presented. ‘We want the audience to reflect on what’s happening, to ask themselves, "What would we have done? Would we have stopped this? Would we let this happen again?" With the atrocities going on in the world, it’s very relevant to a modern audience. The message is much stronger in the musical, I think, than it is in the film.’
To draw the audience as viscerally as possible into Cabaret, May’s production will transform the main theatrical space at The MAC into a time-capsule version of the Kit Kat Klub, with audience members sitting at nightclub tables, and encouraged to bring their drinks into the auditorium with them.
This immersive, enveloping approach to Cabaret as a total theatrical experience will, hopes O’Reilly, actively encourage an engagement with its deeper issues, which he views as being of sharp contemporary relevance.
‘If you look at the songs the Emcee sings – ‘Money’, for instance – look at the banks, the government today, poverty is still very much rife, and the themes of live and let live, equality and gay marriage are still just as relevant.’
Cabaret, like any major musical, requires a cast of special talents, able to sing as well as act, dance as well as sing, and in some cases also play instruments. May is confident that she has found them.
‘We auditioned extensively in Belfast and in London,’ she comments, ‘and it was a rigorous audition process. But because we took that time we got a fantastic cast. And you need it, because the actor-musicians are doing everything and it’s exhausting – singing, playing, acting, commenting on the action.
‘It’s been such a warm environment during rehearsals. People are interested in the subject matter, and will research on their own and bring things to the table. And the fact that the principal actors are local – that’s just the way it’s fallen, but it’s absolutely fantastic.’
Cabaret runs at the The MAC, Belfast from September 16 to October 4.