Review: Dancing on the Volcano

Celebrated star, Robyn Archer AO, delves into cabaret from Berlin in the ’20s and ’30s

By Leeor Adar

It was indeed a time to be alive, between two World Wars in Germany, the highs and lows of life were encapsulated in the music of the era. A time marked as a period in the eye of a storm, poets and artists thrived in their joy at the end of 1919, and experienced the rattling descent into Nazi Germany. ‘Dancing on the volcano’ was an apt term for the artistic world of Germany in this period. Kabarett, a German form of political satire was commentary wrapped up in performance – a musical send up of the times.

Providing the historical context of the music only adds to the gravity of its content, and Robyn Archer AO, takes her audience on an educational journey with her long-time collaborators, Michael Morley on piano, and George Butrumlis on accordion.  Delving into the political carnage of the times, kabarett was also intensely concerned with the darker facets of the human identity – murder, sexuality, and obsession. It absolutely exploded in the 1920s, and saw the likes of Bertolt Brecht, Hans Eisler, Kurt Weil and Friedrich Hollaender take centre stage in this dark and electric world. Many of their pieces are performed with a lightness of tone, but deal with child murderers and the disintegration of society.

The performance begins on a pleasant note, with charming and saucy numbers like Kurt Tucholsky’s Anna Luise, which focuses on a man’s reminiscence of his time under a buxom woman’s skirt. However, it is not long before we find ourselves thrust into darker territory, stricken with tales of criminal conduct and the seedy underbelly of Berlin. The collaboration between Weill and Brecht for The Threepenny Opera resulted in the notorious and widely loved Mack the Knife. It was a pleasure to hear Archer perform the classic, and a special note must be made to Morley’s piano playing with this piece, perhaps cementing itself as my favourite rendition.

Archer relishes in the humour of the music, and her gestures throughout send her audience into fits of laughter even when a grandmother is being slain in Frank Wedekind’s Granny Murderer. The tongue in cheek humour of kabarett often savagely dealt with the cruelties of the world, something Archer clearly appreciates. This is most notable in her powerful performance of Friedrich Hollaender’s The Jews. Archer’s performance descends into the fist and head shaking notorious of a certain Chancellor, that when she finally lays the blame on multiple minorities in a final crash, she utterly rattles her audience. We are experiencing a rise of similar attitudes in our present day. Such is the power of the kabarett.

The delivery is overall strong, however I find the occasional phrasing in English leaves Archer breathless, as the translations don’t always flow so well. I appreciated when Archer would occasionally croon in perfect German – another example of her expansive skill as a performer. I must note here though, it would be harsh to expect a non-German speaking audience to grasp the subtle and brilliant flashes of truth conveyed in the words, and so much of Dancing on the Volcano is an ode to the power of words.

After the dark turns with The Jews and Brecht and Hans Eisler’s tragic horse in Falladah, the audience is both exhausted and in need of an injection of hope. Anticipating this need, Archer ends with Brecht and Eisler’s once again in the wonderful Bilbao Song.

I exited with greater knowledge and some joy from the night out, but also exited imagining a society ripping apart the horse it once loves stays on with me.

Dancing on the Volcano was performed at Arts Centre  Melbourne 9 – 11 July.