Effigies of Wickedness at the Gate Theatre
History lessons aren’t normally this fun. Effigies of Wickedness (Songs Banned by the Nazis) is a strange beast: a co-production between the ENO and the Gate Theatre, it’s a cabaret extravaganza more usually seen in likes of the Soho Theatre or Royal Vauxhall Tavern than in either of the involved venues – not that the Gate’s intimate black broom cupboard chic is an ill-fitting setting for this underground revue.
Developed from an idea by performer Peter Brathwaite – and knocked into shape by dramaturg Christopher Green, with typically witty lyrics from literal translations by How to Win at History’s Seiriol Davies – the show is constructed from those tunes deemed too queer, too black, too Jewish, too “spiritually insipid” and degenerate to exist in Hitler’s Germany.
As it should be, the musical is messy and chaotic, a tonally shape-shifting shaggy dog that director Ellen McDougall in no way seeks to sanitise or tidy up. Acting as both historical guides and attention-seeking divas – and at times like kids playing a gloriously decadent game of dress-up – the four performers carry the audience through a chronological tour of this once-banned repertoire, sprinkling in factual context and self-promotion as they go along. The choice to organise the songs year by year leads to a gradual accumulation of dramatic and emotional heft, as the realities of the era become more pronounced and persecution is embedded in law.
While all the leads do sterling work – Katie Bray’s closing The Ballad of Marie Sanders, Brathwaite’s moody Fox Macabre and Le Gateau Chocolat’s touching Munchhausen are highlights – the play belongs to Lucy McCormick. The actress instigates most of the production’s numerous instances of audience interaction, bursting her head through the crumbling fourth wall to keep things from dipping in some of the more talky moments, while best exhibiting the piece’s duelling silly and serious sensibilities. On one hand, there’s the sublime clowning of Sex Appeal; on the other, there’s Paragraph 218 (Abortion is Illegal), a chilling dialogue between a helpless mother-to-be and a sneering, patronising doctor that hardly feels like a period piece given laws in places like Ireland and Texas.
Those involved have done a careful job in preventing Effigies of Wickedness from being merely a riotous run-through of a forgotten slice of history. The show is not only a haunting celebration of voices almost erased from the record books, but a timely reminder of the brutal cost of despotic leaders terrified of criticism and far right ideologies made apoplectic by difference.
Photo: Helen Murray
Effigies of Wickedness is at the Gate Theatre from 3rd May until 9th June 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.