By Virginia Proud
Until March 5 at the Butterfly Club, audiences have an opportunity to enjoy an evening with the fabulous Marlene Dietrich. Award-winning German actor and cabaret performer Uschi Felix, brings us a portrayal of a woman celebrated for her looks (and legs) who confounded expectations, not only of the Hollywood patriarchy, but of her native Germany during WWII. Opposing the fascists, which included resisting the persistent ardour of Goebbels, Dietrich threw her fortune into helping Jews escape the regime, and proudly served the US armed forces.
Felix’s Marlene does not take herself seriously, she understands the artifice, she acknowledges the legend. In a tiny dressing room in Sydney, preparing for her final performance, she delves into her past, delivering a living autobiography. We first meet her robed and in a hair net; she reminds us that ‘becoming Marlene’ takes effort… and alcohol. Repeated visits to her whiskey bottle and glass remind us why this is a woman for whom cocktails are named. At 74, she is reconciled to many things, but is still roused by bad lighting, and indignant at perceived injustice of her daughter’s biography, although as she says, she fared better than Crawford.
This a superbly controlled performance by Felix, under the excellent direction of Sara Grenfell, that avoids any hint of caricature and allows the life of Dietrich to shine in the telling of it. Her voice, low and melancholic with a vibrato reminiscent of the era, breathes life into the songs that illustrate Dietrich’s story.
What best illustrates this story, however, is the iconic image of Dietrich courtesy of Josef von Sternberg’s classic film Shanghai Express. Sternberg is the reputed Svengali to her Trilby and key to the Dietrich narrative.
More iconic images and scenes are to come. The set, half intimate dressing room and half a floor to ceiling projection screen is, at first glance, an awkward staging. Yet the photographs, movie snippets and a credit roll of life’s events and encounters, proves a critical aspect of the performance, often to great comic effect. The video itself was very curated, and thankfully not overused. Perhaps in a different venue a more sophisticated AV staging could have been achieved.
As someone for whom Dietrich’s life is largely unknown, this show was a gem. The extensive research that Felix has done in creating the show is apparent. Dramatically, however, it recounts a history, rather than a story, an effect enhanced by the ‘chapter headings’ on screen, as Felix transitioned through the various periods of her life. I was hungry for more story in my telling.
Overall, this was an entertaining, and beautifully realised depiction of the life of an amazing woman of our time. An evening thoroughly enjoyed.