‘I Am A Camera’ delves into the glamour and decay of the Weimar era with powerful results
‘I Am A Camera’ is a play steeped in theatrical legend – John van Druten’s script is the semi-autobiographical adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s book Goodbye to Berlin, and it would go on to inspire the musical Cabaret. Whilst this certainly offers a rich history to draw on, ‘I Am A Camera’ doesn’t make contextual demands of its audience, making its mark as an accomplished show by itself, albeit with slight stumbles here and there.
We walked into the Judith Wilson studio with a slight uncertainty – the blackbox space had been transformed into a cabaret nightclub, with the audience seated around tables as part of the ‘semi-immersive’ feel of the production. There was an intimate, dark feel to the room, with the cast chatting away across from our table. Cecily Bateman’s costume design and Lara Cosmetatos’ set strike a nice balance between the decadent aesthetic of the era without being distracting, conveying the overall mood with a soft touch. This was a great fit for a show which makes full use of its bold theatricality, atmosphere and aesthetic.
The play centres around a young Isherwood and his neighbour across the hall, the glamorous, delinquent runaway Sally Bowles, and their social circle in Weimar Berlin.
We begin with Isherwood (Benedikt Bartilla) offering a monologue describing his role as a passive observer, documenting life around him, with the eponymous statement “I am a camera”. Unfortunately at this point some otherwise well-matched jazz music played at too high a volume for us to properly hear Bartilla’s delivery, undercutting an otherwise fairly strong opening. Where Bartilla offers a slightly withdrawn, understated character with a quiet perceptiveness, Dixie McDevitt as Sally Bowles has a brilliantly contrasting dominant presence, sharply punctuated with a well maintained RP and an expressive flair in her movement and dialogue. McDevitt even gave a wonderfully wry safety notice in character, creating a clever sense of immersion and pushing of boundaries.
As the anchoring point of the show, Bartilla and McDevitt’s relationship is tasked with carrying a large part of the dialogue and energy, and at points this weight begins to cause strain. Whilst the contrast between the two is effective overall, the dynamic is at times imbalanced – McDevitt’s constantly forceful delivery set against Bartilla’s meekness can feel a bit overpowering, but ultimately McDevitt’s moments of tender vulnerability and excellent comic timing keep things from being off-kilter. As the lead, Bartilla’s delivery could have benefitted from slightly more pace and energy – I sensed that there was a slight conflation between characterisation as passive or uncertain and the corresponding dramatic delivery. Quick-witted responses and dry witticisms at times didn’t quite land, and a slightly snappier pace could have helped this.
The other members of the cast give great vibrancy and contrasting energies to the interweaving narratives.
Jemma Fendley has effortless confidence and stage presence, and demonstrates great versatility, ranging from the warm maternal side of landlady Fraulein Schneider, to her later anti-semitic vitriol. She also doubles as Bowles’ stuffy, aristocratic mother, with a deft switch in accent to match. Another highlight is Isabel Thornton as Natalia Landauer, who gives a sensitive portrayal of an intelligent young Jewish woman caught in both turbulent romance alongside the rise of Nazism. At all points Thornton maintains careful control of her accent, physicality and delivery, to great success.
I am left with an overall impression of contrast – on the one side, there is the showy, impressively choreographed dance sequences, the carefree jazz and the luxurious silk robes. The other side is the chilling sense of deterioration and loss. The set becomes cluttered with detritus, relationships severed and damage inflicted – hauntingly symbolised by the simple black circle drawn around Nataliya’s eye after an anti-Semitic attack – a visual that remains for the rest of the show, as a mark of abuse and alienation.
‘I Am A Camera’ may have needed a bit more polish, but this was a powerful production overall.