Is it enough to re-create a myth? Robert Reid on Marlene Dietrich Perfect Illusion at the Butterfly Club
Written and performed by Uschi Felix, Marlene Dietrich Perfect Illusion presents a 74 year old Dietrich moments before her final concert. If your dream is to have had the opportunity of an intimate Q and A with the German star, then this is the show for you.
Felix’s Dietrich is like a ghost on stage. She emerges from behind the curtain, tidying the table, while the house lights are still on. The audience, rowdy a moment before, falls into an awed hush, waiting for the show to begin. Maybe, they think, it already has. She stands at the edge of the half lit stage and pours herself a drink. Then a little more, a little more still. Then she fills the glass. The audience sees this a cue for knowing laughter. I’m not sure if Dietrich was an alcoholic – I don’t think so – or if they’re is just chuckling at the use of spirits as a crutch to get through life, that increasing need, unsatisfied by just the one.
Faint strains of Falling in Love Again from her first big international film success, The Blue Angel, play as she sights her audience and mutters, “I hated that song.” She sings a little of it in the original German. It is a bit of a sentimental ditty and she attempts to cut the treacle with a little sarcasm.
The show is structured like a backstage interview just before her 1975 live show in Sydney, as Dietrich stops and pretends to listen to questions, perhaps from an interviewer, in her dressing room. “Why are people so interested in my love life?” There follows a list of the people she slept with or had relationships with.
There’s not really enough ironic distance established yet to make this contradiction seem poignant; instead it rings like a litany of names from showbiz, literature and culture that have come and gone from her orbit. The rehashed details of Dietrich’s life, the lovers, the “ambiguous” sexuality, tumble past in a biographic parade, like the book by her daughter Maria Riva, which she criticises throughout. It feels like watching a staged version of her Wikipedia entry.
She fusses about the lighting, cursing in German when its wrong, sighing with audibly physical relief when it returns to normal. Lighting is very important to maintaining the myth of Dietrich, she tells us. She tells us that Josef von Sternberg created the aesthetic magic for the iconic photograph of Dietrich in Shanghai Express.
‘The focus is on Dietrich, in the photos and in the stories, but I can’t help see the hollow and doomed faces around her. Young men, so many of them about to die’
That image dominates the projector screen, which shares the tiny stage with the little dressing room set, and it is still an arresting portrait. The depth it gives to Dietrich’s cheekbone structure, the soft light that radiates from her skin, the beatific expression: this is the myth, the perfect illusion Felix’s text proposes to deliver. The screen also shows titles of each section, like dot points on an interviewer’s list – Politics and Germany, Hollywood and The Blue Angel, Love and Family, and so on. There are touring dates, lists of people she supposedly slept with and biographical details – birth dates, key events. These bracket the monologues and let us know what’s coming next. Sadly, we never get very deeply into any of these before the parade hurries on to the next reminder of golden days gone by.
For me, there’s something hollow about this nostalgia, as though this was the last time films and music were “really any good.” I’ve never been all that enamoured of this generation, the Hollywood stars or the European artistes. The sense of aggrandisement and worship from afar, which only grows with distance and time, suffuses the show and the audience. There are self-satisfied nods of recognition and laughter as quotes and quips taken from Dietrich and her circle are trotted out rather inelegantly. I feel irritated; but it’s only, I think, because I’m not part of the community indulging in this mass act of fond recollection.
I don’t relish the memorialisation of this era, the glamorisation of the war, the stars, the cinema and stage. As she tells us about her devotion to the the GIs she performed for in shows across the globe, there are photos of Dietrich sitting on tanks and bombers, in the Hollywood canteen and the field hospitals, in uniform or a boiler suit surrounded by her adoring boys. The focus is on Dietrich, in the photos and in the stories, but I can’t help see the hollow and doomed faces around her. Young men, so many of them about to die. How many in these photos lasted more than a month after their moment with the one time highest paid woman in Hollywood? How many lasted a week? How many of these faces came home? I can help but see how the soft focus of the myth clouds the many individual tragedies in these images.
‘Felix’s performance of Dietrich, however, is convincing and begins to win me over’
Felix sings fragments of the famous songs of Dietrich’s career which give the work the shape of cabaret, especially the songs of Hollaender and Weill. Her flat and reserved performance throughout flirts with a kind Brechtian distancing, and it puts me in the frame of Brecht’s “Epic moking Theatre”, in which the audience is encouraged to sit back, drink and smoke. I am more analytical than invested; and I find very little other than the gulf that exists between the truths of that era and the Hollywood gossip dressed up as meaning by putting a German accent on it.
Felix’s performance of Dietrich, however, is convincing and begins to win me over. Under the lights and with the wig, she bears a passing resemblance to the star, and she has the voice down really pretty well: the deep sonorous tones, the uninflected, slightly flat notes. “She can’t sing and she can’t focus her eyes,” she tells us of the feedback from her first auditions.
There are moments where the story becomes more than just a fleshed out IMDB love letter. They occur during Dietrich’s more personal confessions: her recollections of the loss of the Germany she loved and remembered at the hands of the Nazis, her support of her Jewish friends and colleagues during the stoking of German anti-Semitism, her branding as a traitor by the Third Reich, Goebbels’s obsession with her and her plan to kill Hitler with her vagina (and a poison hat pin). If only there had been more of this, rather than all the name-dropping and the acting stories; but I imagine this is what the audience has come for, the blurry nostalgia for an avant gard aesthetics nearly a hundred years old.
If Felix’s Dietrich had been a mechanism for exploring something universal and human, something more than the minutiae of just another life in Hollywood, it could have been something very special. As it is, it’s a hagiography that tells you little that you either don’t already know. Instead of these ghosts from the pages of Variety, I wanted to see the pathos of this era. I wanted to see the world as it is, refracted through Dietrich, catching fire.
The perfect illusion is itself illusory. It makes its appearance early on, under the lights and direction of Sternberg, in the voluminous gowns and shadows of her bedroom she uses to hide her body (“I’m an actress, it’s easy”) and then returns briefly towards the end with the movie Destry Rides Again. People loved and wanted the myth, the myth she hoped that Pasternak would destroy, and they still do. This show mostly gives us exactly that myth, that illusion: you can almost sense the real Dietrich somewhere in the air, rolling her deep-set smouldering eyes as she sees that even in death, she can’t escape the illusion.
The show ends abruptly after a five minute call for her Sydney performance, as she reveals the costume she’s been concealing under her dressing gown, a creation reminiscent of the famous Jean Louis dress. The blackout covers her exit, mostly, and the screen races us through the final years of her life.
As she walked to perform this 1975 Australian concert, Dietrich fell and broke her leg in the darkness back stage. Afterwards, the French government gave her the Légion d’honneur in 1950 and paid her rent as she was almost broke and mostly bed ridden. She performed only few more times, finally with David Bowie in Just a Gigolo in 1979, and then the show was over.
Is it enough? To go to this level of effort and not find more than the familiar and banal? I feel that this show isn’t much more than a glowing obituary in a copy of Parade magazine. Still, as I leave the theatre, Lily Marlene is playing in my head; and it remains a haunting melody even now.
Marlene Dietrich Perfect Illusion, written and performed by Uschi Felix. Directed by Sara Grenfell. AV Design by Joshua Burns. At The Butterfly Club. Until February 21. Bookings