Ute Lemper with “Rendezvous with Marlene” at The Queen’s Hall Edinburgh tonight was one of those shows that when leaving you said to yourself, “I’m glad I was in the audience for this one”. To be clear to anyone planning to see this show at one of its tour dates, this is not a standard Ute Lemper in concert show, but a very theatrical story celebrating in words, music and song the life of the legendary Marlene Dietrich.
This production is based on a 3-hour phone call between Dietrich and Ute Lemper in 1988 just after the papers announced that Ute Lemper was “The New Dietrich” and Ute had written a letter to Marlene. Here we have a very powerful story of one legend, Marlene, in the solitary twilight years of her career and life touching the life of another artiste just beginning her own journey to international stardom. The way that people and events over the years begin to interweave into each other between Marlene and Ute is a story in itself and one that continues long after Marlene Dietrich’s own death. As Ute tells us at one point, it has taken her 33 years to feel that this is the right time to make this production and let Marlene speak again on stage, and as a one woman work of theatre, this is an outstanding performance from Ute. This show was a rare chance to see an intimate, powerful and dramatic performer at her very best, one who can captivate an audience that is silently awaiting her next word or song. Ute Lemper is not only a performer who understands the power of theatre, but the very power of the cabaret of the Weimar Republic that Marlene Dietrich emerged from.
I have to admit to having missed much of Marlene Dietrich as a live performance artist as I was always more aware of Marlene the film star, and my main memory of her is in one of her very late and very dramatic Hollywood movie roles – A Touch of Evil (1958 co-starring Orson Welles). This show from Ute Lemper is really not concentrating on either the cabaret star or the film star, but the woman that was Marlene, and here we get a small glimpse of someone always prepared to stand up and be heard whenever she felt her voice was needed to speak out about injustice and intolerance anywhere that she saw it. That voice made her at times hugely unpopular with many people, and during the years of Nazi rule in Germany, put her in a potentially very dangerous personal position.
“Rendezvous with Marlene” is a story that makes no attempt to gloss over or ignore the rise to power of Hitler and the German Nazi Party, or the forever infamous events that followed, including concentration camps and “The Final Solution”. Here, it is clear that Ute is both following in Marlene’s footsteps, and the very traditions of German cabaret itself, to constantly challenge those in authority and hold them accountable for their actions.
What about the music though, how does that work in this production? Well, as always, anything that Ute Lemper sings is going to be unique and full of power and passion, and that was obvious from the opening song – “Falling In Love Again”. I am deliberately only going to mention a few of the songs in this show, and the reason for that is that so much of the power of these songs is in exactly where and in what context Ute has used them; here dialogue and song should not be viewed as separate things. I’m giving no secrets away though in telling you that classic Ute Lemper performances of “Lili Marlene” and “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” are here.
For me though, the outstanding performance of the evening from Ute Lemper was a song that I know Marlene Dietrich performed, but one that I always associate with Jacues Brel – his wonderful, “Ne me quitte pas”. Here, when Ute sings this song, and when it is used in the show, is for me as good an example of any that the re-written, and for me far lighter, story in the English language version of “If You Go Away” simply would not have had the power or emotional resonance needed for this moment.
If you missed “Rendezvous with Marlene”, try and catch up with the show somewhere on its tour and discover not only the presence of Ute Lemper as a performer, but what genuine cabaret, and not what we too often accept as modern cabaret, is capable of giving an audience, and how forcing us to look not only at our past, but our own actions can maybe prevent us making the same mistakes again. Sadly though, nearly 100 years on now from the cabaret world of Marlene Dietrich, every intolerance of one person to another that Marlene was speaking out against seems not only to still be with us, but in danger of raising its head once more and building new walls. The people in uniforms have just become people in smart suits, and their words of “divide and conquer” are all too still the same. We still need people like Ute Lemper who are not prepared to look the other way and willing to stand up, be counted, and to speak out loudly against all injustice wherever she encounters it.
Review by Tom King