Review by Emily Smith
Theatre has a long history of challenging power and giving voice to minorities and, as Iris London sings, “art is how we hold politicians accountable.” This is why Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime censored artistic expression and shut down theatres, legislating the oppression that inspired Hartstone-Kitney Productions’ The Reichstag is Burning.
Joanne Hartstone is Iris London: a performer at one of Germany’s last kabarett clubs permitted to remain open during Hitler’s rise to power. Her cabaret songs are interspersed with projections of text and photos explaining the historical context, and narration from the increasingly wary MC Werner Finck, a real German promoter of the arts. The two weave the story of the Nazi suppression of Germany’s cabaret tradition through modern pop songs and revolutionist slogans.
Joanne’s powerful voice reverberates around the intimately small venue, and the light and smoke effects are stunning to watch as they submerge her in fire and drape her in a cloak of mournful blue light. The ‘Propaganda’ number shatters Iris’ silhouette across centre stage in a confronting exploration of Hitler’s use of promotional material and twisting of the facts to become a celebrity. The single spotlight and accompanying projections of posters and images used by the Nazis commend Hartstone-Kitney Productions as masters of what they call hybrid-digital productions.
I recognised some of the songs from the lyrics, but most are disguised by the classical style and changes made to reference history. Each song is dynamic and unique, but a few are quite repetitive and could have done with changing up the chorus with more storytelling elements, or movement on stage. Each song introduces a new conceit in its use in telling the story, but fails to take that further by changing the lyrics or setting a scene.
I am lucky to be able to watch the show online from Perth, through Blackbox Live, but I do think the live show would have significantly more wow factor. The digital after-effects are interesting but don’t add much to the live multimedia. The blur effect on one of the songs is distracting and overdone, but generally the show is visually powerful.
My highlights include the politically charged ‘Paint It Black’, originally by the Rolling Stones, accompanied by simple dance moves to punctuate the message. Joanne’s performance exudes pain and anger. In a wildly different tone, ‘Chuck out the Men’ is sarcastic, witty, and provocative. Iris reclines on a leather chaise-lounge in a bowler hat that complements her mock-posh English accent. Every time I think I’ve got a handle on where she’s going next I am surprised once again.
The Reichstag is Burning is not only educational but also carries an important message on the role of performance and the arts in challenging power and standing up to dictators. It reminds us that we are lucky to have festivals such as Fringe, where diversity is embraced and encouraged. It also reminds us not to be complacent about our rights and the treatment of minorities, especially when we can speak out on behalf of those who cannot. “Tolerance is a crime when applied to evil,” indeed.