Examining the roots of fascism isn’t something that normally makes its way into a musical, but actor Felix Bergsson contends that his Theatre on Scene’s production of Cabaret does just that. The plot of the musical revolves around the experiences of a young writer who arrives in Berlin in 1932 and gets caught up in the libertine lifestyle of the cabaret scene. As the champagne flows and jazz bands play, the Nazis are getting more and more powerful. The version being shown now in Reykjavík – spelled Kabarett after the Icelandic spelling – is based on the Sam Mendes (American Beauty) version of the play. So what sort of political message is Cabaret delivering? The Grapevine spoke to Bergsson about politics, theatre and yet another tired Hitler-Bush comparison.
Tell me a little something about the time period of Cabaret.
It takes place in Berlin 1932, during the end of the Weimar Republic. It’s a crazy time. A lot of intellectuals and artists came to the city for the freedom. In particular, there was a lot of sexual freedom. At that time there were something like 160 clubs for gays and lesbians; I doubt there are more than 100 in Berlin today. And in 1933 Hitler takes power, which I think is interesting to the story because in a way it was like the end of the world. Of course, this sexual freedom took some very ugly turns. With the depression going on, there was a lot of prostitution and it was possible sometimes to buy whole families.
So why do you think this story is relevant to today’s world?
Because we’re facing fascism today.
Well, for example there’s President Bush who’s prepared to put a stop to teaching evolution in schools. [President Bush has actually argued that BOTH evolution and creationism – newly labelled “intelligent design” – should be taught in schools.] He’s always finding enemies somewhere. For him, it’s the Muslims. For Hitler, it was the Jews. This constant making of enemies leads to fascism.
We were told that this production of Cabaret is more political than it’s usually done. What is the political message of Cabaret?
It’s more questions that are being asked than anything. Questions like, how could this happen in a democracy? Is it all of us, or just the Germans? How can we make sure that it doesn’t happen again? When life is only a question of survival, some really horrible things happen.
What made you decide to get involved in political theatre?
I feel that theatre should tell you something. Theatre that challenges me is worth it. Being a theatre actor is an art form, and I think you should have an agenda for your artwork. The problem with Icelandic theatre is that it’s centrally controlled by the state, giving roles. You become just a tool in the machine, instead of an actor aware of what to do. I’m against actors signing permanent contracts. How can you be permanently contracted by the state to be an artist?
Is the political message why you wanted to do this musical?
Also, it’s just a beautiful musical and a good one for the theatre to sink its teeth into. This is the fourth time Cabaret has been done here, but the first time it’s been done by an independent theatre group, Theatre on Scene. We’re a political theatre group. We want to make people think. We started in 1999 with a play I wrote about gay men in Reykjavík called Perfect Equal. [Leftist-Green MP] Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir directed it. [Halldórsdóttir is also directing the current production of Cabaret.] Since then, we’ve been slowly getting more support from the state and the city.
As you’ve been in the acting business for some time now, do you find a different reaction to your political pieces than you do to productions without a political message?
We get a strong reaction to political work, and get a lot of criticism. People are either pleased or they don’t like our approach. I don’t think there should be just one opinion to a piece. Otherwise it’s not worth it. Cabaret doesn’t leave you humming the closing song as you walk out of the theatre. In this production, the cast looks you in the eye, asks: “Why?” and then walks off. I think people appreciate that.
For me, whatever you do, if you do it from the bottom of your heart then that’s what’s important. What counts is the quality of the work we deliver. Crap political theatre is still crap theatre.
I’ve spoken to some actors in the Icelandic theatre scene who’ve talked about how closed the system is: lead roles go to the same people without any open auditions. Would you agree with this?
I don’t totally agree. It’s true we can be narrow-minded at times, but Cabaret has Magnús Jónsson cast in the role of MC, and he’s only been an actor for seven years. Because we have a small theatre scene in Iceland you can do a lot more work. There are a lot more opportunities here. If I were living in London I’d probably just be doing voiceovers.
Why should people see Cabaret?
It’s good theatre. It’s been worked on a lot, it’s highly professional, and it takes a stand. Also, it’s a fun time. I think that would sum it up.