The Reichstag is Burning
Black Box Live at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe by Hartstone-Kitney Productions
Dates of run August 11-September 2
Writer/performer: Joanne Hartstone
Director/designer: Tom Kitney
Musical direction: Emma Knights
Voice over/translation: Michael Morley
Running time: 70 minutes
At the height of the pandemic, when theatrical work dried up, Adelaide-based writer/performer Joanne Hartstone spent a semester teaching history to 15-year-olds.
As she laid out Hitler’s march to power, from the Treaty of Versailles to World War II, she could hardly miss the chilling parallels to the current rise of popularism. Now as then democracy has its limits, freedom of speech and artistic expression are not guaranteed and Weimar cabaret is a highly relevant rather than a purely historical form of drama.
The result is the perfectly-crafted The Reichstag is Burning, which matches songs, ranging from the 1920s to the near contemporary, with the crucial stages of Hitler’s ascent to dictatorial power, not least the burning of the Reichstag.
Hartstone is the theatrical protagonist as Iris London, the star of Berlin’s die Katakombe, a cabaret haven for Jews, gays and aesthetes. For the space of an absorbing hour, “hier ist richtig” (this is the right place).
Her long-time partner, professional and personal, Tom Kitney also has a leading role as the director/designer, who takes digital drama to the level of an art form in its own right. Far from being a second-best recording of a stage production, this is a work made to be watched from a screen while conveying the atmosphere of an edgy, smoky Weimar cabaret and affording us an uninterrupted view of the stage.
As the seat of democracy burns, special-effect flames flicker playfully and blaze menacingly throughout Harstone’s smouldering, utterly assured performance that drives home the risk that the popular will may not be done.
We are her pupils as typed flashcards set out Hitler’s advance in black and white clarity, while the songs provide the emotional response and make this history lesson effortless, if unsettling.
Total Control by the Motels (1980) is the jagged accompaniment to the death of President Hindenburg, the main obstacle to Hitler’s consolidation of power.
Once his dictatorship is assured, women’s power is reduced to cooking and child-bearing. Hartstone’s robust answer to that is Chuck Out the Men (Raus mit den Männern), this time a genuine Weimar song by Friedrich Hollaender.
By 1941, the need was overwhelming to chuck out one certain man, as summed up in Irving Berlin’s When that Man is Dead and Gone.
The heaven Irving Berlin promised we’d see without him came too late for die Katakombe, which closed its doors in 1935.
Hartstone ends her tribute to its cultural legacy and the power of art to uphold the best in human nature with a bitter-sweet rendition of Give Me Your Hand One Last Time (Reich Mir Zum Abschied Noch Einmal Die Hand) from a 1930 operetta.
Barbara Lewis © 2021.