Archive for LGBT+interest

Interview with Aletia Upstairs

aletiaupstairsandpatrick

Patrick Harrington with Aletia Upstairs

Interview with Aletia Upstairs who is currently starring in her fringe show ‘A Queer Love of Dix’

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be a performer?

I come from Cape Town, South Africa. I’ve lived in London for the last 12 years. Apparently, I had an hour and a half of singing repertoire at the age of 18 months. My parents met on stage in a school play, so it was my destiny.

Do you hold strong political opinions? How would you describe them?

I come from South Africa….Our country changed a hell of a lot during my first few years at university. I couldn’t really see myself being involved with political cabaret in South Africa because everything had to be so PC. And of course, cabaret SHOULD be political. A Queer Love of Dix is my most political show to date and it is still quite mild, I think.

My political opinion is simply that everyone should be treated equally. I grew up seeing the inequality in South Africa…and I became more and more aware of that as I grew older. My idea of feminism is tied in with this view.

You cover some great songs from the Weimar period in your show, (“Pirate Jenny”, “It’s All a Swindle” and “The Lavender Song” to give a few examples). Do you have a song that you like to listen to more than the others and is that different from one that you really like to perform?

I don’t really listen to my show music when I am performing it, as I would get sick of it, and because I listen to it A LOT when I’m learning it. Recently I was listening to ‘Just a Gigolo’ in German (‘Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo’) the Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester version, on a loop… constantly…on my bicycle, in the tube, in order to learn the German words. This song was composed in 1928 by Leonello Casucci to lyrics written in 1924 by Julius Brammer. I am interested in the history of the songs (maybe because of my Musicology studies) and with that – especially Lavender Song (‘Das Lila Lied’), which was composed by Mischa Spoliansky under the pseudonym Arno Billing.

You describe Weimar as a ‘utopia’. How far do you think our impression of 1924-29 of Weimar in this period is skewed by Berlin’s reputation as a city where “anything went”? Do you think this vision of Berlin has made us forget that it wasn’t typical of the country, traditional attitudes persisting particularly in small-town and rural areas and amongst the older generation?

I think, most of what we are aware of through say the Cabaret movie – as this is the first taste of that world for many, is the decadence and hedonism of the period…but then there is a part in the movie where the people in the countryside sing a folk song and make the Nazi salute. This makes me think a lot about Brexit, since it was mainly the people in the rural areas who voted out. The people in the cities – London, at least, were generally not that positive about Brexit.

Berlin, in the 1920s, was a forward-looking place though. There were many lesbian and gay bars. People had this little taste of freedom just before the worst event in history set in. When you go on a walking tour in Berlin, specifically The Christopher Isherwood’s Neighbourhood walking tour http://www.isherwoods-neighbourhood.com/  you learn a lot about the LGBTQI community at the time, but also about how people were taken away to concentration camps. There are these little plaques at the entrances of certain homes with people’s names and when they were taken, whereto and when and where they died.

During the Weimar Republic, homosexuality was certainly tolerated but it wasn’t legal (The 1871 Code which criminalised it wasn’t repealed until 1994). Also, outside of Berlin, social attitudes were still very conservative. The Eulenburg Scandal in 1907-8 drew attention to the goings-on in the Kaiser’s own circle, where the death in 1908 from a heart attack of the Chief of the Military Cabinet while dancing in the Kaiser’s presence dressed in a ballerina’s tutu added to rumours that the Kaiser was bi-sexual. The point, however, is that it WAS a scandal. The magazine “Simplicissimus”, the “Private Eye” of its day, made sure of that. The Nazis hated Weimar culturally as well as politically. Would you accept that, to a degree, they reflected the opinion of many in this regard?

In the show, I say it was ‘permitted’. Of course, generally, social attitudes were still very conservative, but we always think about the majority being cisgender. Is that really the case though? Was that the case then? Is that the case now? Or are many, many people just going along with societal norms which are based on gender norms dictated by the main religions?
Are you saying that the general public didn’t agree with the liberal lifestyle practiced in the Weimar Republic? I guess not…and that’s one reason for the Nazis rise to power. They had the populist support in combination with the support of those who were fearful of opposing them. Of course, we know that the Weimar Republic was, as I say in the show, ‘an attempt at a perfect democracy’, but it failed because it had some major flaws.

This makes me think of Apartheid South Africa, again, where I know, for a fact, that white people were killed who opposed the government, so, as a result, some people just took the easy way out, ignorant, or oblivious of what they were actually supporting.

Have Brecht, Weill, Isherwood, etc. captured our imagination and distorted our perception of the country and period?

Generally, people are more au fait with Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret than with any of them. Based on the movie, I wanted to be Sally Bowles. When I was in my early twenties, I used to write my bio as ‘Aletia Upstairs wants to be Sally Bowles’, but Isherwood’s Sally Bowles is quite different from the Liza Minelli version everyone knows. Naturally, I wanted to explore the period more and more.

None of them paint a purely utopian picture of the Weimar Republic and Berlin of the time, however, I would say that Otto Dix with his New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) style gives us a much more realistic view of the period. This is why I had to combine his work with the music, some of which quite well-known, of Brecht and Weill.

Do you think that our own period in our own country where homosexuality is legal, and discrimination outlawed still struggles with negative social attitudes amongst some?

Absolutely, yes. There are still numerous homophobic attacks taking place. The two lesbians who were attacked on a bus is in London, for example…that happened on May 30th.

What can we do to win hearts and minds and change these attitudes?

Keep preaching…to the non-converted. I’m trying to change some people’s perceptions with this show. I rejoice in the fact that cisgender people can sing along to the words ‘We’re not afraid to be queer and different’. It is educational in a subtle way. And if they didn’t know that we say intersex these days, rather than hermaphrodite, they will when they leave the show. I hope that experiencing the show might open their hearts and minds and make people more accepting of the whole LGBTQI spectrum. I think, in a small way, I am accomplishing that.

What attracts you to the culture of the Weimar period so strongly?

I had that image of Anita Berber, used for the poster, as an inspirational picture for many years before I made the show. Although cabaret did not originate in the Weimar Republic or, more specifically Berlin, it is the kind of cabaret similar to how it was performed in South Africa when I was growing up and the way I was trained in cabaret.

Why do you think that many are fascinated by the Goldene Zwanziger (“Golden Twenties”) of Weimar?

This was a moment in history when, like I say in the show, the outsider could be the insider. It was a time of an explosion in artistic activity and personal freedom. The New Objectivity style, used by Otto Dix, originated during this time. Androgyny was fashionable, as documented by Dix’s painting of Sylvia von Harden. It was the time when women cut their hair in the bob hairstyle. This act, in particular, indicated more freedom for women, in particular.

You feature the work of Otto Dix in your show as a backdrop to your singing. What connects his work to the songs for you?
I see it as his work illustrating the songs. I have never seen Brecht and Weill performed in, as I call it, the world of Otto Dix, but I feel that they were talking about the same things, so I thought it would work well in combination.

Who/what do you blame for Hitler’s rise to power and how might it have been prevented?

As I say in the show, in the Weimar Republic, the left and the right could not come to an agreeable compromise, and meanwhile, nationalism was rising. The Weimar Republic’s democracy was flawed. The people were too passive; they went along with the Nazi party for what it promised them – employment and so on which was necessary following the Depression and the period of hyperinflation. I think a lot of people didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for until it was too late.

How has the audience reaction been to the show? What kind of feedback have you had?

People have said it’s been educational, thought-provoking and enjoyable. That’s my intention…exactly that. I don’t want it to be like a lecture, but I do want people to feel that they’ve learned something from it: maybe take another look at their own attitudes to the Other. Some have said it was unique, which is nice to know.

Have you ever thought of presenting the content of your show in another format – a documentary or book for example?

No, not at all, but on a previous project I collaborated with a documentary writer, so it’s not out of the question. I just have to see what opportunities come my way.

What plans do you have for shows in the future?

I am hoping to tour this show to other parts of Europe. I am in negotiations about taking it to Romania and Germany. I don’t have a plan for another show at the moment. It will come when the time is right.

Tickets for A Queer Love of Dix are available from:https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/queer-love-of-dix

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 Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Freddie_Mercury_performing_in_New_Haven,_CT,_November_1977

Freddie Mercury:  a skilled performer with flair

PG-13 | 2h 14min | 2 November 2018 (USA)
Director: Bryan Singer
Writers: Anthony McCarten (story by), Peter Morgan (story by) | 1 more credit »
Stars: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee

Wow! I loved this film. It transported me back to the 80s and reminded me what a great group Queen were and of the power of Rock music. 

The film tells us the story of Farrokh Bulsara (played superbly by Rami Malek) as he becomes Freddie Mercury. Bulsara is the son of immigrants from Zanzibar (now in Tanzania) who were Parsees, Zoroastrians who fled to India from Muslim persecution in Persia during the 7th–8th centuries. His family had moved to Zanzibar so that his father could continue his job as a cashier at the British Colonial Office. At the age of 17, Mercury and his family fled from Zanzibar because of the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution, in which thousands of Arabs and Indians were killed. To the credit of the film this is made clear (though not explained or emphasised).

I was intrigued by his family relationships. His father Bomi Bulsara (Ace Bhatti) was a conservative figure who had a portrait of our Queen on his wall and emphasised the three commandments preached by Zoroaster: good thoughts, good words and good actions repeatedly and sometimes critically to Freddie! His relationship with his Father, thankfully, improved over time. It can’t have been easy for either of them given their different natures. Brian May noted in 2016, “It’s probably true to say that Freddie’s father, strongly committed to the Parsee faith, didn’t find it easy that Freddie took the path he did, as a rock musician, and a fairly irreverent one, at that. Nevertheless the support was always there.”It’s one of the joys of this film that we see their understanding and acceptance of each other develop. His mother Jer Bulsara (Meneka Das) was more directly supportive.

We also see a young Freddie working as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport and experiencing the casual racism that was sadly the norm for many back then, there and on the street. Music was another side to his life. He was writing songs and watching local bands at small clubs. We see how Freddie first meets Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). Bohemian Rhapsody leads us through the history from the origins of Queen right up to Freddie’s tragic death (he died from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991).

There is so much of interest in Bohemian Rhapsody that it is only possible to mention some of it in any review. I loved to see Freddie’s relationship with his cats, his love of opera and his interest in fashion. His personal relationships with Kenny Everett and his manager (a devil figure in the film) and record companies are worthy of separate consideration. The effects of addiction to alcohol and drugs on his health and music and personal relationships are a darker theme.

The film doesn’t shy away from looking at Freddie’s sexuality. Freddie married Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). In one scene Freddie tells Mary “I think I’m bisexual.” She says: “No, Freddie. You’re gay.”

Some have called the film out on this. Billboard said: “For many out there, this particular moment almost rang too true to real life. Bisexual people face the reality of bi-erasure on a near-daily basis, being told that they’re either “too gay” or “not gay enough,” with little to no attention paid to their actual sexual identity. So it’s natural that many critics and Twitter users would call Bohemian Rhapsody out for attempting to erase Mercury’s bisexuality in this scene, especially in a film meant to celebrate him.”

I’m not sure about that. Freddie wanted his private life to be private. He wanted his fans and the press to focus on his music. He never publicly identified his sexuality. Should he have had to? Should anyone have to define their sexuality publicly? At the time Freddie was pressured by the media to do so, now some LGBT people take the view that he somehow let the side down. Freddie saw himself first and foremost as a performer who was there to entertain the public with great shows and music. That was his choice.

There is a harrowing press conference in the film where we see the gutter press try to pressure him to answer questions on his sexuality in the style of a baying mob.

This wasn’t a case of exaggeration the press had no shame. In December 1974, the New Musical Express asked him, “So how about being bent?”. Even his illness was seen as ‘fair play’ by the irresponsible media. In October 1986, the British press reported that Mercury had his blood tested for HIV/AIDS at a Harley Street clinic. A reporter for The Sun, Hugh Whittow, questioned him intrusively about this. Anyone whoever read the late and unlamented News of the World will know full well how the gutter press hypocrites tried to trash people. Yet who now remembers the low-lives of the British gutter press? Yet Freddie Mercury left a legacy of great shows and music behind him. His music continues to uplift people.

Bohemian Rhapsody ends with Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985. I remember watching this at the time. To be frank to that point Live Aid wasn’t matching the hype. The performance from Queen changed that. It was electric. It’s given an incredible poignancy in the film by the knowledge that Freddie is doomed. Bittersweet and emotionally moving. Freddie knew how to deliver to his audience. He went out on a high note with a strutting, high energy and also nuanced performance as he was determined to do. True to his art and his fans to the very end.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

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Dietrich: Natural Duty

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Peter Groom as Marlene 

Theatre (cabaret)
Venue 33
Pleasance Courtyard – Beside
15:30
Aug 22-27
1 hour

Peter Groom is outstanding as Marlene Dietrich in this one (wo)man show. When Peter first appeared on the stage as Dietrich the audience applauded. The appearance, dress, make-up and figure were immediately convincing and captured Dietrich so well. Everyone sensed from the start that this was going to be good.

The material he has to work with is fascinating. It starts with her discovery and starring role in ‘The Blue Angel’ (1930) through roles in the US to the start of the conflict with Germany. It shows how Dietrich took the Allied side in the Second World War. She even held the rank of Captain and travelled to the front-line to entertain the troops and raise morale. Cue bawdy humour about being “long at the front” etc! A word of warning, if you sit at the front of the audience you might get roped in. It was a bit discomforting when I was included but also good fun.

Groom presents an image of Dietrich as a disciplined performer who worked hard to craft her presentation in whatever she did. The focus of the show are her songs and her relationship with Germany. This isn’t a show about her many love affairs (with both men and women). If it was an hour might not be enough!

Although a one (wo)man show there are voice only interruptions from a subtly threatening and yet entreating Goebbels and an insistent media interviewer. The dialogue hints at a hard side to Marlene, even a cruel one. It is not explored, perhaps because the focus is on the performer more than the woman.

Peter has a great voice and captures the spirit of Dietrich with a wry humour and passion. I must admit that whilst familiar with many of the songs I hadn’t realised that Dietrich had performed Pete Seegers “Where have all the flowers gone”. For me the delivery of that song on the futility of war was the most powerful in a show filled with emotionally charged songs.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

Editorial note: As an aside there is a lovely story here about how “Where have all the flowers gone” originated: https://performingsongwriter.com/pete-seeger-flowers-gone/

#EdFringe2018 #EdFringe #IntoTheUnknown

 

five-stars

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A Queer Love of Dix

aqueerloveofdixAletia Upstairs, brought us an exploration of Weill, Brecht, and Weimar cabaret songs like “Falling in Love Again”, “Alabama Song” and “I Am a Vamp”. Interspersed with the songs is an explanation of the cultural context of Weimar Germany which existed 1919 to 1933. For that short period, particularly in the Goldene Zwanziger (“Golden Twenties”)  – roughly only really a five year period – which ended with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, there was a cultural and artistic explosion.

Aletia describes Weimar as a Utopia. It’s certainly true that gays were more accepted. According to ‘Queer Identities and Politics in Germany, A History 1880-1945’ at the heyday of the Weimar Republic, there were between 90 and 100 gay bars in Berlin frequented by gay men and lesbians.

Compared to the Nazi period which followed it is easy to see why many view Weimar with rose-tinted glasses. There were anti-gay laws on the books, however, but the majority of German police officers turned a blind eye to the bars. There was a big difference between rural attitudes to those in Berlin. There were also dire economic conditions, which, as today, affected people unequally. Not everyone was enjoying the high life of Berlin! That’s one of the factors that led to the rise of the Nazis who portrayed Weimar culture as both decadent and under foreign influence. Indeed they sought to disrupt many events. When they gained power the music was derided and proscribed. Homosexuals were persecuted and killed by their State.

This show is not a history lesson though. It centres on the songs of the period which have a power, and sometimes, biting emotional edge. “Pirate Jenny” with its dream of class revenge and Spoliansky’s ”It’s All a Swindle” with its condemnation of the corruption of the Political Class and cynicism toward general society stood out for me. As the song says: “The left betrays, the right dismays, the country’s broke and guess who pays?”.

Accompanying the songs are the harsh, brutal images of the expressionist artist Otto Dix. Dix didn’t shy away from depicting distorted human forms to expose vanity or the horror of war. One of my favourites, ‘Girl in front of the mirror‘ from 1922 is used in the show.

Aletia gave a great performance full of passion and humour. The audience loved it. Full marks to the venue, Planet, for hosting it. It wasn’t an ideal venue in many ways but it worked.

The show ended with a performance of the “The Lavender Song” with the audience joining in. It was a song I had not been familiar with. It is a Cabaret song from 1920. It’s not a Weill or Brecht song. The music was composed by Mischa Spoliansky, and the lyrics were written by Kurt Schwabach. It is a song that accuses mainstream society and contains the great line: “they march in lockstep we prefer to dance”. A sentiment not just relevant to sexual freedom but freedom in general.

This Edinburgh premiere has now ended but it’s London-bound!

Queer Identities and Politics in Germany, A History 1880-1945, by Clayton J. Whisnant (Harrington Park Press; 2016).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=47&v=8tvnYLejhj0

Reviewed by Patrick Harrington

five-stars

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Love, Simon (2018)

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Love, Simon is a ground-breaking film aimed at a mainstream audience

PG-13 | 1h 49min | Comedy, Drama, Romance | 16 March 2018 (USA)
Director: Greg Berlanti
Writers: Elizabeth Berger (screenplay by), Isaac Aptaker (screenplay by) |
Stars: Nick Robinson, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel

Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is a 17-year old with a secret. Simon has “a perfectly normal life” in all ways but one: Simon is gay. The emphasis should be more on the perfect thant the normal in that last phrase though! His parents (played by Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner)are a loving, understanding couple and he even gets on well with his Sister! Problems that many teenagers grapple with are absent from this film.

This does enable the film to focus on the central theme but it is at the expense of realism. Love, Simon has one scene where Simon imagines a college life which includes highly choreographed group dancing to a gay anthem. The rest of the film isn’t so divorced from reality but it isn’t too far off.

Love, Simon isn’t gritty. It’s very vanilla, family-friendly and a PG-13. Warning: There is gay kissing but nothing beyond that! There isn’t much depiction of straight sex either! Everyone is fairly well-behaved!

Don’t get me wrong though, the film is entertaining and well written. It engages your interest in the central mystery very well. Simon sees a posting on a school gossip forum from another student ‘Blue’ who says he is gay but nervous about ‘coming out’ openly. Simon spends much of the movie trying to figure out who this might be. The audience is carefully kept in the dark with Blue’s postings being read by different voices throughout the film, depending on who Simon suspects he might be at a particular point.

There are also some great supporting roles. I found the vice-principal (Tony Hale) very funny, the drama teacher (Natasha Rothwell) engaging and out-and-proud classmate Ethan (Clark Moore) a good counterpoint to Simon.

At heart Love, Simon is a rom-com. I went with my daughter to see it at a special screening and I think that the main audience for it will actually be teenage girls.The film may be criticised for it not confronting issues of homophobia head-on but it’s not that kind of movie – it isn’t dark and it’s aiming at communicating to a mainstream audience. It’s a groundbreaking film which deals with an important issue. It’s better than a lot of teenage films of the same genre as it has good humour, a clear plot and does make you think about how difficult it could be for a teenager dealing with their sexuality in a society which can still be unaccepting of difference.

Editorial note: Love, Simon is based on Becky Albertalli’s 2015 novel was called Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

 

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