Tomorrow belonged to them

Entartete Musik celebrates the world Hitler condemned as 'degenerate'
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The Independent Culture

If you were a Jewish, black, communist, homosexual or lesbian artist performing in 1930s Germany, life would have been no cabaret. Hitler attacked these minorities, and labelled their work degenerate.

If you were a Jewish, black, communist, homosexual or lesbian artist performing in 1930s Germany, life would have been no cabaret. Hitler attacked these minorities, and labelled their work degenerate.

But before Hitler's influence took hold, the establishment of the Weimar Republic in 1919 had fostered a spirit of liberalism in German culture. Jude Alderson, the director and writer of Entartete Musik ( Degenerate Music), which will be performed at The Drill Hall, London, in April, explains: "In Berlin in the Twenties, there was a rise in the number of clubs and an increase in drug use; fashion went crazy and everyone was experimenting. It was a real age of the new."

The renaissance in Germany's social scene was reflected in the art world, and cabaret-style entertainment became increasingly popular and more daring. Entartete Musik features a radical song of the Twenties, "The Ballad of Marie Sanders" by the writer and composer Bertolt Brecht, about women who were publicly shamed for going out with men who had "raven hair" (ie, Jews). Tackling taboo subjects was the raison d'être of many cabaret artists. Alderson says: "The clubs were a refuge for all liberal and left-wing artistic people. There were lesbian clubs, for example, where women did shows dressed as men."

But were these cabarets just freak shows, designed to titillate their audiences? Alderson doesn't think so. She says: "The cabaret was always about something. There was an amazing juxtaposition between the erotic and politics, satire and seriousness."

Alderson began writing her play in 2003, inspired by the stories of her stepfather, who lived in Berlin. He visited the clubs with his father, the journalist Norman Ebbutt, foreign correspondent for The Times, from 1925 until they were both expelled from Germany in 1937.

The show is performed as a traditional cabaret, with a live pianist and a cast of five women. It follows two narratives: the stories of a traditional German family and of a Jewish, lesbian Russian immigrant who works as a jazz singer. Says Alderson, the latter is an example of the archetypal "hedonistic yet politicised Berliner" of that period.

Having now performed the show across Europe, Alderson can still remember the nerves she and the company had the night of their first performance, two years ago. "The average age of the audience was about 80," she recalls, "and I was thinking, 'Oh my God, there's drug-taking, nudity and lesbian love - they're going to be really offended.' But it turned out that an awful lot of them were actually from Berlin, and their responses were really positive."

The show is particularly relevant now. As Alderson comments: "We live in a climate of institutionalised racism of many different kinds. And although it's very shocking, there are certainly parallels that can be drawn with what happened then and what is happening now."

'Entartete Musik', Drill Hall, London WC1 (020-7307 5060; www.drillhall.co.uk) tonight to 17 April

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