I Am a Camera

Gryphon Theatre, 22 Ghuznee Street, Wellington

07/07/2010 - 17/07/2010

Production Details

The non-musical precursor to the Broadway musical hit Cabaret, was adapted from Christopher  Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories. 

The play looks at life in a tawdry Berlin rooming house of 1930 with a stringently photographic eye. For the most part, it concerns itself with the mercurial and irresponsible moods of a girl called Sally Bowles.

When we first meet her, she is a creature of extravagant attitudes, given to parading her vices, enormously confident that she is going to take life in her stride. She is fond of describing herself as an ‘extraordinarily interesting person,’ and she is vaguely disturbing. As we get to know her, as we watch her make frightened arrangements for an illegal operation, seize at the tinselled escape offered by a rich and worthless American playboy, attempt to rehabilitate herself and fail ludicrously, we are more and more moved, more and more caught up in the complete and almost unbearable reality of this girl.

The character of Christopher Isherwood serves both as narrator and as principal confidant to Sally Bowles. He is the camera eye of the title, attracted to Sally, yet dispassionate about her. Though Sally is the chief point of interest, the plight of the Jew in Germany in the early ’30s is brought in to focus in some of the most touching scenes.

Thursday 8 – Saturday 10 July at 8 pm,
Sunday 11 July at 3 pm,
Tuesday 13 and Wednesday 14 July at 6.30 pm,
Thursday 15 – Saturday 17 July at 8 pm
Tickets: $25 waged, $20 concessions, $18 groups of 10+ and Equity members
Bookings: call (04) 934 4068 or email bookings@backyardtheatre.co.nz 

Presented by arrangement with Samuel French Ltd and William Morris 

Christopher Isherwood - Simon Boyes
Sally Bowles - Rebecca Wilson
Frauline Schneider - Jade Valour
Fritz Wendel - Robert Tripe
Natalia Landaur - Sara Velasquez
Clive Mortimer - Robert Hickey
Mrs Watson-Courtenage - Petra Donnison

Poignant look behind the froth of Cabaret

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 17th Jul 2010

Those who have seen the movie A Single Man based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same name will identify with the central character of the play I Am A Camera, Backyard Theatre’s current production at the Gryphon Theatre. 

Both of the main characters are struggling to find meaning in life except that in the play – based on another Isherwood story Sally Bowles, from his book of short stories Berlin Stories – it is Isherwood himself that is being observed. It is little more than a snap shot of Isherwood’s life as a poor struggling English writer holed up in a boarding house in central Berlin in 1930. “I am a camera, with its shutter open, quite passive.”

Isherwood (Simon Boyes) says early on in the play. Then into frame comes Sally Bowles (Rebecca Wilson), a flighty, flamboyant, English night club singer. Each rent a room in the same boarding house run by Fräulein Schneider (Jade Valour). They develop a deep and endearing friendship, but never sexual, Sally has far too many men to satisfy that side of her life, till eventually Isherwood leaves unable to deal with the black clouds of Nazi rule descend over Berlin. 

Drifting in and out of their lives are a couple of German Jews Fritz (Robert Tripe) and Natalia (Sara Velasquez), a brash over the top American Clive (Robert Hickey) and Sally’s mother Mrs Watson-Courtenage (Petra Donnison). Many will see similarities with the musical Cabaret which is based on this play, but where the musical is outrageous and fairly superficial, the play is a poignant study of two human beings aimlessly searching but never finding, buoying each other up during times of emotional and physical adversity. 

Under Robert Hickey’s sensitivities direction and on a well appointed set, the actors, beautifully costumes in period clothes, did much to bring out the plays underlying emotion, portraying convincing and believable characters. 

In the role of Isherwood Simon Boyes plays the character with an understated subtlety, a hypochondriac who never wants to get involved, but at times, compared to the energy of the other actors, was almost too underplayed. 

As Sally Bowles, Rebecca Wilson had the poise and mannerisms of an upper class spoilt brat, confident and full of her own importance she made a great foil to the diffidence and indecisiveness of Boyes Isherwood. 

As Fritz and Natalia, Robert Tripe and Sara Velasque were exceptional in the way they come across as real and believable, including their accents, bringing in the Jewish element with feeling and conviction. In contrast to this was the genuine racism of Fräulein Schneider, well portrayed by Jade Valour. 

Petra Donnison’s mother was the epitome of ghastliness as was Robert Hickey’s American brashness of Clive, making this a thought provoking but entertaining production.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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More ‘depth of field’ required

Review by John Smythe 09th Jul 2010

Waiting for inspiration in Berlin, in 1930, and teaching English to make a living, Christopher Isherwood types, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive.” At the end of this full-length play, he says, “The camera has taken all its pictures, now they’re going away to be developed.”

Of course the play – by John Van Druten, adapted from Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories – did develop into the infinitely better-on-all-scores musical Cabaret. Meanwhile I Am a Camera remains a wordy piece somewhat in the style of Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde but without the wit, and weighed down by the clunky contrivances required to keep all the action in one bed-sit apartment.

I suspect what attracted attention, at its 1951 stage debut, was its depiction of the loose moral lifestyles of a hedonistic showgirl and a penniless writer, both escapees from morally cloying England, plus a flamboyant American millionaire with a taste for opium, set against the early days of the Nazi uprising in an economically collapsing Germany, between the wars.

If it wasn’t for an outstanding performance by Robert Tripe, as Isherwood’s pupil Fritz Wendel, I’d be tempted to think there is too much ‘telling’ and not enough ‘being’ in the play altogether. But inhabiting his role utterly, Tripe is effortlessly true to each moment, whether it’s his engaging confidence in attracting women, his nonchalance at being a serial seducer, his increasing attraction to the less attainable Natalia and surprise at the depth of his love for her, or his fearful admission that he is Jewish.

Sara Velasquez is also convincing as Natalia Landaur, statuesque in her moral propriety, amusing in her linguistic pedantry and delightful in her discombobulation at having succumbed to Fritz at last. In the end, because we believe in this couple, concern for their fate becomes the play’s most compelling feature.  

By comparison the others come across as competent actors who think infusing their lines with meaning and emotion is the be-all and end-all of their job. That may seem a bit harsh, and as a generalisation it is, but if Tripe especially can bring such truth to ‘being’ Fritz, I have to assume the other roles are written with the same potential and are not as two-dimensional as they appear.

As the dispassionate observer/ writer/ narrator Christopher Isherwood, Simon Boyes is validly passive and light-weight, but I feel more humour could arise from his hypochondria. And there could be more surprise and power in his sudden active stands, first against mindless hedonism and then against mindless blaming of the Jews for Germany’s financial collapse. Also it doesn’t work for his narration – clumsy contrivance though it may be – to be played as interior monologue; he needs to address his ‘readers’ (the audience) directly.

Rebecca Wilson articulates her lines as the flaky Sally Bowles with flair and intelligence. Combined with her relaxed elegance and poise, she convinces me of Sally’s ability to wrap men round her little finger and exploit them. What’s missing is insights into the vulnerability beneath all that, not least around finding herself pregnant and needing to have an abortion. And what should be a blistering bust-up with Chris is a fizzer, dramatically.

Their landlady Frauline Schneider is clearly represented by Jade Valour, although there could be a greater contrast between her rather raunchy widow dimension and the Jew-hater she turns out to be. There are many frailties, fears and vulnerabilities to be mined between her lines.

As played by Petra Donnison it’s easy to assume Sally’s mother, Mrs Watson-Courtenage, is just there to represent English middle-class propriety as an ‘act’ in itself, but I rather think a complete human being can be found in her too.  

The director Robert Hickey (to whom much of the above is addressed) also plays the ageing American millionaire playboy-cum-sugar-daddy Clive Mortimer with a fully committed ebullience, but all on one note and, again, as an act. He too represents a real element in the world Isherwood has observed and I’d like some glimpse of what makes him tick too.

Overall I conclude that, despite the dramaturgical contrivances, there is more ‘depth of field’ to be found in these characters and their circumstances.

If this was billed as an amateur production it would be a commendable achievement, given part-time rehearsal schedules and the other priorities in people’s lives. But as a professional co-op it falls short of the standards we’ve come to take rather for granted in Wellington.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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