Dietrich: Natural Duty is a one-(wo)man performance of potency, power and punch; a moreish mixture of cabaret and drag, co-created by Peter Groom and Oliver Gully. The protagonist of the show is legendary German actress Marlene Dietrich, the sultry siren of the screen who captivated the world during the golden age of Hollywood.
Marlene Dietrich was a self-created conundrum, an unflinching image-maker who defied gender norms, exuded sexual promise and embraced gender fluidity. She brought androgyny to the big screen and adorned herself in masculine clothes. A fact cleverly flipped in Dietrich: Natural Duty as Peter Groom takes up the role of the leading lady herself.
Groom gives a glorious, highly authentic performance. His is a statuesque figure on the stage made complete by Marlene’s characteristic cartoon eyebrows, half-shut eyes and sculpted cheekbones. Effective lighting (Chantal Wilson) casts him in graphic beams of light and shadow, maximising the drama of the performance. The aesthetic is made all the more spellbinding by the scintillating shimmer and shine of his golden gown.
The performance itself dynamically showcases snippets of Marlene’s narrative as it weds song with soliloquy, sorrow with sass, history and heroism. It begins with a rather ominous voiceover, which, in clipped tones announces: “no I never look back… you think I want to look back and say… I was so wonderful. Who cares? No there’s nothing to learn from my life at all”. In glides the glittering Marlene. She banters with a journalist before acquiescing to answer some of his questions. It is here that the story begins, starting with her audition in Berlin for Blue Angel, the film that propelled her to stardom, climaxing with a provocative song (one of many) performed for American soldiers overseas, and culminating with an earth-quaking speech riddled with the ugliness of fowl experience.
It is in this last speech that you realise you have unknowingly observed the complete transformation of a character from lewd and crude to beaten and broken. This transformation is at its most obvious when comparing the young Marlene’s opinion of acting, “I just did what I was told and counted in my head”, to her later declaration that “none of it was for me. It’s all for the audience”, most of whom are weary soldiers at deaths door.
Dietrich: Natural Duty is a multifaceted, truly marvellous show with a stupendous actor at its head. It is definitely one not to be missed.
Dietrich: Natural Duty played at the The Vaults Waterloo until 28 January 2018.
Photo: The Vaults