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I Am A Camera : An Interview with Lisa Thomas

We talk with Lisa Thomas, director of next week’s production I Am A Camera and find out more about the play which inspired the musical Cabaret.

Tell me more about the play?

Camera-01In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Christopher Isherwood was living in Berlin. He later wrote several short novels inspired by the people he encountered there. I Am a Camera is based primarily on Goodbye to Berlin and Sally Bowles, and the novels and the play eventually formed the basis of the musical, Cabaret. The story is seen through the eyes of a young writer – called ‘Christopher Isherwood’ in the play but not necessarily a portrait of the man himself – for example the play makes no mention of his homosexuality. To some extent he is the almost neutral ‘camera’ that he defines himself as in his opening speech. The play is set in 1930, when Hitler’s National Socialist Party was on the rise in Germany, and we see the early impact of Nazism on ordinary people through the experiences of the German characters.

Why did you decide to direct it?

I have long been a fan of Cabaret – and have been trying to put it on for years but with no success in getting the rights. When it became clear we wouldn’t get the rights again this year, I thought I’d go back to the source play which isn’t performed all that often. I liked it a lot – I thought it was witty and often poignant with a subtlety that has probably grown with time. When it was first performed in the early 1950s, just a few years after the end of the Second World War, some critics felt that the impact of the Nazis was soft-pedalled by the playwright, John van Druten. In retrospect, I think the light touch he employed works better than a more didactic approach.

Have there been any major challenges in staging the play?

Camera-02We’re performing in the Upper Hall at Stanley Halls which is a big green room with a high ceiling and slightly Gothic arches, and we’re trying to conjure an intimate room in a tatty Berlin boarding house with a minimal set. As a result, we have an absolute multitude of props to give a sense of atmosphere from teddy bears to underwear, typewriters to wash stands. Fiona Daffern, my assistant director, has done an extraordinary job in pulling it all together.

Do you think the play will be appealing to audiences who are expecting to see Cabaret?

Camera-03I suspect some people will come with an expectation that it will be Cabaret without music and there are shared elements – but much that is different. The arresting (and very English) Sally Bowles is central to the story and we’re told that she is a nightclub singer; however, we never have any evidence of her talent – or otherwise, but we get much more of a sense of who she is. In the musical, Christopher is frequently portrayed as an American, Cliff, while here he is resolutely English; the German characters’ stories are more crucial to the action than in the musical, and they’re perhaps the most empathetic characters in the play.

Who’s in the cast?

A mix of familiar and new faces. Alex Watts and Lucie Sherwood play Christopher and Sally, with Tom Watts and Anna Rubincam as Berliners and Mark Vinson as rich American dilettante Clive. Margaret Glenn plays landlady Fraulein Schneider, and Cal Beckett plays Sally’s mother, who was a complete invention by the playwright.

I Am A Camera runs from June 14-18 at 8pm in the Upper Hall at Stanley Halls