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Taking the Neukölln out of Eliza Doolittle

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Taking the Neukölln out of Eliza Doolittle
Franziska Forster as Eliza Doolittle. Photo: DPA
16:14 CEST+02:00
A new production of "My Fair Lady" just opened in Berlin, but Ben Knight reports the musical has a unique history in the once-divided German capital.

The spectacle – and the ticket prices – might be imported from London's West End, but the accents are definitely from Berlin's troubled district Neukölln. This exuberant and occasionally exhausting German-language production of the musical classic “My Fair Lady” opened last week bursting with noise, ambition and German jokes about the English.

But the show has a special connection to Berlin that makes this particular revival significant. As director Peter Lund puts it in his programme notes, “In no other city did this show touch the zeitgeist as it did in Berlin.” In the early sixties, even before Hollywood made the story its own, Berlin turned this piece into an ideological battleground.

The famous West Berlin production of 1961, premiered only months after the erection of the Berlin Wall, was a declaration of cultural self-confidence. It was as if the capitalist and democratic island city surrounded by a sea of communism would maintain its cultural prestige. The West German tourist industry saw it the same way, and created a musical airlift to ship in some 14,000 West Germans to see the show.

When East Berlin reacted with its own “My Fair Lady” in the Metropoltheater four years later, the production made the most of original author George Bernard Shaw's socialist credentials and turned the show into a satire on western decadence.

This new version boasts a freight of Berlin-grown talent led by Peter Lund, long-time artistic director of the small but successful low-budget musical theatre the Neuköllner Oper. With a budget big enough to fund about five of his usual shows, he creates an aesthetic that crosses the London of Mary Poppins with Berlin's gritty Hermannplatz of today. This show does a lot, but not quite enough, to inject some modern Berlin authenticity into the Broadway fairy-tale.

Appearing first with a punk haircut, scruffy neck-scarf and torn shorts, Eliza Doolittle looks convincingly like a windshield-washer at a traffic light at Berlin's eyesore of a intersection at Kottbusser Tor, but as soon as the set of Professor Higgins' ornate apartment is lowered into place, any attempt to modernize the piece is surrendered to the needs of the Hepburn-Harrison nostalgia crowd. The social satire of Shaw's original Pygmalion, much name-checked in the programme, goes with it.

But there's still enough to keep you going for one evening. Increasingly bizarre gimmicks get thrown around boisterously – improbably athletic street-sweepers push wheelie-bins from which emerge singing rats. Toy London cabs shoot madly across the stage, and as if the designer were apparently scrambling for further references to merry old England – sheep appear as seats at Royal Ascot.

Despite the failure to completely modernize the setting, this three-hour spectacular still manages to top the Oscar-sweeping movie on many fronts. There is real chemistry between the two main actors, Daniel Morgenroth and Franziska Forster, instead of the awkward platonic sparring between Rex and Audrey. And Dagmar Biener and Anton Rattinger add some delightful inner life to the roles of Mrs Pearce and Colonel Pickering. All in all, for anyone wishing to see the musical that got caught up in Berlin's cultural Cold War, it's a production worth shelling out €26 to €79 for seats.

“My Fair Lady” is playing Berlin's Admiralspalast until September 14, after which the production will tour Germany.

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