Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Arts Picturehouse), Cabaret (Cripps Auditorium)

Some things – doilies, say, or Harold Macmillan – were quite popular in 1961, but now, thankfully, belong squarely in the past. Blake Edwards’s “classic” adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, re-released this week, is one such cultural fad.

I say “adaptation”, but “bowdlerisation” would be fairer. Main character Holly Golightly’s drug habit and illegitimate child are written out (Holly herself is effectively a child bride); Blake Edwards clearly didn’t want Capote’s ironic probing into the American underbelly to get in the way of a blockbusting flight of fancy.

I say “flight of fancy”, but “flight into fatuity” would be fairer. It’s difficult to decide what grates most as Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard smoke and litter their way through Manhattan’s classy Upper Eastside. The latter’s performance as the leading man is confused and inconsistent, and inevitably fails to rise above his character’s incoherence as a struggling writer who, actually, doesn’t seem to struggle much, soaking in champagne breakfasts like an alcoholic, aristocratic sponge. And, I should add, with just as many holes in his priggish arguments that “life’s a fact, people belong to each other and that’s the only chance anybody has to be happy”. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to admire the perfect, Humphrey Appleby scansion with which he manages to say “I’ve never drunk champagne before breakfast before. With breakfast before, but never before, before.”

Most memorably, Audrey Hepburn kookily portrays Holly Golightly as a vacuous socialite. I say “socialite” because it seems absurd to describe someone who lives in a Manhattan townhouse as a “callgirl” (even if she has come to afford this townhouse through methods that can only be described as… well, let’s skip that, just like the film does) To her romantic misadventures Hepburn tries her best to add charm, but ultimately comes over as simple, selfish and morally dubious. True, thousands of women-viewers have for decades begged to differ. This says more about their character than about the film’s.

Holly’s admirers fancy her as a Dorothy Parker-type figure, a witty female who is more than a match for the pretensions of any male intellectual. “A girl can’t read that sort of thing without her lipstick”, she says. But as Dorothy Parker pointed out, “There’s a helluva distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words.” Holly’s performance is mere callisthenics, a verbal fitness video, repetitive and brainless, and best followed by a shower.

Certainly, she looks as stylish as ever in her Givenchy dresses, and Peppard is similarly good-looking, as are the implausibly clean streets of New York, but style is no substitute for substance.

Not that these touches are without its pleasures. Viewers will warm nostalgically to Henry Mancini’s iconic, if dated, score (including the Oscar-winning first-ever rendition of Moon River), but one cannot expect the same of Mickey Rooney’s turn as the absurd-accented and buck-toothed ‘comedy Jap’, a painfully racist performance in yellowface that recalls a Hollywood one would really rather not (among the movie’s earliest lines include: “Me so sorry! Me love you long time!”).

A classic, we are told, stands the test of time. Breakfast at Tiffany’s effortlessly flunks it. Never has there been a film more undeserving of its place in cinematic history, but it does deserve to be consigned to it.

Some artefacts from the 60s, however, do not deserve this fate. Harold Wilson, for starters, or pop-tarts: spectacularly popular back in the day, but now out of fashion. To that list add Cabaret (Cripps Auditorium, ), Kander and Ebb’s mesmerising musical meditation on the rise of Nazism. Its popularity now pales in comparison with fluffier Nazi-themed musicals like The Sound of Music, Bent or The Producers (I can’t be alone in noticing that Nazism has proven curiously ripe for musical material). One can only welcome, then, MMPS’s deft revival of this subgenre’s most sophisticated exemplar, raising in true cabaret-spirit deadly serious questions alongside more than a few show-stopping musical numbers.

Cabaret shows Nazism to be more a pall-bearer to the decaying hearse of Weimar vibrance than some long-knived hatchet-man, rejecting the clichéd narrative of an innocently liberal culture spontaneously subsumed by fascism. Instead Cabaret combs the kernels of corruption inherent within a no-holds-barred culture, to which Cabaret is as much indictment as homage.

Millie Benson’s effulgently vivid performance as the innocent ingénue, Sally, show-stealingly captures fin-de-siècle modernism’s decadent, decrepit and dying gasps as the Kit Kat Klub’s patrons and performers sing and dance away the onset of a mass movement out to extinguish the liberty their every lyric and lock-step agonisingly celebrates.

Despite occasional misplaced feel-goodery, director Charlie Risius handled the haunting historical context with admirable subtlety, adumbrating the nastiness to come before unveiling it, the ambiguous black-and-white imagery during the patriotic paean “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” eventually giving way to Swastikas. But the choreography, though crisp, lacked the delectable depravity 30s Berliner cabaret epitomised. No hinting, too, at the symbiosis between sexual and political perversion. Indeed, the sexual subtext is skirted over in favour of populist polish, which the punters lovingly lapped up. Yet, as the naughty noughties dovetail into the EDL and Geert Wilders, an awareness of the relationship between cultural excess and political perniciousness would have added some germane freshness.

A virtue is made of the venue’s small size, creating an intimacy particularly effective in foreboding a sense of impending tragedy as the Kit Kat Klub’s carefree cosmopolitanism yields to nationalism’s corrosive cancer. Better-acted than most things this reviewer has seen at the ADC, Rupert Mercer’s American prig and Jake Arnott’s nuanced Nazi merit mention. Thankfully, the romances were restrained, not overdone (the film processes them into low-brow soap, probably from Lidl; this is classier, more John Lewis) and the orchestra was literally the show’s unsung hero.

Without a doubt Cabaret entertains eminently, from emcee Rob Young’s Kurt Weill-style overture to the doom-laden finale (the Kit Kat Klub insists throughout that ‘life is a cabaret’; one knows by the end it’s no such thing). This is a marionette’s-eye view of history, one through which all would be well-served to glance.


Cambridge in Literature: G. K. Chesterton’s “Manalive”

Published in The Cambridge Student, November 2010

G.K. Chesterton was his friend C.S. Lewis’s only real competitor as England’s greatest Christian apologist, but unlike Lewis, his career as a novelist seems to be less widely acknowledged than his bestselling polemical works, like Orthodoxy and The Eternal Man. But always underlying the novels of both writers was the spirited attempt to affirm a decidedly Christian worldview of fallible Man who by the grace of God might lead a meaningful and fulfilled life. In his 1912 novel, Manalive, Chesterton affirms the Christian message in the character of Innocent Smith (the name is hardly subtle), a Prince Myshkin-like Cambridge graduate, ‘a holy fool’ who is falsely accused of burglary, attempted murder and polygamy: hardly Christlike. After letters from his contemporaries at the fictional Brikespeare College are mined (sarcastic descriptions of which suggest Chesterton’s contempt for 19th century liberal Bible Criticism), it transpires that the house he burgled was his own, the attempted murder merely his habit of firing bullets near people to make them cherish life and the polygamy his kinkily Catholic hobby of eloping with women who are actually his wife posing under various aliases so that they may repeatedly re-live their thoroughly chaste courtship. This irony-laden extract lambastes Cambridge’s spirit of what Chesterton viewed to be a nihilistic scientific skepticism (knowledge of which was likely culled from conversations with Cambridge fellow CS Lewis).

He had been sent to Cambridge with a view to a mathematical and scientific, rather than a classical or literary, career. A starless nihilism was then the philosophy of the schools; and it bred in him a war between the members and the spirit, but one in which the members were right.  While his brain accepted the black creed, his very body rebelled against it. As he put it, his right hand taught him terrible things. As the authorities of Cambridge University put it, unfortunately, it had taken the form of his right hand flourishing a loaded firearm in the very face of a distinguished don, and driving him to climb out of the window and cling to a waterspout. He had done it solely because the poor don had professed in theory a preference for non-existence. For this very unacademic type of argument he had been sent down. Vomiting as he was with revulsion, from the pessimism that had quailed under his pistol, he made himself a kind of fanatic of the joy of life.  He cut across all the associations of serious-minded men.  He was gay, but by no means careless. His practical jokes were more in earnest than verbal ones. Though not an optimist in the absurd sense of maintaining that life is all beer and skittles, he did really seem to maintain that beer and skittles are the most serious part of it. `What is more immortal,’ he would cry, `than love and war? Type of all desire and joy–beer.  Type of all battle and conquest–skittles.’

G. K. Chesterton, Manalive (1912)

Introducing… Hemanta Mukherjee

Published in The Cambridge Student, November 2010

Chances are you won’t have heard of the late Dr Hemanta Mukherjee, but I’m in good company in insisting on rescuing this singer-songwriter-composer from obscurity; Salman Rushdie, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Amartya Sen have all mourned the disappearance of Hemant from popular consciousness, even in the Indian subcontinent, where once he reigned like an all-singing, all-dancing musical hydra combining the gifts of what can only be compared to Frank Sinatra, Daniel Barenboim, Irving Berlin and Ennio Morricone all rolled in one. He was: a singer whose wholesomely orotund voice no subcontinental could mistake, India’s foremost interpreter of the musical canon, a legendary lyricist whose songs inimitably captured the newly-freed country’s imagination, and a composer of the most acclaimed Indian film scores in cinematic history, from Saptapadi’s tragic Bengali ballads to the Hindi hit Nagin, whose chart-toppers won him a Filmfare (an Asian Oscar) in 1956. OverIndia the distinction between “high-brow” poetry and “low-brow” popular song has traditionally had no hold, and Hemant’s verses reached millions through the popular platform of theCalcutta andBombay film industries, beaming his voice – as often imbued with heart-rending pathos as with heart-warming whimsy – to the masses. Palpably a product of revolutionary Calcuttan cosmopolitanism, his idiom was multicultural and sophisticated but its meaning never beyond comprehension (a talent honed as a founder-member of the 1940s Indian People’s Theatre Association). You need no linguistic acquaintance to appreciate the sonorous savour of his voice and the old-world charm of his music, whose acoustic crackle now carries you away to a long-gone age of the transistor radio and an orient of magic carpets and petticoated princesses. Hearing Hemant is a lesson in history, music and literature. Unlike most lessons, it’s fun.

Introducing… Pink Martini

Published in The Cambridge StudentSeptember 2010

This 12-member soi-disant “little orchestra” could be dubbed an elixir of quietude just as aptly as the cocktail comprising its name. Pink Martini can lull a restive child to sleep or heave the fuddiest duddy to take to Tango. Venturing such a veritable potpourri of genres, from the Portuguese sea-shanty to the Arabic love-ballad, it’s difficult to identify a unitary sound to Pink Martini, but their music carries the scents of the Mediterranean, the Far East, Latin America and Mitteleuropa. Unashamedly polyglot, Harvard-educated vocalists China Forbes and Thomas Lauderdale have sung in at least 9 tongues as varied as Japanese and Czech, besides their recurring repertoire of sexy Latin beats and Piaf-esque francophilia. In Lauderdale’s words: “if the United Nations had a house band in 1962, we’d be that band.” But this isn’t your standard ‘world music’-fix, nor the orgy of pretension it admittedly seems (hear their unashamedly poppy hit single Hey Eugene). Trendy, sure, but no less old-fashioned; their tunes consciously recreate lost sounds, of classic Broadway, say, or 1940s French radio, and historically-literate titles like Andalucia, Syracuse and New Amsterdam nod to previous centuries’ cross-cultural meeting points. Which is what Pink Martini is: music for the aspiring cosmopolitan.