Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood, adapted by Tina Pepler

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BBC Radio 4, 3-10 October 2010
Goodbye to Berlin is a familiar tale to anyone acquainted with John van Druten's I am a Camera or Kander and Ebb's musical Cabaret. In Polly Thomas' production the focus was not so much on the decadence of Berlin in the years prior to the Nazi takeover in 1933, but rather on the effect the city wrought on Isherwood's (James Norton's) state of mind. He functioned as the narrator, believing his work as storyteller to be analogous to that of a photographer, recording his impressions for posterity. Yet in spite of the loftiness of his ideals, Isherwood came across as someone reluctant to engage with Berlin society on a variety of levels. Although calling himself "a writer," he was loth to pursue to his chosen profession, complaining all the while about various distractions - the people, the noise, the filthy environment in which he lived. Isherwood was also reluctant to engage in close relationships with members of either sex. He shied away from Sally Bowles, Bernhard Landauer (Andre Kaczmarczyk) and Otto Nowak (Tilmar Kuhn), even though the last two of these named people actively craved both moral and sexual support. And lastly Isherwood remained reluctant to commit himself to living in Berlin, despite his knowledge of the language. Given these constraints, Goodbye to Berlin came across as a frustrated - and frustrating - voyage of self-discovery in which Isherwood looked for inspiration yet could not commit himself to finding it.
While this production took us back to a time of decadence and high spirits, complete with period music, it did not shy away from the seamier side of society. The Jews were portrayed as isolated figures; although not experiencing the kind of hardships they would endure during the latter part of the decade, they nonetheless understood that their time was up as opinion-formers in German culture. Bernhard in particular looked back nostalgically to the golden days of the late nineteenth century, when German Jews could influence foreign policy to a significant degree. Isherwood's story was transformed into an elegy for a bygone age of peace and social stability, celebrated each night with wine, women and song. However the impending threat of destruction at the hands of the Nazis was perpetually evidence through archive recordings of Hitler and his ministers, which were played over the music in the background.
While this aspect of the production could not be overlooked, Thomas was far more interested in analyzing the central character. Goodbye to Berlin came across as the study of a rather feckless young man who, despite his good intentions, could not engage with the world around him. Anyone looking for a reprise of the songs, dances and painful jollity of Cabaret was bound to be disappointed.