Twenty-four hours ago, I was hundreds of kilometres from home, on a hilltop in Hesse. As night fell, I was curled up in a pink blanket, in the courtyard of the marvellous 14th century château (or Schloss, to use the vernacular) of the small town of Biedenkopf… and don’t say ‘where?’… with a nice whisky … Why? Well, of course, it was theatre. And this is the outdoors season.
I had voyaged across a quarter of Germany for the first showing of a new musical play, from the pens of Birgit Simmler and Paul Graham Brown, whom I last witnessed together in action in the grand Dynamite! in Berlin. So why Biedenkopf? It’s a long story … but let’s say right away, this wasn’t just a new musical: it was an event.
Biedenkopf hasn’t got a theatre. Madame Simmler comes to the town, and has an idea .. Biedenkopf has an adventurous mayor … Birgit called up her old collaborator… the town council supported the project …
And so last night the musical Eingefädelt, conceived and built on a background of the history of Hesse, was born. It was staged on a tiny platform in the Schloss, with a cast made up of local players, sugared with a topping of professionals, before 350 (that’s capacity!) enthusiastic folk… including several industry professionals who’d made the long trip.
The central character of the tale is Katha. A medieval Biedenkopf lass, who, having been involved in her abusive husband’s death, sets out to seek religious and temporal absolution from the local Fürst before giving in to the advances of a much prettier tenor. The trouble is that (fact) said Fürst has been imprisoned in the tower for having wed – in these just post-Lutherian times – for a second time. So Katha and her Stefan have to get him out.
But that’s only the plot. The background is niftily made the foreground: the other three main characters represent commerce (Kurt, a Hessian cloth-seller), religion and right (Eleanor, an aristocratic lady cloth buyer) .. and fun. Or freedom and family life. Er, I might be wrong on the last. Represented by Errol Flynn.
The whole story is staged in exemplary fashion around a sole piece of stage furniture: a wagon (tumbril?) of cloth, the essential export of Hesse, owned by Kurt, used by Katha as a means of escape, and so forth … neatly done!
There is a great deal of story and play, somehow easily got into 1hr 40, and still leaving room for what seemed like a huge score of often short numbers. But they are Mr Brown numbers, so, of course there are some jewels in there. My particular favourite was ... I can’t give you titles, because, in fashion of Germany, the programme gives historical info on Fürst Philipp, but not a song list … the number by Eleanor and her underwear Mädchens which ended the first act ‘en trombe’ (choreography: Tim Zimmermann). Actually, I liked best most of the combined voices numbers (and the two-women duo which didn’t happen), although the tenor had an attractive and showy number in act one, and Errol Flynn has a nice jaunty dancy piece in the same act, which stands out amid the dramatic and soulful pieces.
The piece is well crafted. Of course. But I will bet, now that its got to this stage, the collaborators will fiddle with it, before the obvious revival.
And so, the piece being decreed well-made and enjoyable, but probably improvable, we come to the players. It is not considered right to give a critique (unless it’s a rave) on amateurs, at least, not by name. But what do you do when they’re all mixed up together and one or two of the amateurs could be professionals?
The star of the show, for Biedenkopf, was local vocalist Yana Gercke, who played pretty Katha. She has had success in a telly-competition. Rightly so. She has a lovely warm, sympathetic mid-range voice. I wish the part had demanded more of her vocally. Or not? This was her first essay in an acting role, and she is a natural. She reminded me of the young Frankie Ruffelle.
Her oppo was Karsten Kenzel. Tenor? He’s played Sky Masterson. A pretty fellow, tending to the chubby, and with a decidedly pleasant and rangy light baritone … a very good all-rounder. Good casting. Good singing teacher.
These two, being involved in their dramatic story, didn’t often get to give us much fun, but that was made up for by the others.
David Schröder was a copybook alter komischer (is that right?) as the Cloth-Merchant … and then there was Dr Carsten Wenzel as the Zeugmeister von Rommel. Yes, Doctor. He’s a dentist and an amateur. He had a plum part and rightly played it as a burlesque of Errol Flynn. I likened him to the Cat from Shrek. But. There is more to a role than one delightful pose and a one-dimensional portrayal. Never mind, he was fun when not being too camp, and he sings and dances to a good level.
The performance of the night, for me, was Lisa-Marie Joch, as the Lady Eleanor. A superb stage presence, a grand delivery, a fine voice and she knows how to dominate the stage … yes!
Several members of the local cast distinguished themselves, but – in the usual way – amateurs will be amateurs, and there were a (very) few clumsy horrors. Gosh, how I wished Katha had killed her husband before scene two. Or scene one.
And to top it all, when they liberated Fürst Philipp den Grossmütigen from the (real) castle in the last reel … it was the mayor. His stage performance wasn’t quite a fluent as his long speech afterwards … but he deserved it!
So, there we are. I consider my safari to Hesse well worth the 1000km. I am quite sure this local piece will become an annual, or at least a regular, in its very special surroundings … like The Student Prince in Heidelberg.
How many other towns in Germany – or anywhere -- have their own purpose-made musical? Biedenkopf now has a delicious theatre space, and a spanking new show of its own.
And I’m very glad I was there at its birth.
Postscriptum: The originally scheduled three performances having sold out .. the season has already been extended to seven!