HAMBURG, GERMANY – June 2002
Old ex-London friends were the backbone of the trip to Germany. Maggie was a teacher who had decided that educating the youth of Germany was a lot less stressful than educating the youth of inner London; I had known her Irish boyfriend Ken from the old days in Dublin. Maggie contacted me to say that she had arranged three shows in two separate venues in Hamburg. All I had to do was to turn up.
2002 June: Saturday
With Ryanair’s usual cavalier attitude towards geography the plane landed at the airport in Hamburg – which turned out to be an airport in Lubeck – or at least somewhere vaguely adjacent to Lubeck. After initial confusion, I boarded a bus that looked like it was heading in the right direction, settled back in the seat, and cast a world-weary eye on the dull countryside passing by. Very flat, Schleswig-Holstein.
Maggie possessed a pleasant apartment in the Hamburg suburb of Eimsbuttel. Across the road there was an even more pleasant restaurant/beer garden called the Café Strauss that inevitably became the base camp for operations. And beer.
2002 June: Sunday: First Schilleroper
Over lunch, Ken filled me in on some details about Hamburg. Rather like Liverpool, it was a port with a strong left-wing tradition. (In the 1930s, Hitler created a special concentration camp north of Hamburg just to deal with leftists from the city.) In modern times, it seemed that the Germans had become well aware of their generally unjust reputation for robotic conformity, and were trying to alter this perception. Therefore, individualism was being encouraged, and nowhere more so than here. Ken: “The order has gone out. You vill be ECCENTRIC!!”
Walking into the centre in the afternoon, I began to appreciate what he meant. A Gay Pride Carnival was in full swing and thousands of young gays and lesbians were partying to the hilt. In front of us a moustachioed muscleman resembling Freddie Mercury French-kissed a six foot five version of the late Dame Barbara Cartland.
As three middle-aged heterosexuals, we presented a dour group – rather like a jacket potato inserted into a wedding cake. One gentleman dressed only in a fishnet leotard thrust a balloon at Ken with the words:
“Cool, baby, cool! Let it all hang out!”
Ken, a life-long admirer of the films and philosophy of John Wayne, grunted.
At a bar near the Auster Lake, Maggie returned from the Ladies to report that two drag queens were having vociferous sex in one of the cubicles.
“At least it bodes well for an Oscar Wilde show.”
Unfortunately, it did not. The attractions of the carnival proved to be a lot more persuasive than anything our minimalist advertising campaign could offer. We arrived at the venue at 9pm to find the place empty except for a German barman called Martin.
Originally built to hold circuses in 1891, the Schilleroper in the St Pauli district had been turned into a theatre in 1905 and named in honour of the German writer Friedrich Schiller. It had had a chequered past, having been a successful theatre in the 1920s, followed by closure due to Nazi objections about its left-wing cabaret, then surviving as a post-war venue for occasional events. It was only saved from a demolition order by becoming a listed building in 1998. At one time, it had possessed an Art Nouveau facade, now replaced by bare wooden hoardings. The sole reminder of its glory days was a tall triangular dome on the roof.
I sorted out a stage area on a foot high platform in the ground floor bar, as heavy German techno music pounded out from a room above. Martin handed out free beers as we waited. By 10pm, the official start time, there was one punter in the place. By 10 45, I decided to go ahead – at least it would be useful as a rehearsal.
The performance was not bad at all. As I proceeded, about ten more audience straggled in. A male couple sprawled on a front row sofa and occasionally glanced at the show during the intervals between passionate embraces. When I picked up a stage cigarette, one of them leaned forward and offered to light it for me. I finished at 11 45pm and passed the hat round. It raised 30 euro.
2002 June Monday: Second Schilleroper
The performance next evening started roughly on time at 10 30pm. It went quite well, except for my forgetting some of the ending for the first time ever – an extraordinary lapse caused possibly by tiredness. However, the audience response was good and I received 100 euro in the hat.
Off stage, I was cornered by a large German businessman who, within five minutes of meeting, had informed me that he had assisted in his father’s recent suicide. There seemed to be something about the Oscar script that prompted extraordinarily frank admissions.
The suicide enabler was replaced by a very tall German who, apropos of Wilde’s experiences in jail, related his own experience in Spain. Having become very drunk one night in Valencia, he awoke next morning in a police cell. With absolutely no recollection of the previous night, he was taken to court. Two men, both sporting black eyes and glaring at him, gave evidence about his behaviour in their café. Given the undeniable facial proof, he had no alternative but to plead guilty.
Martin the barman said that he wanted me to do an extra show the following night and made an announcement over the Schilleroper loudspeaker to that effect. The message opened with a booming “Achtung! Achtung! Oscar Vilde!”
2002 June Tuesday: Third Schilleroper
Despite Martin’s optimism, by the official curtain up time on the third night there was no audience whatsoever. An hour later, Maggie and Ken had collected about sixteen people – enough to justify a show. The performance was laid back and quite fun to do. There were 51 euros in the hat at the end.
Sitting with the audience, I chatted to a German/Peruvian girl who told me that the best word of farewell in Hamburg was ‘Tuess’.
An English paint sprayer from Sunderland told me about the local attitude to garden allotments. “The Germans get very territorial over them. They’ve actually got personalised pennants flying from the roofs of the garden sheds”.
Later, Ken introduced me to the leading drug dealer of the Hamburg region – a very pleasant chap.
2002 June Thursday: Gallery 88, Hamburg
After an overnight sightseeing trip to East Berlin on the Wednesday, I returned for the last show. The Gallery 88 was located in a street very close to the Reepersbahn in the heart of the Hamburg sex district. It consisted of the middle ground-floor section of a disused department store. To the right and left hand sides, separated only by insubstantial hardboard walls, were respectively an erotic cinema and a gay bikers’ bar.
The venue was a wildly tricky place in which to act. The street frontage still consisted of department store plate-glass, so that even in performance I could see the passing trade, and the passing trade could see me. The stage was tiny, measuring only seven feet by five feet. This meant that there was no room for my usual set of one table and two chairs. I had to make use of two bar stools – one acting as the chair, the other as the ‘café table’ for the props. Also, the stage was at least four feet high and the only possible entrance was to clamber inelegantly up from the ‘auditorium’.
About thirty audience trickled in for the 9pm start. From the first it went badly. The stage was far too high and killed any possibility of intimacy. The heads of the front row were only a yard away but they were level with my feet.
Then the props went wrong – very wrong. As I tried to pick up my first stage cigarette, I found that the candle wax had dripped down and welded all the cigarettes to the saucer. The crucial prop had to be abandoned. Also, whenever I stood and tried to pace what space was available, the hardboard walls shook alarmingly. As an added distraction, the soundtrack from the erotic cinema was clearly audible through the right hand wall – an unquenchable accompaniment of groans, panting, and squeals.
But the final nail in the show’s coffin occurred during the supposedly quiet sequence describing Wilde’s spell in jail. In the middle of one of the most affecting passages, there came the unmistakable sound of a fight breaking out in the gay bikers’ bar on the left hand side. This time, the walls didn’t just shake; they bulged.
I battered on through the script and finally reached the end of a nightmare show.
Having collected 85 euro in the hat as recompense, I retired to recover at a nearby bar called Zoey’s. Maggie and Ken introduced me to various audience members, two of whom, in the dim light, I had assumed to be very beautiful girls. They turned out to be young male lovers with long hair and impeccable make-up, who were known locally as ‘the Cherubim’.
Another gay German couple came across to be introduced. Harold was in his thirties, Nils in his twenties, and they had the polished repartee of a long-standing relationship. In response to a complaint from Nils, Harold explained with an air of reasoned concern:
“But I have to order you around. I am the product of four generations of Prussian generals”
Referring to a group of black leather clad gays in the next bar, he drawled dismissively:
“They are merely proletarian hairdressers”.
Nils responded by accusing Harold of having no small talk.
Harold bridled: “Of course I can do small talk”.
Nils: “Your definition of small talk is to slip Hegel in between your cups of tea”.
Harold: “Naturally. I read Proust in my childhood sandpit!”
2002 June Friday
On the coach back to Hamburg Airport, (well, Lubeck), I felt that one result of the trip was to banish any doubts that modern Germany was a resoundingly different place to that which still lingered in the British psyche and in the inability of the British to move on from the attitudes of 1945.
One of the most effective images that I’d seen on the short trip to Berlin was a freestanding billboard near the Brandenburg Gate. It read simply ‘CoeXisT’. The ‘C’ was an Islamic crescent, the ‘X’ was the Star of David, and the ‘T’ was the Christian cross. Neat.
Berlin – Poster near the Reichstag