What: Dietrich: Natural Duty
Who: Peter Groom, directed by Oliver Gully
When: 10th – 17th March
Where: Noel Lothian Hall
How much: $25 – $28
Marlene Dietrich, German femme fatale from the 30’s and 40’s, is brought back to life in this triumph of drag performance, Dietrich: Natural Duty. Known for her sultry looks and unique style, Groom’s depiction of this passionate and strong-willed Hollywood starlet is perfectly poised. The makeup with her trademark thin brows high on her forehead, her hair perfectly coiffed, and the gown mesmerizing; it was often times impossible to look away from her as she graced the stage. Her singing and speaking voice were equally impeccable, with her accent and breathy smooth voice.
Natural Duty tells the story of Dietrich’s heyday, how she was discovered and was whisked off to Hollywood in 1930 to pursue her acting career to become one of the iconic sex symbols of the era. But with the fame and glamour came the ramifications of being a public German figure during World War II, with war raging in her hometown of Berlin, the show portrays how Dietrich strongly opposed the Nazi regime.
Dietrich is unlike many drag performances with their saucy banter, colourful costuming and uproarious musical numbers. While it has its fair share of coy jokes and winks at the audience, Dietrich remains reflective and serious throughout. Her true charm lies in the little mannerisms and the subtle gestures with which she retells her story, which I don’t think her audience fully detected, which definitely impacted their reaction.
The faults within the performance originate from the structure of the story of the biography of Dietrich is retold. Marlene interacts with a voiceover throughout that asks her specific questions which segues into the next scene or musical number. This disruption broke the spell of being in the presence of an icon retelling her story. What would have made the experience more immersive was if it was solely her and her audience, telling her life story with anecdotes and songs. Furthermore, if the setting was more akin to a smoky cabaret bar of the era with a live band, the performance would have been a lot more intimate and engaging.
While the impersonation was flawless, the structure contained some faults which impacted on the delivery of Dietrich’s story. With that being said, it is still worth watching for the visual spectacle alone. Likeness aside, the spirit of Marlene Dietrich lives on in Natural Duty.