The actor has dreamt for years of bringing the Kit Kat Club to the stage — he talks latex, tights and first night nerves with co-star Jessie Buckley
Eddie Redmayne has a dilemma. His children, aged three and five, are desperate to come and see him on stage in a new production of Cabaret. He has been playing the music nonstop at home and they’ve even learnt the moves to the song Money Makes the World Go Round. “They enjoyed Frozen, so they think it’s going to be like that,” he says, chuckling “Their favourite number is Don’t Tell Mama, but they have no idea what it’s about.” The jaunty tunes belie the fact Cabaret is probably one of the darkest musicals ever written. Set in Weimar Germany as the Nazis begin their ascent to power, there’s violence, antisemitism and the leading lady, Sally Bowles —who can’t tell her Mama she’s appearing on stage in her underwear — has an abortion. It’s not one for the kids.
It’s 11 years since Redmayne last appeared on stage. But it isn’t the first time the Oscar-winning actor has played the role of the androgynous ringmaster in Cabaret. Aged 17 he was cast as the Emcee in a school production at Eton that was later taken to the Edinburgh Fringe. He remembers “running up the Royal Mile in latex and tights handing out leaflets for the show”. It was in a brand-new venue, the Underbelly, set up by two fellow Old Etonians, Ed Bartlam and Charlie Wood. Back then it consisted of a few cramped, damp, beer-stained performance spaces frequented by aspiring comics and student musicals. Now the Underbelly is a successful production company that hosts festivals in London and Edinburgh. Redmayne’s early performance must have made an impression on the two producers because many years later they contacted him to see if he fancied doing Cabaret again. The answer was yes.
Redmayne is now 39 but looks about 23, with a fresh, freckled complexion and a boyish enthusiasm. I meet him in a hotel café opposite the Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End. He is with his co-star, the Irish actress Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose, Chernobyl), who plays Sally Bowles, the “divinely decadent” cabaret singer who arrives in Berlin in search of adventure. Buckley was Redmayne’s choice for the role. He didn’t know her, but he’d seen her act and sing and thought she had the right combination of grit and youthful vulnerability required to play Sally. “I thought you were formidable,” he says to her across the café table. The actress sticks her fingers in her mouth and mimes vomiting. Buckley came to fame aged 17 as a contestant on the TV talent show to find a new Nancy for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of Oliver! She came second but has never looked back. Much to her embarrassment, Redmayne tells me how he watched the whole series of I’d Do Anything and loved it. His only other West End musical appearance until Cabaret was playing “fourth workhouse boy” in a production of Oliver! aged 11.
Going to a boys’ school meant that Redmayne was cast in female roles from an early age. His first lead at Eton was playing Adela Quested in a stage version of A Passage to India and his first professional role was Viola in an all-male production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night opposite Mark Rylance. Meanwhile Buckley was at an all-girls school and was always given male roles: “I played Tony in West Side Story and God in Children of Eden.”
It has taken about six years to get Cabaret off the ground, partly because both actors are so in demand. Redmayne has just finished shooting the latest instalment of JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts franchise and before that The Good Nurse, the true story of Charlie Cullen, a nurse who was one of the most prolific serial killers in history. By coincidence Buckley was in the US at the same time playing a similar role in the TV drama Fargo. “Yeah,” Buckley says, grinning, “we bonded over playing psychotic serial killer nurses.” She’s also appearing opposite Olivia Colman in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, a film based on an Elena Ferrante novel.
Given how busy they are, both actors have been unusually involved in the early stages of Cabaret. They chose the director Rebecca Frecknall, having seen her acclaimed production of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke and describe how they originally wanted to stage it in a basement in Islington rather than a traditional theatre. “We wanted the atmosphere of a Berlin nightclub rave at 2am,” Redmayne explains. In the end they could not get that venue, but the Ambassador Theatre Group, which owns the Playhouse, agreed to transform the Victorian theatre into a Weimar-era cabaret club at considerable cost.
We meet on the day of the dress rehearsal. Both confess to anxiety and sleepless nights as the opening looms. They’re going to be performing in the round, appearing on and off stage through a rabbit warren of entrances and exits. “I lie in bed going through the different routes in my head,” says Redmayne, who is worried about taking the wrong turning and popping up somewhere he shouldn’t be. “Sounds like the story of my life,” Buckley quips. Redmayne says there are recordings of Judi Dench reciting poetry in the hotel lavatories. “I’m going to pop over here every night before the performance, sit on the loo and listen to Judi, because that’s calming.”
I can see why he’s anxious when I’m taken on a tour by the designer, Tom Scutt. The place is buzzing with carpenters, painters and musicians tuning up their instruments. A floor has been built over the stalls, levelling up the once cavernous auditorium and shrinking it into the intimate Kit Kat Club of the musical, which reduces seat capacity from 832 to 590. There’s a small round stage bisecting the proscenium arch with seats on every side. The first few rows are café tables, so the audience, performers and musicians share the same intimate space. Tickets start at £30 and table seats are £120, with food and drink packages that can go up to £325 in total for a gourmet deal. There’s also a daily £25 lottery for seats that include table seating.
The audience will enter down a narrow staircase to the side of the theatre, with old pipes overhead and concrete walls dimly lit in a magenta red. Before they get to the auditorium they will be guided through a series of winding corridors covered in beaded metallic fringing with small performance nooks for musicians and dancers. “There will be music as soon as you come in, so it will feel like you’re going into a nightclub,” Scutt says. “It’s immersive without being a Punchdrunk or Secret Cinema show. We wanted an atmospheric prelude with the audience entering through a dingy corridor while being entertained by the musicians and dancers.”
The theatre walls have been repainted in dark colours, and a flashing-eye logo appears throughout to “convey the idea of voyeurism and paranoia; a Seventies and Eighties Berlin feel”. The cast and crew set up a WhatsApp group to share images and ideas. These included clips from Fassbinder films and videos of Annie Lennox and the avant-garde 1930s choreographer Mary Wigman. I ask Redmayne how he sees his character, the mercurial Emcee. “I see him as a survivor who can shape-shift himself out of every situation. There are elements of Karl Valentin [the Charlie Chaplin of Weimar Germany] and there is this extraordinary maître d’ at the Sunset Towers in Los Angeles called Dimitri. I’ve put a bit of him into the mix.”
The script of Cabaret doesn’t put a label on the Emcee, but the character is often played by LGBT actors, so Redmayne’s casting has come in for criticism. “Of all the characters I’ve ever read, this one defies pigeonholing. I would ask people to come and see it before casting judgment,” he says firmly. This is a sensitive conversation for Redmayne. He came in for considerable flak for his Oscar-nominated role in The Danish Girl, based on the true story of the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
His critics believed the role should be played by a trans actor. Would he take it if he was offered it today? “No, I wouldn’t take it on now. I made that film with the best intentions, but I think it was a mistake.” I point out that it probably would not have been made without him. The script had been around for years and was only greenlit when Redmayne was cast off the back of winning an Oscar for his portrayal of the disabled scientist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. His reply is thoughtful and diplomatic. “The bigger discussion about the frustrations around casting is because many people don’t have a chair at the table. There must be a levelling, otherwise we are going to carry on having these debates.”
Buckley interrupts to say: “This is the most diverse company I have ever worked in. On the first day everyone introduced themselves and said their pronouns, he, she, they . . . and it was lovely to be part of that conversation. Our Kit Kat Club welcomes everyone, whoever you are.”
Redmayne says that one of the joys of doing Cabaret has been learning about the Weimar period, when hedonism, gender fluidity and sexual liberation coexisted with the rise of populism, intolerance and hyperinflation in a Europe still traumatised by the catastrophe of the First World War. It was a highly polarised society. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig wrote that “Berlin was the Babel of the world […]where hundreds of men in women’s clothes and women in men’s clothes danced under the benevolent eyes of the police”. Do they see any parallels with now? “Absolutely,” Buckley says, “and this production draws on elements from then and now. Many of the themes are timeless.”
Cabaret is at the Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse Theatre, London WC2; kitkat.club [Source]