Leaving New York during a pandemic (and after over a decade of calling it my home), I had a very pressing concern on my mind – one that I shared with a fellow former ex-pat who moved back to Sydney from London around the same time.
“What are we going to do for our regular culture fix?” I lamented; a sentiment that was quickly echoed by my equally theatre and art-obsessed friend. While Sydney is by no means a cultural wasteland, it certainly hasn’t historically offered the same sort of round-the-clock access to the arts that New York and London have.
Of course, over the past few years, there has been nowhere in the world that could really claim to have a thriving arts scene. Thanks to the wretched pandemic and its numerous lockdowns, the lights have been dimmed on stages from Broadway to the West End and live music has felt like a distant memory.
So, taking my seat in the Famous Spiegeltent one Friday night as I prepared to watch Bernie Dieter’s Club Kabarett, I felt a particularly strong sense of excitement. Scanning the crowd, I was instantly intrigued — this was a show, it would seem, that had attracted every walk of life you could imagine. Every age, gender identity, sexuality and socioeconomic status appeared to be represented within the confines of the red and blue striped tent.
For the next couple of hours, every single person in the venue was completely united in their enjoyment of one of the best shows I, personally, have seen in years.
Köln native Bernie, accompanied by her incredible band, The Vier, had us all spellbound from the moment she stepped on stage. I mean, for one thing, she was rocking these incredible epaulettes from Kraken Counter Culture:
However, her voice, her humour and just all-around stage presence made it immediately obvious why she has been named the “undisputed Queen of punk cabaret”.
Joining Bernie was her troupe of “the most glorious punks, freaks and weirdos she could find” (her words) and they, too, enraptured the crowd with each and every one of their provocative acts.
Throughout it all, Bernie kept the show moving, singing both original and cover songs, and sharing anecdotes about her life and experiences, which includes an A3 copy of a (flaccid!) dick pic that was unceremoniously sent to her via Facebook Messenger. In the ultimate act of comeuppance, Bernie presents said unsolicited dick pic (reveling in the memory of the horror displayed by the guy at Officeworks) and holds it side-by-side with a naked mole-rat. Let’s just say… it was a little insulting to the mole-rat.
Of course, this is a cabaret, so there is a bunch of audience engagement too — which my partner and I were singled out for. Spying us sitting there in the third row, Bernie proceeded to predict what our bedroom activities might consist of that night when we got home, either not noticing or choosing not to address the fact that I was eight months pregnant at the time, which meant my plans only involved getting intimate with my belly butter and body pillow.
Aside from singing songs that either had us roaring with laughter or simply marvelling at her impressive vocal range (and fabulous wardrobe), Bernie also brought home why there was just so much energy in the tent that night.
Recalling what life has been like since the pandemic struck in 2020, Bernie relayed stories of cancelled gigs — both hers and her friends — and the harsh reality of just how hard the arts and entertainment industry has been hit.
“I think we really needed this,” she mused to the crowd eliciting, in turn, a wave of applause, cheering and foot-stomping that threatened to buckle the wooden frame of the Famous Spiegeltent. Hell, even my unborn child was going nuts in my belly, proving that Bernie’s appeal not only transcends class, gender and race but uterine linings too.
Looking around with eyes full of tears that had nothing to do with pregnancy hormones, I wholeheartedly agreed with Bernie’s sentiment. Yes, we needed this. We needed this reminder that, despite differing views on vaccines, politics and all of the other divisive issues out there, art will always be the ultimate equaliser. That, if nothing else, we can all come together for a few hours and be united in our shared admiration of performance and our appreciation for the pure escapism it provides.
More than that, I needed that night under the wings of a big, striped tent and the spiked silhouettes of Bernie’s designer epaulettes.
I needed it to realise that while I will always pine for my Manhattan home of so many years, when it comes to culture my native home does just fine too, thank you very much.
Bernie Dieter’s Club Kabarett is back for 2022, and will run from 16 Aug – 25 Sept at the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent in Runaway Gardens, The Rocks. Check out the official website for Sydney Fringe Festival for more info.