Written by Gail Louw, directed by Sylvaine Strike, performed by Fiona Ramsay in the title role and Janna Ramos-Violante as her daughter, Maria Riva, with set and lighting by Denis Hutchinson and costumes by Margo Fleish, Miss Dietrich Regrets is an all star production presented at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square by Daphne Kuhn.
Marlene Dietrich is one of the best known movie actresses ever (my mother having introduced her aura, if not her movies, to me as a child), and here we find her, aged, bedridden and alone in her Parisian apartment some time in the last eleven years of her life. The bed takes centre stage and Denis Hutchinson has placed movie lights and canvas chairs on the periphery. We are in no doubt that despite the bed with the seedy hot plate stove on the side and the assortment of alcohol and pills on the bedside table, Marlene Dietrich is, despite the unkind ravages of time on her body, still the star of her own show.
The script is magnificent. It swings between the intimate and uncomfortable truths about her and outrageous lies conconcted to protect the old, alcoholic, crippled star from the gaze of people who once adored her. It reveals details of her life (like the 1975 stage fall which ended her public career) so subtly that it never feels didactic, even for a second, although it is clearly thoroughly researched and brilliantly accurate. We are in no doubt that Marlene Dietrich was a patriotic German American who hated the Nazis. The audience mentally applauds as she demands from (President) “Ronnie” that he hand war criminal Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon”, over for trial and learn that she was decorated for her war work and sang to the (German) Israelis in German at their (manipulated) request despite an unofficial taboo on all things German, including the language itself. As the play unfolds the audience finds the harsh realities of being bedridden – needing to ablute in bed, which waste matter needs to be carried off by the Concierge, and her dirty linen which needs changing.
Fiona Ramsay is one of South Africa’s senior actresses, a woman of about my own age, making her “mature, but not old”. Here she morphed into a woman about thirty or so (depending on when in the 11 years Marlene Dietrich spent bedridden the play is set) years older than she is (doubtless helped by lighting by Denis Hutchinson, but never denying her superb command of the craft she plies). Fiona Ramsay wasn’t in that bed. An imperious, self-absorbed, difficult, demanding but “fabulous” Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) was. Fiona Ramsay’s voice takes on the Marlene Dietrich huskiness and when she sings “Where have all the flowers gone?” my eyes filled with tears. Those haunting words are on her memorial plaque in Berlin.
Janna Ramos-Violante, playing Maria Riva, is a complete a physical contrast to her mother. Young, beautiful (but not as beautiful as Marlene Dietrich herself) and healthy, she is not a glamorous woman, but rather a down to earth mother of four. Their parenting styles and personalities are compared. It is clear that while Mutti and Maria love each other, their relationship is strained. The relationship is abusive but Maria tolerates it not only dutifully, but because she genuinely cares for her and worries about her manipulative mother, seeking to act in her mother’s best interests. They don’t agree on what those best interests are.
Sylvaine Strike keeps the balance between the characters perfectly in harmony, never allowing the one to dominate the other. The story is as much about family as it is about fame. One leaves the theatre pondering the universal trials of caring for elderly parents, something my generation has done or is still doing if they are fortunate to have really long lived parents, rather than marvelling at the life of a star.
The real point is that Marlene Dietrich, despite the mistakes she has made in life, regrets nothing.
Make sure you don’t regret missing this one. Book at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square at 011 883 8606.