Sven Ratzke: ‘I’m obviously influenced by Bowie but it’s not a tribute show’
It is perhaps fitting that ahead of the opening of the Edinburgh Fringe, an image of David Bowie was projected on to the wall of the castle and a Bowie tribute forms part of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo this year.
The death of the singer-songwriter is still fresh in people’s minds, adding greater resonance to Starman, the Bowie-inspired cabaret creation of Sven Ratzke that is making its UK debut at the Assembly, George Square on the Dutch cabaret performer’s world tour of the show.
It’s not Ratzke’s first time at the festival. “In 2008 I was asked to host the Supper Club, the late night show at the Assembly. To be honest, my English wasn’t perfect and I felt like a little boy. I didn’t know anything, but I had a great time. I remember getting a little list of names two minutes before I’d go on stage. I had no idea who these people were, and neither did the stage manager. I had to improvise and that memory is still very vivid.”
Last year, says Ratzke, he started talking about coming back to Edinburgh with Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but that didn’t work with the rights. But when he decided to create Starman, which premiered last year, Assembly immediately said it wanted the show. “It is a return to Edinburgh, but on the other hand I’m so different now. I’m not that little farmer’s boy anymore.”
He says that making a show with the music of Bowie was a very natural thing for him since he was always surrounded by Bowie. Although he was never a mega-fan he was always intrigued by the performer, especially in his 1970s incarnations “where he’s almost not human”.
“What I do is I take this music and recreate it, adding original songs and taking the audience on a trip. We start in London, go to New York, LA, and end up in a sleazy drag club in Berlin, of course. I’m obviously influenced by Bowie but I’m not copying him; it’s not a tribute show. I don’t wear his make-up or costumes or behave like him, but I take you to places where I meet people on the road, like Andy Warhol as a white rabbit in the underground of New York; we go to Elizabeth Taylor and her wax figure collection of child stars she has in LA. There are all these weird encounters.”
Ratzke divides his time between homes in Amsterdam and Berlin, but home life is on hold for the current 48-week world tour of Starman.
“I never planned this, really. It just happened. If you live in the Netherlands or in Germany, you could easily just stay there because there’s a lot of work and a lot of venues. But I realised I want to tell universal stories, I want to appeal to audiences in New York, Melbourne or London, and I don’t want to limit that appeal. I wanted to create something that works all around the world, and I think the act gets stronger through that.”
Vital to international touring is a selection of agents able to negotiate in each country. Ratzke currently has four, booking the artist into cabaret hot spots around the globe.
“I have to say I like the diversity of all this, because my life is so different all the time. For example, one day I’m in Perth in His Majesty’s, which is a 900-seat theatre. The next day I have to fly to Sydney and I’m playing in this little jazz venue. Which is a totally different thing for a performer, because, on the one hand, the big halls are beautiful and you have everything technical you need, but it’s also cool to be in these super-small rooms where there’s this shitty dressing room and it smells and the toilet doesn’t work.
“I like the extremes because it keeps you fit as a performer to go from a really big room where you also can’t hide – you have to move differently, your voice is different, your whole act is different than in a smaller room. I like that combination.”
Q&A: Sven Ratzke
What was your first job? I was a window dresser when I was 14; then I sold tickets at 16 with the theatre festival De Parade in Amsterdam.
What is your next job? Touring around the world for 48 weeks with Starman, and returning with Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Who are your influences? All the great individuals who created unique stuff: Marlene, Bowie, Fassbinder, Brecht, Weill, the list goes on.
What advice do you have for people wanting to enter the cabaret circuit? Have courage.
If you hadn’t been an cabaret performer, what would you have done? Theatre director.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I always spit on the stage out of view a second before I go on.
He thinks that in a lot of countries cabaret doesn’t really exist. And even the version that we might recognise in London, New York and Australia is very different, for example, than that in the Netherlands, France, Spain or Germany.
Of course, people will say that Berlin is the benchmark hub, but it’s important to realise that, there, cabaret is still more political than comedy and song. What there is no denying is that cabaret has this knack of finding a role that reflects the society it finds itself in.
Ratzke says: “I’m just back from Australia and the elections were happening and I felt that cabaret there really stands out, because it’s about personality. It’s about somebody telling his or her story in a small room. It’s unique. You have to be unique to do that. You cannot hide behind big sets or a lot of dancers.
“In a world where entertainment is getting a little mediocre, cabaret is something that really stands out. A lot of cabaret artists are working like me, creating a new show out of cultural events that have influenced them. I think it’s this which international audiences have a thirst for – cabaret that has a historical value.
“Audiences, such as those in Adelaide and Perth, are very open to a mixture of genres. More so than in Europe where, especially in Germany or Holland, it’s very structured: ‘This is ballet, this is classical theatre, this is cabaret.’ In places like Australia, London and Scotland people are more open-minded and they really love it when something new is happening and when there’s a mixture of things.”
Apart from his career as a cabaret artist, Ratzke also has a repertoire of musical theatre appearances including Cabaret, The Threepenny Opera and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Hedwig began life at the Admiralspalast, Berlin, and proved so successful that it later toured to Switzerland, Amsterdam and Vienna. Ratzke is returning to the role later this year, this time at the BKA Theatre in Berlin and Schmidts Tivoli in Hamburg.
He is quick to point out that the roles he chooses allow him more than average creative control and that the characters he plays are extensions of his various cabaret personas.
“I’m friends with John Cameron Mitchell, the creator of Hedwig, so that was a completely different way of working on this piece. I was allowed complete artistic freedom. There are only a couple of pieces out there that I find intriguing. Not so many, but Cabaret is one of them and Hedwig and perhaps one day, Rocky Horror. Four years ago, when I started to do Hedwig, I didn’t know if I could do punk and rock music.
“But I knew that I could become that character after I talked to John and the director, because there’s a complete transformation. But it’s a very vulnerable part, and if you think it’s just drag, then it’s not working. You really have to act and open your soul to the audience and that makes it a tough production to do.”
CV: Sven Ratzke
Born: Amsterdam, December 4, 1977
Trained: De Theatreschool, Amsterdam
Awards: Several German cabaret awards including the St Ingenberter Pfanne and Kleinkunstpreis
Landmark productions: Cabaret, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, touring with Nina Hagen, Dreigroschenblues (a Weill show with American soprano Claron McFadden), Starman
Agents: Kik Productions (Netherlands), Agentur Charis (Germany), Earl Dax Management (USA), Creative Release (Australia)