METROPOLIS, Little Eggs Collective in association with Hayes Theatre Co, 21 April–26 May 2023. Photography by Grant Leslie: above - Amanda McGregor, Futura, and Thomas Campbell; below - Joshua Robson; below again - Shannen Alyce Quan
Thea von Harbou was born in 1888 into an upper-class Bavarian family. She was in her late 30s, married, and a successful novelist when she met and began an affair and working relationship with film director Fritz Lang: in 1918 she wrote the screenplay for The Indian Tomb (Das indische Grabmal). After his wife died, von Harbou divorced and they married in 1922.
They were at the epicentre of Weimar and German Expressionism when in 1925 she concurrently wrote the novel and screenplay of what we know as one of the most influential films of all time: Metropolis. At the time she was overshadowed by Lang’s visual clout and later, in the 1980s, when the film became a festival favourite, she was again obscured, this time by the cult of the auteur – which foregrounded the director at the expense of all else.
Von Harbou is now notorious for her work during Germany’s Nazi years, but Metropolis was heavily influenced by her youthful experience of witnessing extreme poverty and child labour, and working to help its victims.
All this to contextualise the extraordinary new musical/chamber opera by Julia Robertson (book, lyrics, and direction) based on the novel and nodding wittily to Lang’s visual magic (design Nick Fry). This new Metropolis has a life of its own, however, not least because of Zara Stanton’s eclectic and sophisticated score, and a top team of creatives and cast of fine singer-actors. Nevertheless, the creative and imaginative achievement by Robertson is as crucial to this production as von Harbou’s was in the 1920s.
Set in a dystopian future – thought to be 2026, heaven help us – the soaring city of the title is ruled over by the autocratic Fredersen (magnificent Joshua Robson). In its catacombs the workers subsist in perpetual twilight, tending the machinery that makes it all work. The terror of this existence is set in the opening moments in a riveting, tightly-choreographed operatic number that has the audience on edge.
A robot is devised by Fredersen’s amanuensis, the spiffily evil Rotwang (horribly hilarious Thomas Campbell) and she – originally Maschinenmensch (Machine Person), now named Futura – is the striking catalyst for whatever catastrophe is not generated by Fredersen’s well-meaning son Freder (Tom Dawson). He, tiring of his playboy lifestyle, befriends hapless worker Georgi (Tomas Parrish), and so discovers the awful truth of what goes on beneath the glittering city.
The robot Futura – a life-size puppet – is a vivid on-stage presence as skilfully manipulated by Amanda McGregor, AJ Pate, and Anusha Thomas. To complete her, Rotwang needs a face and the workers’ rebel leader Maria (Shannen Alyce Quan) is literally cannibalised for this purpose. The plight of the puppet symbolises all that is tragic and terrible in this disturbing iteration of the One Per Cent vs The Rest of Us.
Metropolis is extraordinary theatre- and music-making, with Ryan McDonald’s cleverly atmospheric lighting complementing Nick Fry’s spectacular Deco-Meccano set, and Ella Butler’s variously dour to stylish costumes. It could do with some tinkering and tightening to lift the few less-than-thrilling numbers and clarify some of the characterisations. Maria, for instance, is a puzzle after her face-off. And I would also lose the interval interlude of a compulsory visit to the foyer for a German folk song, cute though it is.
Nit-picks aside, however, Metropolis is a thrilling and engrossing achievement. The choreography is spectacular and apparently devised by the formidable Robertson and the company. The music is an ambitious amalgam of past and future, as electronic FX melds with Sondheim, early chorale, and disco. The keyword for this Metropolis could be “ambitious” – and that’s exciting in itself. Of the occasionally confusing narrative, all you really need to know and hang on to is what came up on the screen at the end of the original film. Written by Thea von Harbou, it advised: “The Mediator Between the Head and the Hands Must Be the Heart.” Recommended.