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Interview: Elliot Levey Talks CABARET at the Kit Kat Club

The Olivier Award-winning Herr Schultz discusses the hit revival!

Cabaret
Elliot Levey in Cabaret

Elliot Levey recently won the Best Actor in a Supporting Role Olivier Award for his portrayal of Herr Schultz in Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club. We spoke with Levey prior to the awards about his career and being nominated.

Congrats on your Olivier nomination! How has life been as a nominee?

It's been really good, although I caught COVID immediately afterwards so I'm just recovering from that. Getting nominated knocked me sideways. It's thrilling, but especially so because I turned up to work to discover 10 other people had been nominated too - it was a party for days!

What's your favourite thing about playing Herr Schultz?

It's hard to say really. The part is both beautifully written and beautifully underwritten, in the sense that very little is said, but the story is told. For me, that's the perfect kind of dramatic writing: everything's done for you and you don't have to push anything; you don't have to sell anything. You just carry the truth of each moment.

The scenes between Schultz and his would-be-lover Schneider are so perfectly fat-free, that because we're playing in the round, you just have to look into the other person's eyes and play truth, and receive truth. It's as if the audience isn't there so we don't need to let them in in that "showy" way.

There's a particular scene that is just one of the most beautiful and economical scenes I've ever played in my 28 years of doing this. I don't think I'm on stage for more than a couple of minutes at a time. We call it the break-up scene between Schneider and Schultz. I'm not sure how many lines of dialogue there are, it plays out over a few minutes, but you couldn't add a word or take a word away from it. It's so lean perfect, almost like a haiku.

When you're serving material that has been honed over and over again by various other artists, and now having gone through Rebecca Frecknall and Tom Scutt, [you get] to the point where just saying the words simply and honestly and finding the truth in that is a complete pleasure to play.

What's your favourite thing about being part of this ensemble?

It's very dangerous to start deconstructing a show that you're still in, but truthfully, no matter however many hours people spend watching this, it's that spectacular things are going on - jaw-dropping numbers, choreographed by Julia Cheng, performers that you've never seen together before, it's just extraordinary.

Each member of the ensemble is so vivid, not just in terms of who they are in life, but they all have these very vivid characters and stories, such that each number is just as much about Lulu or Texas or Frenchie from the Kit Kat Klub, as it is about Sally Bowles.

Cabaret
Fra Fee and Amy Lennox in Cabaret

If there's one thing that fills me with joy each night, it's standing in the wings waiting to come on. I get to watch the number "Two Ladies". Each night, I find something brand new, even though I've seen 150 versions of it. My eyes go to another member of the ensemble, and you realise you've never seen that story before, or how their bit evolves.

Yes of course we focus on Sally Bowles, but when you watch this, you realise there are ten alternative cabarets, starring Lulu, or Hans, or Bobby, or Victor, it could be their story. I think that's how good this version is. That's how solid the storytelling is.

How are you enjoying working with your new castmates?

It's been brilliant. Ironically their first night was my first night "off" in 28 years, it's the first time I've ever missed a show, but the rehearsals have been brilliant. The dress rehearsal was just amazing, jaw-dropping, and so brave!

I can't imagine how scary it must be for [Fra Fee and Amy Lennox] to know they're following Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley. They were just inimitable, which is why [Fra and Amy] are not attempting to imitate anything, they are finding their take on it completely.

Everyone coming in decided not to see the show until a certain point in rehearsals - I have such respect for them. They all decided to rehearse for at least two or three weeks before they dared watch the show, so they could find their own truth.

Did you feel the same when you booked this job?

I felt the same way. I've never seen Cabaret before, sure I saw the film 100 years ago but I've never seen a stage version. So when it was being written last year, I had no ghosts to deal with. That way you don't play it as a classic but as a new piece. It makes it so much easier.

How have you found being part of a production set in pre-war Germany while there's another war playing out on European soil at the moment?

I was thinking about what has changed since I was first in rehearsals last September and then going back into rehearsals for our new cast members. Last time around, we were having discussions about Herr Schultz, who some argue is delusional.

Six months later, sitting in rehearsals again with Vivien [Parry], our new Fräulein Schneider, and suddenly Schultz is not as delusional as we thought. This time when we went into rehearsals, Putin's troops were gathering on the Ukrainian border.

Cabaret
Vivien Parry in Cabaret

Schultz doesn't recognize the imminent danger of the Nazi threat. He is blind in the face of that danger. He doesn't believe it, he seriously believes that Hitler's a clown and that the Nazis are the last hurrah of forces of reaction that modern society has finally gotten rid of. He doesn't take them seriously.

Somebody came to Cabaret and said to me that they wanted to scream "Run!" at Schultz. "Run! You're going to die!". We weren't screaming about this war a few weeks ago because we just thought it was going to be fine. We have faith in our fellow man and we just can't conceive that evil will reign - and look where we are.

The night after the Russian invasion, the reaction of the audience palpably changed. People were moved and shocked, viscerally moved. Suddenly it becomes so grotesquely real and so you really feel it. This piece is moving people.

My grandfather was actually born in Kyiv, Ukraine, and he did decide to leave. He made that bold decision that my character didn't. It may be because my grandfather was a young man and sort of was brave, while not all 25-year-old men are brave, he did decide to escape and come to this country. Two of his older brothers were killed.

Without overanalysing it, I had a moment in rehearsals where I thought when the threat comes it's probably quite a good idea to be brave and to heed your fears and escape. Had my grandfather not survived, I wouldn't be alive now.

Is it possible to pick out any highlights from your career so far?

I don't feel like there's such a thing as a career. I've just got my memories. There are shows I've been in where I can't remember my character's name, or remember the play - I just remember the people. You make these extraordinary friendships through the prism of a story. Someone writes the story, and then some other people come and collaborate to interpret that story on a stage.

I've had some incredibly happy collaborations the last few years, most notably with Rebecca Frecknall, the director of Cabaret. She asked me to be in a really beautiful production of Three Sisters at the Almeida Theatre, which was a really lovely experience.

She's really brilliant. If she's not already running the show, I mean, she's the future of theatre, an extraordinary talent. She doesn't put herself in the way of a collective artistic endeavour, which to me seems to be a fundamental value and attribute of a director, realising that the art is in the collecting the other people together. Never make it about yourself.

Chekhov is an ideal example of perfect collaboration. With a director like Frecknall and a writer with a genuine sense of ensemble, from the largest to the smallest, all parts three-dimensional, fully human, everyone can breathe. There's genuine discovery, freedom and storytelling, and it's hugely enjoyable to do.

After Three Sisters, Rebecca got me and a few other people together to improvise a show, which was then written by the amazing Chris Bush, Nine Lessons and Carols, which we did at the Almeida again. It was an extraordinary piece of theatre that very few people got to see sadly because of lockdown, although they did stream it.

There's a joy in being in a room where there's genuine collaboration and co-operation. Each cog in the machine is as important as the next person. Slowly in my old age, I'm discovering that genuinely collaborative working practices are incredibly fruitful.

It just pains me to think that there are still people knocking about trying to put on shows in any other way. It seems to me that it is the best way to work probably in all in all, in all forms of life. Working in a way where freedom is created, everybody's lives are enriched, and a happy rehearsal process can lead to a happy production. If anyone thinks otherwise, I think they should probably find another line of work.

Cabaret
Elliot Levey in Cabaret

How do you find working on stage versus screen projects? Is it possible to create that same level of community?

The last long-running job I did was Quiz, which was led by Steven Fritz. He's probably the most eclectic of any British filmmaker alive. He chooses projects based on his personal response to a script, like a theatre director, it's script first, story first.

When you put the writer front and centre and you love what's been written, you just create a great piece. That's what Fritz does - he gave James Graham the space to adapt the TV show from his stage play and then they gathered together a little ensemble.

Working on Quiz felt very much like doing a show because he chooses fantastic people, who also turn out to be nice people. I can't think of a supremely talented person who hasn't also been supremely nice. I've met some awful people and it turns out they're not so great.

What advice do you have for aspiring performers?

I think my advice is that if you have an alternative, then you should probably pursue that alternative. But if there is no alternative, nothing will deter you from being a performer.

In terms of practical advice, work. Full stop. It doesn't matter where, what, the size of the part, work is everything when you are starting out.

It's only at work in the performing arts where you can even begin to discover and develop - you just can't do it at home. As soon as you're in a rehearsal room, even if it's above a pub, you are doing it and it's only in the doing that you can discover it.

Your hinterland, your cultural life, or your humanity has to be nurtured. It can't be taken for granted. Your virtue is earned through your acts, but you've also got to look after your brain. You got to feed yourself. You have to read. You have to be curious. If reading isn't your thing, watch stuff, listen to stuff.

I think death for the young aspiring performer is when you say "I can dance, I can sing, I can do these things". It's not enough. The richness of your humanity can't be taken for granted. Whatever it is, I think you just have to suck it all up.

Stay curious, don't reject anything - it's all there to be hoovered up.

Why should people come and see Cabaret?

I've never been in a production where so many people have come out saying they want to see it all over again. I can't remember the last time I wanted to watch a show again, but people are just coming back again and again.

It may just be a really good piece of theatre. By all accounts, this particular production has just got so many things so right. People are jumping around with delight and getting in touch with me saying it may just be the best thing they've ever seen!

Cabaret is currently booking at the Kit Kat Club until 1 October

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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