Born in Berlin in 1901, Marie Magdalene “Marlene” Dietrich soon became a Hollywood legend and the most famous German woman in the world. However, when World War II was declared she was forced to choose between the country that she loved and what she knew was right. Renouncing her German citizenship, Dietrich joined the American Army and fought against her homeland in order to free her people from Hitler. She would entertain GIs in an evening dress, then put on a combat uniform and head to the front. Dietrich – Natural Duty is a real life tale of a legend that takes us through the Weimar Republic, the Golden age of Hollywood, the Rise of Hitler, a world on the edge of collapse, and a long journey back to Berlin where it all began, writes Michael Holland.
The play’s co-writer and performer in this one-man show, Peter Groom, who resides in Streatham, was a mere boy in a Newcastle drama club when he realised he wanted to take up acting as a profession. He tells Weekender, ‘They often invited in industry directors and professionals to give workshops and it was this that made me think I could do this as a career.’ With his dad helping out the club with set-building and popping up as a ghost in A Christmas Carol the young Peter had all the support he needed. At 17 he came to London and enrolled at the Guildford School of Acting for three years.
Being ‘tall and gangly’ the actor was never drawn to ‘sweet and wholesome’ celebrities. ’Marlene Dietrich,’ he recalls, ‘who lurked behind cigarette smoke and seemingly didn’t care what people thought of her was very empowering to me… I was drawn to her cold, distant quality.’
But is this just a piece of history? ‘I think Dietrich’s story becomes more and more relevant in current times. She stood for freedom and she used her persona to fight evil and the fascism that gripped her homeland then. We don’t have to look far to draw parallels between what was happening politically in the 30s and now! Yes, she was glamorous and created an incredible icon, but when it came down to it she turned the incredible power her fame gave her into a force for good. Dietrich – Natural Duty is a story of using whatever you have to fight for a better world.’
And Peter Groom wasn’t finished there: ‘As our political landscape becomes more polarised this timely story of duty asks questions about our own moral and ethical obligations, and explores how the fight for freedom can take many forms – whether in a sequin gown, combat uniform, or as a man in a wig.’
Anything else, Peter? ‘I’m keen to dissect the use of drag in theatre and explore a way in which drag becomes not just a novelty but an important device in order to help tell a story. I’ve assembled a team that have a strong theatre background and a strong theatrical sensibility to make sure the piece has a strong narrative within the cabaret style framework it is presented in. I’m working with multi-award winning director Bethany Pitts, who specialises in new work, both scripted and devised.
And? ‘I think this show will be a great chance for people to find out more about a woman they may have heard of, or know as a beauty, but may not know her WW2 contribution, or her extraordinary sense of duty.
Dietrich – Natural Duty runs at the Vault Festival, Leake Street, SE1 7NN, from Wednesday 24 January to Saturday 28 January. Time: 7.45pm. Admission: £11.50