Martyn Jacques: The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari

Port’s Theatre Editor, Kerry Patterson, talks with Martyn Jacques about why the dead are really the ones to watch

Martyn Jacques © Rene Huemer
Martyn Jacques © Rene Huemer

For Martyn Jacques – best known as front man of the inimitable cult band The Tiger Lillies – the newest space at the Soho Theatre, it’s downstairs cabaret bar, is a match made in heaven. The venue, ‘20s Berlin meets 50s New York’, dark and atmospheric, is currently seeing a nightly screening of German Expressionist horror film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, alongside which Jacques performs a live soundtrack with voice, piano and accordion. Anyone who has experienced The Tiger Lillies’ vaudeville mixture of deeply bittersweet melancholia and morbid, acerbic humor will already have some idea what this experience may be like.

The project is a labour of love for Jacques, who counts Robert Wiene’s classic silent film among his favourites of all time. ‘The music came to me very easily, it was great to just sit there watching this brilliant film and write music to it, really wonderful.’

“Amidst warped, distorted black and white scenes – Caligari’s somnambulist, the carnival freak, traumatizes and murders innocent victims”

This early era in cinema is appealing for him not least because of its universality; ‘it was a truly international medium then. They used to play these films all over the world – they’d just change the cards into a different language. It’s not like that now, you can’t watch anything from another country, they’re always dubbed: horrible dubbed films.’ He goes on to describe the beauty of early cinema with characteristically dark relish – ‘I love looking at all these ghosts, they look like ghosts and, well, they are ghosts, aren’t they?! They’re all dead’ he grins, ‘I love that.’

Disparaging remarks about modern culture are a regular occurrence with this wholly individual singer and musician. ‘I’m a sort of anti-modernist, I don’t like modern music, I don’t like modern architecture. I just do not like modernity’ he laughs.

‘Oh, that’s probably not entirely true. I’m not like Prince Charles!’ He laughs harder, before sighing ‘ … I hope.’ The idea that the next in line to the throne might be easily confused with a singer who has released an album entirely about bestial encounters seems quite wonderful, but not something which will happen anytime soon. Jacques tells me with raised eyebrow about having been referred to recently in the press as ‘Mr Retro’, and the accordion – one of his several instruments of choice – as apparently being ‘old-fashioned’.

‘It’s just ridiculous. The accordion was only invented two hundred years ago. In another two hundred years will we call the synthesiser old-fashioned? And should that change how we hear it? Those terms, ‘modern’, ‘old-fashioned’, they just have no meaning any more. It’s madness really. I’m just trying to keep my work interesting.’

And interesting it is. To sit at a round table underneath the Soho Theatre watching Caligari silently beckon unsuspecting callers to his carnival stall – as Martyn Jacques’ searing countertenor voice shrills ‘Roll up!’ whilst he performs the seemingly impossible task of simultaneously playing the piano and the accordion – is a breathtakingly unique experience.

The tale of suspicion and madness unfolds and Jacques showcases the beautiful and continually surprising range of emotions his highly stylised music can convey. Even the contingent that remains constantly offended by Martyn Jacques’ controversial work would have to admit that no other performance quite like this is happening in London tonight.

Martyn Jacques: The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari runs until 11th August at Soho Theatre