Tag Archives: Brecht

Star Turn


The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 19th February, 2013

Roxana Silbert’s production of this new translation by RSC resident playwright Mark Ravenhill gives us a Brecht play that adds weight to the characters’ humanity, wisely restricting the Brechtian aspects of the staging to the inter-scene transitions.

We begin with a backdrop like huge sheets of blue graph paper.  A handheld microphone lies centre stage.  Electronic noticeboards hang over the stage, scrolling the captions for each scene. The mic is snatched up by Galileo himself.  As he begins to narrate, cast members run by, stripping him down to his boxer shorts.  As he washes himself, he instructs his landlady’s young son in the basics of his argument: that the Earth is not a fixed point at the centre of the universe; it moves and turns, as all stars do…  And so, the play begins with both man and his ideas laid bare before us.

As Galileo, evil emperor Palpatine off of Star Wars himself, Ian McDiarmid gives a towering performance.  We see the mathematician’s enthusiasm and delight along with his egotism, his boastfulness, his drive, his passion and his arrogance on almost a Dawkins-like scale.  This is a portrait of a man, painted with deft strokes and more naturalism than you might expect in a Brecht play.  In fact, in this world of plastic chairs and nifty red stepladders, the cast breathes life into the characters, making them more than mouthpieces for either side of the central argument.

That argument is uncannily topical.  It is astounding to me to know that in 2013 reason still faces such strong opposition from institutionalised superstition.   You only have to think back a fortnight or so and recall the fatuous arguments of the wilfully ignorant trying to bolster their bigotry against equal marriage with highly selective quotes from scripture.  You don’t have to watch the news for long to see countries where facts are stubbornly denied and contradicted by those who cling to superstition.  Change will damage society, these people claim, when what they really mean is their positions of power will be challenged.  On a smaller scale, my own Twitter feed is littered on a daily basis with horoscopes posted by people who, in other respects, seem intelligent and insightful. Brecht’s play, first presented in 1937, is very much a chronicle for the early 21st century.

An extra topical note the producers could not have foreseen is the changeover of popes.  Galileo looks forward to a less reactionary man in a pointy hat… I wish I could share his optimism.

In an excellent cast, I especially liked Matthew Aubrey as landlady’s son Andrea.  We watch him grow from curious young lad to fervent proponent of the new thinking.  Philip Whitchurch’s Barberini, Jake Fairbrother’s Ludovico, and Martin Turner’s Cardinal Inquisitor all lend weight and credibility to the ‘other side’; and there is a wonderfully comic moment from Patrick Romer as a ‘very old cardinal’ stomping around, knackering himself out, proclaiming he is the centre of the universe.  Jodie McNee is Galileo’s pious daughter – her repeated chanting of “Hail Marys” is disturbing, as she prays her dad will recant his heretical hypotheses.  Tom Scott’s design is simple and clean, like a new geometry set on the first day of school.  John Woolf leads the band of musicians in some raucous and rousing tunes.

It’s a provocative and compelling production.  Silbert and Ravenhill make Brecht accessible and enjoyable, but the evening belongs to McDiarmid – his performance is, dare I say, a tour de ‘Force’?

The Force is strong in this one.  Ian Mc Diarmid as Galileo and Matthew Aubrey as Andrea.

The Force is strong in this one. Ian Mc Diarmid as Galileo and Matthew Aubrey as Andrea.

Credit Where It’s Due


The REP at the A E Harris Building, Birmingham, Monday 25th June, 2012

Good old Bertie Brecht! He spearheaded a move towards a different kind of theatre; theatre that told you something was wrong with the world, theatre that made you want to do something about it.

In theory.

Personally, I tend to find Brecht’s ideas more exciting than his plays. In the hands of others, they can lead to challenging and thought-provoking pieces of theatre.

Theatre company Stan’s Cafe created this show back in the dark days of 2009 as a response to the banking collapse, guided by the premise: What Would Brecht Do? The hallmarks you’d expect are there: offstage actors are visible to the audience as they sit and wait for their cues; scenes are announced by a narrator, hanging captions on the wall… There is no attempt to create an illusion of any kind. Everything is openly artificial and theatrical, from the drawn-on moustaches on the women playing male characters to the props and accessories fashioned from paper. There is also an added austerity to the production, with its stark black set, like a model or toy theatre, the black that dominates the costumes with brightly contrasting white details: a shirt here, a ruff there.

The banking collapse is recounted to us through the distancing filter of the trade in tulips in 17th century Holland. In the peculiar manner of Verfremdungseffekte, this storytelling device throws the events and issues into a clarity that was lacking in the news reports and analyses of the time. The play’s brief twenty-one scenes explain and reveal the twists and the turns, as characters trade tulips, tulip bulbs and the potential of future tulips to come… A couple soon find themselves mortgaged beyond what they can sustain as the price of tulips and tulip futures plummets. Their manservant, reaching retirement, finds his pension fund has been gambled away while at the centre of it all, the financier who has juggled and overstretched receives support and even reward (a big fat cream cake which he devours greedily before our very eyes).

That financier, going by the name of Van Hire, is a storm of a performance by Bernadette Russell and my pick of the bunch. Van Hire’s acquisitiveness and avarice, his wide-boy accent and his luxuriousness are laid bare, while in contrast Gerard Bell’s old gardener is played the most naturalistically. His is the voice of common sense and old-fashioned reason in the face of all this credit ricocheting around him. He speaks the final line of the play, when he is told he will have to work a few more years yet, “It doesn’t seem like I have a choice, that I ever had a choice at all.” This is what the play has been leading to, but we the audience are as impotent as poor old Van Driver himself. Four years down the line, we are still powerless.

The cast is a tight ensemble. Jill Dowse is a wry narrator, playing Kurt Weill-tinged music on her accordion – her introductions to each scene are incongruously anachronistic reminders that we are watching a metaphor for current (well, recent) events – and I particularly enjoyed Valerie Culko’s haughty Florestein.

It’s all very illuminating and, thanks to a vein of humour that runs through it, is not overly preachy or earnest. I couldn’t help feeling however that this revival has a sense of the moment having passed. I’m sure its original production was hotly topical and on-the-money but already (as with Brecht’s Arturo Ui, satirising the rise of Hitler) it has lost its “nowness”. As a primer in understanding how we got into this mess, it’s the clearest I’ve come across but perhaps writer/director James Yarker needs to update the play with an additional 22nd scene to keep the bloom of this stimulating and revelatory piece of work as fresh as a daisy.

A Nazi Piece of Work


Nottingham Playhouse, Thursday 3rd November, 2011

I’ve never been a fan of Bertie Brecht’s plays. The ideas and theatrical theories he propounded, yes, but I always felt these have been handled better by other practitioners.

This one is billed as one of his more accessible efforts. It is certainly straightforward: the rise of Hitler told through a parallel story, the rise of a Chicago gangster in the 1930s, muscling in on the city’s lucrative trade in cauliflowers. Events in Arturo Ui’s life mirror those in Adolf’s. The programme kindly provides a chart listing which character represents whom. Scenes on stage are interspersed with captions on an overhead electronic screen, the kind that on the motorway advises you not to nod off and which lanes are closed today. The captions declare what Hitler was up to at the time. The comparison couldn’t be clearer, except for the fact that Ui is fictional and Hitler, unfortunately, was not. The main objective of the play is to satirise Hitler. This is not exactly the topicality you get in Mock The Week! That the theatre sees fit to provide a wealth of background material, supporting talks and lectures suggests that a certain amount of historical knowledge is required for the audience member to get the best from the play. (The production was sponsored by the University of Nottingham, and there was a lot of students in the house, but I think theatre should be more than a teaching aid.)

It begins well. The Verfremdungseffekte are put to good use. The actors’ faces are whitened out and painted like faded clowns. The Chicago accents are broad (a little too broad in some cases for my Dudleian ears to make out what they were saying). Movement and gesture are stylised and synchronised. The effect is initially comic and engaging. Pieces of scenery and stage furniture are in view throughout. The cyclorama is a gigantic video screen on which scenic images are projected. The argot of the characters is that of the Jimmy Cagney type of film, but we are not allowed to forget for an instant that the story, although seen through the prism of a genre, is taken from reality.

Ian Bartholomew plays Ui as a nifty little mover, prone to expansive gestures and outbursts of violence. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator did this all with more elegance, pipping Bertie Brecht to the satirical post. In the funniest scene, Ui is coached in posture, movement and public speaking by an effete Shakespearean actor (William Hoyland) who has Ui quasi-goose-stepping across the stage and animating his parroting of the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech with a range of gestures all too familiar from wartime newsreels.

The V-effects and the stylised movement peter out after a while and such things as the video projection become part of the stagecraft (for example when Nick Moss appears as Roma’s ghost) rather than jolting us back to consideration of the ethics and politicking of the situation. The second act lacks the spirit of the first – the play becomes like a student essay that keeps making the same point in order to fill out the word count or, in this case, the running time.

Only at the end when the final caption rolls across the screen does the direct relevance of the play to today hit home. It is chilling: a rhyme celebrates the eventual downfall of the “beast” and gives a stark warning that “The womb from which he sprang is in heat again.”