THE JUST PRICE OF FLOWERS
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.
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.