It was great to read Michael Billington’s recent celebration of Bertolt Brecht. Even though the latter is out of fashion as a performed playwright, Billington argues eloquently that his theories and performance practice are still influential.
My own 1980s theatre education coincided with a period when productions of plays both written by Brecht and influenced by him were readily available. Large ensemble casts, small casts performing multiple roles, actors continually visible onstage, sets and props which were sparse and portable, use of songs, direct addresses to the audience, and, last but certainly not least, texts which took specific political stances : all these Brechtian ideas were common features of the theatre in Scotland at that time.
Billington’s article made me muse about some of my own fond Brechtian moments.
Productions of Brecht himself? A big large-cast epic staging by Borderline of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in Edinburgh certainly sticks in my mind, with inter-scene billboards underlining how the Chicago gangland story represents the rise of the Nazis.
The Wildcat company was a ubiquitous provider of music-fuelled left-wing theatre throughout Scotland during the 1980s, with shows on the miners’ strike, nuclear weapons, health, education, official secrets, US foreign policy and the multiple evidence of poverty and social class divisions in Thatcher’s Britain. I saw about a dozen of their shows during that decade, but more memorable still was my first introduction to the parent company, 7:84. It was the TV version of their first play, The Cheviot the Stag and the Black Black Oil – an incendiary mix of historical evidence, urban comedy and traditional song with extra filmed footage to amplify the Brechtian call to action.
I saw three theatre productions of Brecht disciple Dario Fo around this time. Coincidentally, the actor Andy Gray was an effervescent lead in each play for three different touring companies. The most striking was the first, Cumbernauld Theatre Company’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist, with lots of running into and addresses to the audience, and with its two alternative endings. As someone once described Fo, a blend of Karl Marx and Groucho Marx. Happily a TV version of the staging by the English Belt and Braces company is available on You Tube to appreciate.
Brecht was also frequently performed at the Glasgow Citizens theatre, here usually in an approach which was more European-stylised, less Scotland v Thatcher. My first real Citizens theatre experience (in the sense of being produced by the classic Havergal/MacDonald/Prowse triumvirate) was The Mother, a lesser-known Brecht play, in 1982. In those days, the theatre’s location in what felt like an intimidating and barely accessible part of Glasgow seemed in keeping with the company’s famously exotic style of performance.
This was often seen as a low period in the history of Brecht’s former company, the Berliner Ensemble, but I still felt I wanted to grab the opportunity to see them perform. They came to the Edinburgh Festival around the start of that decade, and brought a show of Brecht songs and readings to Glasgow. One member of that company was the late Ekkehard Schall who had been part of the company since Brecht’s own days. I also saw a production of The Threepenny Opera at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm when it was still located in East Berlin. Regardless of what took place onstage, those few hours before and after the show on the far side of Checkpoint Charlie were a thoroughly Brechtian experience.
The Berliner Ensemble theatre, still showing “The Threepenny Opera” in this photograph from 2007.
Caryl Churchill’s play Cloud Nine explored colonialism and sexual politics by setting its first act in 19th century Africa and the second in contemporary London. At the end of the production I saw, the actors took their bows while hurriedly changing into and out of the costumes of their characters, who had often been of different gender as well as from a different historical period.
Pop and rock musicians were frequently attracted to Brecht around this time. There were versions of songs by David Bowie, Sting, Marc Almond and probably others, and Bowie starred in a production of Baal for the BBC. The music of Tom Waits and Elvis Costello displayed Weill influences. You could argue that whole era of political pop music from Billy Bragg to Band Aid displayed the Brechtian spirit of political engagement.
Although productions of Brecht have declined alongside trade union membership and voting at elections, the desire for an end to war, poverty and injustice is as strong as ever, especially with the younger generations. Brecht is always still there, just under the surface, waiting to be uncovered and shared anew.