Monthly Archives: October 2013

Brecht – looking back and forward


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.



The graves of Brecht and his actress wife, Helene Weigel, in the Berlin cemetery of Dorotheenstadt.


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.



Chauseestrasse in Berlin, just up the road from Brecht’s former house, his burial place at the Dorotheenstadt cemetery, and from the Berliner Ensemble.


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The beauty of New Lanark


John and Julia Keyes write in their Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland, “Coming upon New Lanark…is a startling experience. No amount of preparatory research can give a true idea of the scale and unspoilt integrity of the 18th century industrial village hunkered down on the banks of the Clyde.”

A grand claim, but that was exactly my own experience when I first visited the location 25 years ago.





If my recent visit made a less dramatic impression, it was only because I knew what to expect, because it is still an amazing place to see. Both for its architectural uniformity and beauty, and to reflect on the Robert Owen-led community in its heyday, with houses, shop, school and community hall gathered around the huge cotton mills.





Equally amazing that it was not allowed simply to deteriorate and be demolished in the 1970s when its commercial function was over. Instead it was taken over by the New Lanark Conservation Trust, and has ever since been maintained and developed, in the Owen tradition, for educational, social and employment purposes.






Some more (professional) photographs of New Lanark here as part of Alan McCredie’s project  100 Weeks of Scotland


Reference :  Keyes, John and Julia (ed)  (1994)  Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland   London : Harper Collins


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The links between Britten and MacMillan


Despite growing up during a 1970s pop and rock music era which borrowed heavily from classical music, I took some time to develop an interest in that classical music. While that interest has remained fairly narrow, it has long included Benjamin Britten.

Some of my interest in Britten, I confess, comes from extra-musical areas.

For example, his left-wing politics. During my 20s, as both artistic and political interests developed, I was always particularly fascinated in the points where they joined : works of art on political subjects or which had a political impact, artists who were politically active. Britten was more subtle in his political practice than others, like his friend and collaborator W.H.Auden, but works like War Requiem were a significant part of the interest I formed in him.

Another was his setting up of the Aldeburgh Festival. This emphasised that Britten was not just a believer in the idea of the arts as social and community events, but someone who was willing to spend time and effort to bring them about.

Another area of interest was his use of literary texts in his music. The most famous example was the use of Wilfred Owen poetry in War Requiem  but he also adapted writing by Auden, Donne, Rimbaud, Blake, Tennyson, Keats and many others.

Finally, even a shallow knowledge of his music couldn’t fail to be impressed by its range, and especially the vocal and choral work. The song cycles which featured the aforementioned writers; the church music; the reworkings of traditional songs; operas like the dark and melancholy Peter Grimes whose plot and atmosphere seemed so alluringly similar to other things I had loved elsewhere like Fairport Convention’s Babbacombe Lee album or the Christmas ghost stories on TV with their rural Victorian settings.

Marking the centenary of his birth, there’s been plenty of great Britten stuff to peruse at Britten 100  and Ben Hogwood’s punningly-titled web-site.

There are several similarities between Britten and the still very active James MacMillan.

Like Britten, MacMillan could be said to have charted and mined a rich seam which drew from both the mainstream and avant-garde classical musics of his period.

Like Britten, he has been prolific, writing vocal and instrumental compositions for small and large groups. He too draws both from traditional music and from sacred and liturgical music, in the latter especially from medieval forms. Many of his compositions, like Britten’s, are designed to include amateur and community participants.

My memory of early acquaintance of MacMillan’s politics is that they were attractively left wing from an internationalist  perspective. Supportive of the ideas of Catholic liberation theology, he used the letters of the Argentine group Mothers of the Disappeared in his work Búsqueda and similar Latin American texts in Cantos Sagrados. Shortly after, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie focussed on the 17th century case of a woman executed for alleged witchcraft, and by extension, MacMillan has said, on contemporary witch-hunts and persecution.

In recent years, he could be said to have become politically more conservative. As a self-confessed Celtic fan, although brought up in Ayrshire,  he has sometimes become drawn into discussions about a perceived anti-Catholic bigotry in Scotland. His interest in reviving Latin church music, although a valuable artistic project, could be said to be a rather elitist one which might not help the Catholic church to engage the younger generations who were not brought up with the pre-Vatican II traditions.

As  argued in an earlier post, there has been a significant loss of confidence in the value of classical music on television since the time of Britten’s death in 1976. Britten’s 1971 opera Owen Wingrave was written specially for television while my own very first acquaintance with the name of Benjamin Britten was a TV version of Billy Budd being shown in the late 1960s on Christmas Eve on BBC1 – alarming to a child looking for more lightweight entertainment but proof of how substantial (and how mainstream) a piece of music and drama it was judged to be.

The success of MacMillan’s breakthrough work The Confession of Isobel Gowdie was certainly helped by the BBC screening of its Proms premiere in 1990 and the corporation premiered his cantata Seven Last Words from the Cross during Holy Week in 1994. Around the same time, I remember MacMillan presenting a programme of Arvo Pärt religious music on BBC2 on a Good Friday evening.

However, although his music has continued to be performed and praised in the twenty years since, MacMillan has unfortunately tended to gain more mainstream media attention for extra-musical contributions such as his comments about the aforementioned perceived anti-Catholic prejudice.  I suspect that coverage of Britten during his lifetime concentrated on his music, although posthumously of course that has changed somewhat.


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