An earlier post bemoaned the infrequency of productions of plays by the great Bertolt Brecht. There are a few exceptions, such as the two plays which, unusually for Brecht, give opportunities to a star actor, Mother Courage and her Children and The Life of Galileo. Or the one whose narrative has an anti-Nazi lesson which is still clearly understood, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui , or the one with the famous songs, The Threepenny Opera.
One striking memento revealed by the Glasgow Miracle project’s research into Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre was a programme of a 1970s student production of two short Brecht plays, The Exception and the Rule and The Measures Taken.
The photo’s main curiosity value may be the number of future professionals in the cast (Alexander West, Ruby Wax, James Fleet, Alison Peebles, Janette Foggo) but for me it also served to remind of those days when Brecht was bread and butter to any egalitarian-minded ensemble performance group, whether established or novice. A great theatre book, Other Spaces by Colin Chambers, identifies the decent number of Brecht productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company during just a few years in the 1970s: of The Days of the Commune, Man is Man, Schweik in the Second World War, Baal and The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
Occasionally, Brecht is still performed, and it has been instructive to look at the online videos of some modern versions.
For instance, the Baylor Theatre from Baylor University Texas, in the aforementioned The Measures Taken. A young cast dressed in khaki tells the story of why, as a group of revolutionaries from Russia working in China, they felt obliged to kill a young comrade. Voices are declaimed in unison, mixed with invigorating rhythms of percussive hand-clapping and boot-stamping. The commentary songs are omitted, but present is another classic Brecht motif of scene titles chalked on boards, although not always easily read.
A Norse TV staging of the same play on You Tube, originally from the Bergen International Festival, uses video screens and more than one language, which seem like reasonable variations on the playwright’s alienation technique, although the effect here is rather more of internal discussions among the characters than calls to the audience. It also includes the Hanns Eisler music, although the arrangements are, to my ear, are not quite spiky enough for their subversive task.
Zoe Beloff, the Edinburgh-born, US-based artist, directed and filmed Brecht’s play about the Paris Commune of 1871, The Days of the Commune, outdoors in New York in the spring of 2012, in response to the anti-capitalist Occupy movement which she saw as a piece of radical theatre in itself.
An art project rather than a standard drama since it was staged and filmed one scene at a time on different days, Beloff’s enterprise is still a brilliantly vibrant performance which would have enhanced BBC4 or Channel 4. Visually striking are its costumes and hand-painted signs, the latter identifying scenes and characters from actors’ hands, necks and heads. The cast is ethnically various and mostly from non-theatre backgrounds. Their singing is as strong as their speaking, while three accomplished accordionists drive along the brilliant Eisler music.
There are several performances available of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, the play which discusses whether a child should stay with his bourgeois natural parents or working-class adopters.
Two secondary school productions, the City of London Freeman’s School and the American Round Rock High School approach the text in the same way. Both omit the prologue about the two communes who are arguing their rights of land ownership, and also the scene about the early exploits of the unconventional judge Azdak. Both leave out the challenging dissonance of the songs and share the lines of the narrator Singer among many performers. In each, the simplicity of the video recording helps create a Brechtian distance.
Somewhat different is a professional production by Benno Besson for French TV based on a theatre production from around 2002. Besson, now deceased, was a veteran theatre director who had as a young man worked with Brecht. The programme’s first minutes show actors donning costumes, musicians rehearsing, audience waiting : well-established TV tropes which here are also thoroughly Brechtian.
Besson’s use of masks and extravagant colourful costumes is an imaginative distancing strategy turning the characters into unrealistic and comic grotesques. I was reminded of the visual style of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland although Kate Connolly of the Guardian showed rather more insight in a review of the stage version in seeing the similarity with Brecht’s contemporary and compatriot Otto Dix. The design obviously enjoyed a much bigger budget than the schools versions, such as with the bridge in the Northern Mountains which Grusha crosses and the foaming cloth river where she meets Simon – although a rigorous Brechtian response might find such touches an unnecessary distraction from the important dramatic lesson.
At The Good Person of Szechwan produced by Campbell Hall School in California, the single video camera also creates a strong Brechtian effect as it forces your attention on the wide narrative of the visiting gods and the business career of the prostitute Shin Te, rather than the individual characters whom you can’t always clearly distinguish anyway. This version includes some songs, appropriate music of honky-tonk piano and drums and a substantial set of walls, curtains and cabins. The epilogue is presented in true Brechtian style where the lights go up, the whole cast comes together on stage and one actor speaks the coda about how the fate of Shin Te is unsatisfactory and how it is up to the audience to write another ending which would improve on it. Which suddenly made me think of where Dario Fo might have got his inspiration for the ending of Accidental Death of an Anarchist or where the writers and directors of the RSC Nicholas Nickleby might have got the idea for the close of its first section.
The production of The Good Person of Szechwan by Francophile American Stuart Seide for French TV begins like Benno Besson’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The camera runs along racks of costumes with attached actors’ names, clothes are chosen, furniture is pushed to one side. The design and acting has much of the authentically Brechtian Weimar flavour: different actresses play Shin Te, the first of these takes over her ruthless male alter ego Shui Ta, a man plays the neighbour Mrs Shin. Seide omits the epilogue: his very different way of presenting the better ending of the Shin Te story has the three ascending gods crashing back to earth to their destruction.
Fear and Misery of the Third Reich was an early anti-Nazi play which presaged the more analytical and more famous The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Two UK schools productions helpfully select and omit different scenes from Brecht’s two dozen or so originals. The video of Plymouth City College suggests a strong production with some imaginative design touches. For instance, the scientists who are frightened to show respect for the Jewish physicist Einstein are given red clowns’ noses, and a set of tall hand-held black boards become enclosing walls around the couple who are worried their son is spying on them.
King Edward VI College Stourbridge place a large swastika on the floor of their stage, project titles on the back wall and change lighting colours for each scene. A real highlight is their depiction of the Jewish Wife who is voluntarily leaving her husband to protect his career, through the use of four different actresses making the phone calls which disconnect her old life.
Reassuring, then, to see how Brecht’s political bite is still fully appreciated and well presented by some 21st century theatre practitioners.
Chambers, Colin (1980) Other Spaces : New Theatre and the RSC London : Eyre Methuen / TQ Publications