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Posts Tagged ‘Bertholt Brecht’

I didn’t plan on seeing two 20th century German plays on consecutive nights, but the first was booked ages ago and this is about to close, so it had to be. My view of this (much better) play may be enhanced even more by the pairing.

Brecht’s parody of the rise of Hitler was written in 1941 but not seen until 1958, after his death, which is a bit of a puzzle. 50-70 years on, the satire seems a bit heavy-handed (I would have expected reviser Alistair Beaton to have done something about that) but its ‘we let this happen, don’t let it happen again’ point still packs a punch. Set in gangster-era Chicago, Arturo Ui develops his protection racket in the vegetable trade (!), becoming more and more brutal in his relentless rise to power. Individual scenes have parallels in pre-war Germany, though those are a bit lost on a modern audience, but by the end the message isn’t lost. In the long 95 min first half, the scenes are somewhat laboured and it could do with some cuts, but the second half has much better pacing. The end is chilling and the epilogue a thought-provoking wake-up call.

The Duchess is a small theatre for a big play with a cast of 18, but it benefits from the intimacy, with a new middle aisle used for entrances and exits and characters occasionally appearing in the auditorium. Director Jonathan Church’s staging, with great use of live music, draws you in to the gangster story then sharply reminds you of its metaphor. Designer Simon Higlett effectively creates warehouses and mansions in this small space and the arrival of a car is a coup d’theatre. Though I’ve seen a couple of good actors play the title role (Anthony Sher & Griff Rhys Jones!) Henry Goodman is the best match for it. He is particularly good at conveying Ui ‘s transition as the power drug makes him more and more manic. It’s an excellent supporting cast, with fine actors like Colin Stinton, William Gaunt and Michael Feast in relatively small roles.

Another successful transfer for the indispensable Chichester Festival Theatre.

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This was originally intended as a double-bill with Pins & Needles which has just finished its run at the Cock Tavern and you can see why (though it would have made for a long evening). They may be the only two musicals with left-wing political content ever to grace Broadway until Billy Elliott!

This one is more serious and earnest than the other and is very Brechtian indeed. First staged in 1937, it’s opening is itself an extraordinary story. Directed by Orson Wells, the show was shut down on the day of its first performance because its public funders were concerned at being seen to be promoting such a left-wing show. Though another theatre was found for that evening, the show went on without set, props, costumes or indeed actors or musicians whose unions prohibited them from being on stage or in the orchestra pit. The composer was alone onstage at a piano and when their cues came, the actors stood up in the audience and delivered their songs defiantly from where they were.

It’s an allegory of corruption and greed and its targets include a local businessman, his philanthropic wife, spoiled children, a faithless priest and artists who’ve sold out. It’s virtually sung-through and feels more like an opera than a musical. Because its over-riding purpose is to make its sociopolitical points, it’s light on story and characterisation and the music is quite difficult to get into on first hearing. It’s well staged here by Mehmet Ergen with a fine ensemble and pianist Bob Broad playing the whole score. I was particularly impressed by Chris Jenkins passionate performance as unionist Larry Foreman.

It’s not a great show but, like Pins & Needles, it’s an important part of 20th century musical theatre history and I’m glad I saw it – but I wish I’d heard the score first.

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