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Posts Tagged ‘Bertolt Brecht’

There was a time when I thought Brecht was rather earnest and somewhat dated, but Arturo Ui scrubbed up well at the Donmar Warehouse last month and now Life of Galileo comes out even fresher at the Young Vic. I’ve been critical of some theatre’s exaggerated claims of resonance with contemporary issues like Brexit and Trump of late, but at times I felt this could have been a current debate between evolutionists and Darwin denying creationists or climate change scientists and that other religion, big businesses, and their puppet president.

It follows Galileo’s story reasonably faithfully, from his application of the Dutch telescope invention to validate Copernicus’ theory of the solar system to his own original theories and inventions. Along the way, he has to pussyfoot around the control freakery of the catholic church and even the inquisition. He appears to recant, much to the disappointment of his followers, but in reality he’s buying time and continuing his work clandestinely. His promotion of truth through science even impacts his family, scuppering his daughter’s marriage to a nobleman.

Designer Lizzie Clachan has configured the theatre in-the-round, with audience members in a central pit, surrounded by a circular walkway with four bigger playing areas around it. There’s a giant dome overhead, upon which there are stunning projections by 59 Productions, from the planets to the ceilings of buildings and the sky, and excellent lighting by Jon Clark. Tom Rowlands soundtrack adds much. Joe Wright’s production is hugely inventive, but it’s not at all gimmicky. Everything seemed to be in keeping with the material and the satirical, even anarchic spirit of Brecht.

Brendan Cowell, who we last saw here in Yerma, is terrific as Galileo, a very physical and very emotional performance; his engagement with the audience is such that at times you feel you’re at his lecture, or in a personal conversation with him. He has an excellent supporting cast, from which I would single out Billy Howle, who plays five roles, most notably Galileo’s pupil Andrea from aged 10 to his adulthood journey to more science-friendly The Netherlands.

Another captivating evening at the Young Vic.

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This is Bertolt Brecht’s allegorical satire about the Nazi regime. Every character, scene and incident has a parallel and the title character is of course Adolf Hitler. He wrote it in exile during the war, but it wasn’t staged until thirteen years after it ended, and not in the US, as he intended, but in Germany itself. This expletive-laden new adaptation by Bruce Norris feels very fresh.

Ui runs a protection racket in Chicago (Germany) with designs on Cicero (Austria). He ‘buys’ local politician and trusted businessman Dogsborough (German President Hindenburg) en route to implementing his master plan to control the cauliflower trade! He has to deal with some of his own as well as those in his way, as his gang become disunited along the way. It’s littered with Shakespearean references and this production is also in part a satire on the seemingly equally irresistible rise of Donald Trump, which I thought I would find gratuitous but it was clever, with a light touch, and worked to the play’s advantage. This seems to be a big gig for director Simon Evans and he’s risen to the challenge with an inventive production with lots of audience engagement, including some playing roles!

Designer Peter Mackintosh has turned the theatre into a 30’s speakeasy, with seating on all sides on both levels, including cabaret-style tables on the bottom level and a stairway for the cast to move between levels. His period costumes are superb. Some of the casting is gender-blind, with Lucy Ellison making a superb Giri (Goring), Lucy Eaton excellent in three roles and Gloria Obianyo brilliant in four. Tom Edden playing no less than six, steals the show more than once, most notably as the actor giving Ui lessons. Lenny Henry has great presence as Ui, commanding the stage whenever he’s on it. It’s a uniformly excellent cast.

If you don’t know the play, it would be wise to mug up in advance, to get all the parallels and to get the most out of the evening, which is playful and entertaining without losing it’s satirical bite.

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I’m not sure how Brecht & Weill even knew about John Gay’s 18th century original, The Beggar’s Opera, but it’s easy to see the attraction of 21st century theatre folk to this piece, which resonated more on Monday night than it ever has with me before – and not just because of Macheath’s comments about returning after the interval, choosing to remain and being united, and the extensive use of the flag of St. George as England was being humiliated elsewhere! This is a radical adaptation by Simon Stephens, edgier and ruder, which I rather liked.

It’s relocated in the East End of London, amongst the underclass and criminal lowlife. Peachum runs a professional begging gang made up of the homeless, veterans, lunatics, alcoholics and druggies. The corrupt police chief Brown was in the army in Afghanistan with Macheath, the rogue the ladies can’t resist, including the police chief’s own daughter Lucy, Peachum’s wife and daughter Polly and prostitute Jenny. A coronation parade is going to visit their ‘manor’ and Macheath has something on the king, whilst Peachum has something on the police chief and Mrs Peachum controls Jenny through drugs. The closing scene of Act I, where relationships and connections are revealed, is superbly staged, including a keystone cops parody, and the final scene of Act II brings out the Valkyrie helmets and the vocals turn more operatic to brilliantly underline the satire of John Gay’s and Brecht & Weill’s originals. It retains the sensibilities of 30’s Berlin through the music, which somehow fits perfectly with the new setting; it has an anarchic, manic quality and it’s superbly played and sung in this production under MD David Shrubsole.

Rory Kinnear has real menace and swagger as Macheath and a surprisingly good voice for someone without much experience in musical theatre. Nick Holder is more seeped in musical theatre and this is one of his best performances, combining just as much menace with a penchant for cross-dressing, in heels and red-streaked wig. Rosalie Craig excels too as a nerdy Polly with a ruthless streak. I loved Peter de Jersey’s very physical dictator-like police chief and Haydn Gwynne’s oily Mrs Peachum. It’s great to see the wonderful Debbie Kurup at the NT in a terrific turn as Lucy. It’s an excellent supporting cast with a stand-out performance from George Ikediashi as the Balladeer. I wasn’t sure about Vicki Mortimer’s rather ramshackle home made look design, though it did provide some great moments, and the costumes were excellent. Rufus Norris staging was outstanding.

Another evening at the NT which exceeded expectations; long may that continue.

 

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Another trip to Wales, this time to see the National Theatre of Wales ‘mash-up’ of Shakespeare’s play and Brecht’s mid-20th century left-wing spin on it. This one’s in a disused aircraft hangar at RAF St. Athan. It’s extraordinary.

They’ve solved the three great problems of site-specific promenade productions. You have headphones, so you can hear every word. There are two giant screens, so you needn’t miss a thing. You’re not marshalled or herded around, so no distractions built in.

The hangar is divided in two by a double wall so you really do move from Rome to Antium when you walk through the gap. You are the people, so they’re often speaking directly to you; when they’re not, they are in cars & vans (that move) or caravans (that don’t) and you eavesdrop on their conversation on the big screens and through your cans. The play acquires a depth which I’ve never experienced before. The heroic story. The contempt for the people. The loyalty to his mother. The political shenanigans.

You feel like you’re in the middle of events as they unfold. Everything is in black & white like CC TV. This really is happening and you have to decide where you stand. Are you for him or against him? It’s extraordinarily contemporary.

Technically, Mike Pearson & Mike Brooks production is masterly. The combination of live video and personal audio with live dialogue & music is terrific, but it doesn’t get in the way of the dramatic flow of the play – to the contrary, in heightens it. The performances are exceptional too. On a  number of occasions I felt like Coriolanus was looking directly at me, connecting with my inner thoughts; Richard Lynch is outstanding in the tile role. Rhian Morgan as his mother Volumia is superb. Richard Harrington is an excellent Aufidius. In fact, there isn’t a fault in the casting.

I was captivated by this play like I’ve never been before; the staging isn’t a gimmick, it’s a liberation of the story and the text and Coriolanus has never been more compelling or thrilling.

Based on my three visits to NTW, this company is very special indeed; I will be making more 340-mile round-trips – work this good doesn’t happen that often. The undoubted highlight (in English) of the World Shakespeare Festival.

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