Beatboxing meets Brecht: Political theatre for 2015

No Milk For Foxes – Camden’s People Theatre, until 09 May 2015 (tickets)wpid-wp-1430563981332.jpg

In case you missed it, there is a little thing called the ‘general election’ happening in a couple of weeks. Across England the electorate appears gripped by apathy. Not for us the forceful, passionate women leading vibrant nationalist campaigns capable of instilling a sense of self-determinative belief in voters. For those sandwiched between Wales and Scotland the choice is between three different shades of beige – one shiny as a Christmas ham, one an amalgamation of several sock-puppets and one that leaves no discernible impression at all – or, how could we forget, everyone’s favourite part-man, part-pub sound bite generator.

wpid-wp-1430563988725.jpgVoter turn-out has been declining since the 1950 election when almost 84% of people cast their ballot and by 2010 had sunk to 65% of the electorate (amazingly this is still higher than the nadir in 2001 which saw less than six out of ten eligible voters bothering to have an opinion on who they wanted to control their lives). In the intervening years mass political movements have come and gone but the institutions of Westminster have remained as hierarchal as they have ever been, and – based on a simplistic metric of ‘private education and Oxbridge’ – may have gone backwards to Victorian levels of patrician governance, with few MPs from across the political spectrum able to claim a background that even Tony Blair’s favoured ‘Mondeo Man’ could identify with.

The question of how to get people back to the ballot box may not be solved by the London fringe theatre scene but at least they are trying. At present you can barely make it into any black-box space without being assailed by the sound of discontent with the political system. Camden’s People Theatre is no different and No Milk For Foxes finds itself at the centre of three weeks of drama drawn together under the appropriately-titled banner of The State We’re In.

The most refreshing thing about No Milk For Foxes is that it does not lecture its audience. There is little overt politicisation in the narrative and no attempt to indoctrinate those watching with a finale that involves a rousing rendition of The Internationale. Instead it seeks to engage with political issues by shining light onto the mundane everyday pressures of living in a 21st century economy where ‘flexible working’ refers to the terrifying prospect of zero hours contracts and no money in next week’s paycheck rather than the ability to work from home on Friday afternoons.

<<Continue to full review>>

Interview with Teatro Vivo

Back in September I had the pleasure of catching Mother Courage and Her Children –  a colloborative piece between GLYPT and Teatro Vivo. They staged Mother Courage, Brecht’s famously anti-war parable, as a promenade piece through the Royal Woolwich Dockyards. Afterwards I caught up with Kas Darley and Mark Stevenson of Teatro Vivo.

You can read my interview with them on the Everything Theatre website by clicking here.

The Rehabilitation of Bertolt Brecht

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui –Duchess Theatre, booking until 07 Dec 2013

Leaving aside Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ibsen, the popularity of playwrights tends to wax and wane on the London stage; the recent reappraisal of Rattigan as someone unfairly cast aside by the Angry Young Men of the 1950s and the continuing absence of Bernard Shaw are two of the more obvious examples of the way a writer’s fortune remains tied to the whims of producers.

Arturo Ui Poster

The UK has also notably never quite embraced the rich vein of talent that exists in European theatre: Racine is rarely seen; Moliere, a mainly absent figure; and modern continental playwrights virtually non-existent. The thrall of Anglo-American naturalism and the rawness of the grand narratives of O’Neill, Williams and Miller continues to be preferred to the rather more metaphysical questions posed by the likes of Ionesco and Artaud.

Within this structure Brecht cuts a solitary figure, and has increasingly become something of the forgotten man of British theatre. Whilst his position, alongside Stanislavski, as one the pre-eminent figures in the development of modern theatrical practice is assured, it was Stanislavskian concepts that became the dominant mode of theatre and film; championed by Stella Adler and embodied in the work of a young Marlon Brando.

In comparison Brecht’s influence has seemingly ebbed away to the point where a new production of a Brecht play in the West End is something of an event. One must acknowledge that there are resource considerations to this; large casts can be ruinously expensive but that reality is built on the premise that Brecht is deeply unfashionable and cannot be considered an audience draw.

The irony’s that Brecht is perhaps the most American-looking of all the European playwrights. Stanislavski had little desire to cast his eyes across the Atlantic but to Brecht the new world and its eager embrace of democratic and technological progress chime with ideas that were central to his own theatrical philosophy.

arturo_ui_063_Henry_Goodman__Arturo_Ui__and_Michael_Feast__Roma_._The_Resistible_Rise_of_Arturo_Ui._Photo_by_Manuel_Harlan._4ffd4cb1ddfbbAt its heart was the development of an art form that would become pre-eminent for the first five decades of the 20th century: cinema. Silent cinema was the great leveller; reliant on music, gesture and simplified dialogue so it could appeal across the immigrant communities of America, these early pictures represented Brechtian techniques transposed to a medium that could truly be embraced by a mass audience.

It was within the world of cinema that Brecht found a way of telling the story of Hitler. The development of genre pictures – particularly the early gangster movies, starring the likes of James Cagney and George Raft – gave Brecht a mechanism with which the rise of an international dictator could be challenged in a way that did not need threaten the authorities directly and would also appeal to a mass audience.

This is not to say that Arturo Ui is dumbed down; the reverse is in effect true, Brecht is raising the genre picture above its humble origins. He may have gained a reputation as a didactic playwright with a sledgehammer touch but this is to ignore the craft taken over the formal structure of the play and the sly literary references liberally sprinkled throughout the text.

Arturo Ui could be enjoyed for the wonderful pastiche of Mark Antony’s oration at Caesar’s funeral and the knowing nods to pretty much every tragedy in the Shakespearian canon but it does more than this – it recognises the freedom of the theatre, in opposition to the limitations of cinema, to challenge the audience by upturning the established conventions of an entire genre.

<<Continue to full review>>

Sheridan meets Brecht: when legends collide

School for Scandal – Barbican Theatre, 14 June 2011

There isn’t much left to write about the Deborah Warner directed School for Scandal currently playing at the Barbican. An award-winning director who was most recently seen at the National with a stellar production of Mother Courage and Her Children, Warner’s original take on Sheridan’s 18th century classic became the rather surprising subject of unusually intense critical debate, before descending into a rather indecorous war of words between Warner and the theatre critics, Michael Billington and Charles Spencer.

The production demonstrates fairly conclusively that Sheridan’s restoration comedy continues to withstand the test of time. A sparklingly witty acidic comedy, the dense wordplay maybe be occasionally hard to follow for modern audiences but taking the time to really listen is more than worthwhile, with a script packed with lines biting enough to make you think of an 18th century Thick of It. The cast do fine work with the material. Alan Howard as Sir Peter Teazle is first rate, finding the perfect blend of genuine compassion mixed with the kind of grumpiness evident in older men who find themselves in a fractious relationship with a younger wife. It is interesting to watch Howard and remember back to a time in the 1970’s when he was one of the coming men of the stage, running through the repertoire of romantic leads for the RSC. Matilda Ziegler’s Lady Sneerwell and Vicki Pepperdine as the irrepressible Mrs Candour are both excellent and wring the maximum amount of humour out of two of the funniest roles in the play.

Leo Bill, playing Charles Surface as a trustifarian with a, very deeply hidden, moral centre, is entirely convincing. A bundle of nervous energy, constantly on the move, Bill injects some much needed pace into a play that, while constantly zipping along and never feeling flabby, is still a three hour haul.

However fans of Sheridan maybe scratching their heads at the description of Charles Surface as a trustifarian and this is where problems in the production begin to arise. The criticisms of Warner’s production have focused on the modern flourishes that have been brought to the play and a certain irritation that parallels with society today were being, in some cases literally, clearly signposted for the audience. Continue reading here