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.

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An absurd masterpiece or a masterpiece of the absurd

Rhinoceros – Théâtre de la Ville–Paris, Barbican

Théâtre de la Ville–Paris’ production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros is practically faultless and it is with considerable surprise to discover that it has taken nearly nine years for it to have crossed the Channel; it is very rare for a near-decade old show to appear to contain so much vitality. It is an evening at the theatre that manages to achieve that rarest of blends – an exquisite play meeting an exceptional production. Over the last five years I can think of just two other productions that could lay claim to being of a similar calibre; Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem anchored by Mark Rylance’s ‘Rooster’ Byron and Rupert Goold’s production of Macbeth with Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood.

We are clearly operating in exulted company and it is perhaps telling that despite barriers of style, language and time the three productions share common traits. They all rely on a strong central male character who across the course of the narrative embarks on what we might recognise as an existential crisis that leads them to stand against the forces of change and modernity. To a greater or lesser extent they are the architects of their own downfall, as they each retain a strong moral code that is a major driver for action and embeds a sense of duty that can seem inexplicable to others, and that will cause them to follow a path that can only lead to isolation and destruction.

Each of the productions also share a perfectly pitched casting for its lead character; there is not one moment where Rylance doesn’t fully convince as Rooster, a man whose self-important sense of being part of a grander element of England’s narrative blinds him – metaphorically and eventually all too literally – to the modern culture of the nation. Stewart, as I have written before, captures the transition of Macbeth from the brutally effective soldier to his existential crisis point and onwards to an acceptance of predetermined resolution.

Serge Maggiani as Berenger

In Théâtre de la Ville–Paris’ production we have a central character of equally moral and dramatic weight. Serge Maggiani wonderfully captures the crumpled, unassuming and apathetic Bérenger; a paradoxical figure who is both an everyman and of such inconsequence that his friend, Dudard, feels mindful to provide him with a tie and gives him stern lectures on his social habits. Ionesco has caught in Bérenger a figure that everyone will recognise; the amiable friend who like a drink, and likes an argument alongside it.

Maggiani manages to bring alive a character that is by turns infuriating and charming, capable of great erudition but also a boorish drunk. There is weariness in his actions, a perpetual shrug on his shoulders as he lets life pass him by with a seemingly chronic disregard for the social conventions of those around him. Often striking a rather pathetic figure in sober company, his transformation is a reflection of Kantian virtue as it goes against our sense of his natural manner; where those around him, be they of stronger moral purpose or following a rationalistic instinct, choose to join the Rhinoceroses, Bérenger doggedly becomes the contrarian and rejects the easy path of transformation in favour of humanity.

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