Brighton Fringe 2021
Oscar Wilde wrote that “Life imitates Art far more often than Art imitates Life”. Wilde was seldom wrong, and we saw a perfect example of the phenomenon at The Brighthelm Centre, where Cascade Creative Recovery were staging ‘Bertolt Wrecked’.
The production is written as a take on the Covid-19 pandemic, and our society’s response to it. People are terrified of becoming infected and the Government regulations place a lot of restrictions on our behaviour; but many individuals are sceptical about the threat and resent or ignore safety measures, like masks or social distancing, that they see as stupid or draconian. So it was fascinating to watch the behaviour of the Brighthelm audience. Face masks advised – but a number chose not to wear them. Social distancing organised by seating grouped into specified ‘bubbles’ – which several audience members ignored by moving their seat to a different location.
Such understandable behaviour, though – human beings faced with something we’ve never experienced before. As the production’s subtitle puts it: ‘Tales by ordinary folk – in a not-so-ordinary world.’
The audience settled down, and as the show began we saw this same behaviour taking place right in front of us on the Brighthelm’s stage. There was a couple, on a first date, and he’s trying to persuade her to take off her face mask so that he can get a proper look at her face. But she doesn’t want to – she’s frightened of catching Coronavirus; she’s keeping her physical distance from him, too. He thinks the restrictions are stupid, and he keeps telling her not to be silly, offers her drinks, sandwiches; anything to get past that mask. Finally she relents – “I’ve been so lonely, so scared” – unmasks herself, and takes his hand in hers. At that point the mood is shattered by police whistles, and a pair of officers burst onto the stage and arrest … her.
The woman has obviously committed an offence under Covid regulations, and it looked probable that the man had acted as an agent provocateur. As she’s dragged off, a pair of rubbish cleaners in hi-viz tabards observe the situation but decide – “Best to ignore it …” What kind of society have we become? Fear and paranoia. Rules and regulations that keep changing, and officials who are only too eager to trip us up as we try to navigate them.
As the show’s title hints, ‘Bertolt Wrecked’ is done in the style of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Epic Theatre’. By this term Brecht meant a theatre that didn’t expect people to suspend disbelief and imagine that they were witnessing real events taking place in a drawing room, a castle, a wood, or whatever. Brecht wanted the audience to be totally clear that they were watching a performance, by actors, on a stage in front of them.
That’s very much director Angela El-Zeind’s style in this production. Her actors (ten of them) were all dressed simply in black, with some of them in whiteface (in the style of German Expressionism), and each of the nine short scenes was opened by an actor coming onstage bearing a white placard with the title hand-written. For the scene we’d just seen it was ‘THE COUPLE’. There was music too, from three performers, with a piano and guitar off to one side of the stage. Jarring music, rasping-voiced accompanying songs (remember that Brecht worked a lot with Kurt Weill) that gave background to the scenes that followed.
As Brecht would have wanted, it’s political theatre as well – every section pointed up an absurdity or injustice of our society’s response to the pandemic. For ‘THE MARSHALL SCENE’ two officials in green plastic PPE were adjudicating on quarantine violations by residents (inmates?) of an isolation facility, the wonderfully named ‘Glorious Sunset Hotel’. They award ‘demerits’ to a hapless individual who’s done nothing more heinous than comfort a child who’d fallen off his scooter, or was recorded by CCTV eating popcorn without (obviously) a facemask on the (empty) top deck of a bus. Scenes like this highlighted the relish with which some individuals wield their new powers.
A ‘not-so-ordinary world’ hints at possible dystopian futures, of course. The individual officials in ‘BORDER GUARDS’ are completely unmoved by the terrible fates of people who’ve died trying to cross the border Wall of some unnamed country. It might be for economic or political reasons, or maybe they were trying to escape an epidemic on the other side, but their lives have ended horribly, and the guards have become hardened to their demise. “I hate finding bodies – I hate the paperwork …”
This particular Guard has even shopped his own wife to the authorities, for the crime of visiting her sister against regulations, and now he expects to gain sole ownership of their home. Because he has the power. Because he can. I kept thinking of Hannah Arendt and her concept of ‘the banality of evil’.
From ‘1984’ to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, a lot of dystopias work by taking a current situation and extrapolating its possible development. Along with the placard for ‘THE EMBRACE’ they brought a front door onto the stage. A young person was banging on it, and it slowly became clear that the woman they’re trying to convince to let them inside is the ‘Madame’ of an establishment that’s not a brothel as we understand it, but one which offers nothing more than embraces and hugs – for money. In a world where physical contact is forbidden, people will crave intimate contact. They will put up with the stigma and the risk to their reputation – not for sex as such, just for the press of another body against their own and the waft of someone else’s breath on their face.
Clever. And poignant. And made so believable, like all of the scenes in this production, by the talent of the cast. Following Brecht’s philosophy, Angela El-Zeind worked, not with professionally trained actors, but with people from Cascade Creative Recovery. Occasionally lines were not projected as clearly as they might have been, but the cast more than made up for that by the intensity of their delivery. Cascade is run by, and for, people with experience of active recovery from substance misuse, and I felt that the actors brought a lot of that emotional experience from their past to the truth of their performance.
‘Bertolt Wrecked’ is a worthy hommage to Brecht’s philosophy of theatre. The piece utilises and celebrates his techniques of engagement with an audience, and the short scenes provide important political and moral perspectives on how we should regard our society, our Government – and ourselves, in a not-so-ordinary world. Hopefully the production will be performed again in the future. Catch it if you possibly can.