Edinburgh Fringe 2019
The story of playwright, theorist and director Bertolt Brecht told through the eyes of his principal collaborator, Elizabeth Hauptmann. That Bastard Brecht reverberates with contemporary relevance: the exploitation of women as artists throughout time, the withholding of recognition and financial reward should ring bells.
As we walk into the theatre the rich tones of the live band set the scene, and we are in the Berlin of the Weimar Republic. The energetic opening number – reprised at the end – sets up how we are to see our hero – that bastard Brecht – as someone who plays with both people and words. And is very good at both.
Nuworks theatre from Australia describe themselves as a ‘collaborative and egalitarian ensemble’ and there is a real sense of this throughout the show as actors, musicians, singers and storytellers seamlessly share the unfolding narrative.
We quickly pick up a sense of the background and setting: ‘city of sin’ Berlin in the 1920’s and 30’s with its sub-culture of decadence, avant-garde, burlesque – and multiple relationships. The scene shifts back and forth: part cabaret jazz club, part bedroom, part office, part home.
As Brecht and Weil discuss the new techniques that they want to bring to the theatre, so the production itself, via the writing and the structure, models some of those ideas. The songs that move the story along, in Brechtian style, encourage objective thinking and ask the audience to question established views and values, beginning, ironically, with our view of Brecht himself.
The quality of the writing, musicianship and singing of the twelve original songs – homage in part to Kurt Weil – is outstanding. The songs by David Dunn, Mark Howard & Lydia Saroto are witty and satirical and are delivered with skill, engagement and verve.
The dance routines of the ensemble on stage during the songs are rigorous and executed with precision. The choreography direction is tightly timed and visually mesmerising. The movement is deliberate and conscious – with the intention of Epic theatre. The expressionist style of stock-still tableaux images on stage during songs and dialogue reinforce the artistic context of the time, but also add a layer of complex psychology to the characters, especially of the women, for the audience.
The brochure states that the show ‘reverberates with contemporary relevance,’ referring to the exploitation of women as artists and their lack of public recognition. This is a theme ever-present in the production, as we see Brecht reducing and minimising the significance of Elizabeth Hauptmann’s role in their joint work. She is translating John Gay’s The Beggars’ Opera from English into German; this will become Brecht and Weil’s acclaimed The Threepenny Opera and as she works, Brecht systematically underplays – and eventually ignores – her contribution. We also see women apparently ‘colluding’ in their own oppression, as we might now see it, by choice and/or because there is no alternative in the context of the time.
There is further contemporary relevance in the show for a modern audience. There is discussion and some disagreement amongst the characters about populism and the rise of Hitler, and how far it will go. The rise of Nazism is charted throughout the play, with a significant speech by Kurt Weil recounting attacks on Jews in the street. Brecht says that the audience is gullible and desperate for meaning in life. When he describes the rise of fascism as theatre and dangerous in the wrong hands, and Hitler as an actor – as well as a clown and ripe for satire – we are inevitably reminded that we live in the time of Trump in the USA and Johnson in the UK.
We are further aware of ourselves as ‘audience’ as we listen to conversations about theatre, the need for ‘new’ theatre and the importance of being in service to the arts. But we also hear how hard it is to be an artist in an age of creeping fascism, where all the values are dictated by profit and loss.
On a separate note, the actors are amplified throughout and while this is needed for the songs, it can occasionally detract from the nuance needed in spoken dialogue.
Written and directed by David Dunn, this is arguably a didactic piece with a point to make: about Brecht, in part in the style of Brecht – and it works brilliantly. Via song and story, the production presents the mismatch between what we now call the personal and the political – and Brecht is found wanting. But along the way, in this musical play of ideas, we are challenged and encouraged to think.
The show certainly deserves a bigger audience than on the day it was seen.