By Bertolt Brecht, translated by George Tabori
Script Consultant Alistair Beaton
Directed by Jonathan Church
Venue: Minerva Theatre
Date: Tuesday 17th July 2012
This is a marvellous production, which treats Brecht’s play with respect but also respects the audience’s desire for a good evening at the theatre. In fact, we got a great evening at the theatre, with both the comedic and dark aspects of the play brought out very strongly. The individual performances were all excellent, and the numbers staying behind for the post-show discussion had to be a record for the Minerva.
The set design was superb as well. Simon Higlett apparently did a great deal of research and included subtle references in the design which wouldn’t be obvious to most people, but which added to the overall effect. For example, there were tramlines representing the train tracks leading into Auschwitz, and the central arch at the back was in the same proportions as the entrance to that establishment (post-show info). The back wall was mainly brickwork, with the arch in the middle and metal stairs leading up to the side balconies. One of these had a ventilation fan on the go, with a light shining through it occasionally.
Under the arch were placed several settings. At the start it was a wall with a large poster of Scarface, the 1932 original version. Later it held the door to the gangster’s speakeasy, the fireplace of Dogborough’s country house, the public benches for the trial scene, the warehouse door for the execution of Roma, and the very large podium from which Ui makes his final speech. At other times it was left open, while furniture and other props were brought on and off as required. This took some time, and was a slightly negative aspect of the staging, as it caused a brief drop in the energy. But with such a strong production the energy soon picked up, and it wasn’t a significant problem.
The show began early, with some great music from the period – Brother Can You Spare A Dime? and We’re In The Money plus others – played and sung by members of the cast. Others sat around the speakeasy, and when the lights went down there was one final song before the master of ceremonies came on to give us the prologue. He used a standing microphone and spoke in rhyming couplets, introducing the main characters to us. As he did so, each character got up, acknowledged the introduction in his own way, and then left. The last person he mentioned was Arturo Ui himself, and this time Arturo entered from the back and marched straight through and off at the front. The reference to his similarity to Richard III was funny, and even more so for those of us who had seen Henry Goodman playing that very part.
When the prologue was finished, the room was cleared of furniture and the Cauliflower Trust started the ball rolling. Their incipient greed was obvious to see, and that was the driver for all that followed. A fake loan needed Dogborough’s backing, as he had such a glowing reputation for honesty and integrity that no one would investigate the details too closely. With a secret gift, the Trust overcame Dogborough’s steadfast refusal to assist in their con trick, and when Ui got to hear of this, he used the leverage to blackmail his way into power. Once there, the violence snowballed, but when Ui had advanced far enough to consider moving his protection racket into the neighbouring town of Cicero, the thugs he’d employed up to now became a hindrance and were removed, by tommy gun. Mind you, the guns were still in evidence when the ‘free and fair’ democratic Cicero elections were held, and amazingly enough there was a huge majority for the proposed Ui protection offer. With the Cauliflower Trust now supplying veg to both Chicago and Cicero, where would it all end?
There was a lot of humour in the early stages, getting less as the darker aspects took over in the second half. Even so, the absurd effect of gangsters talking about killing and arson in order to control vegetable distribution could still get us laughing well into the later scenes. The classic scene with the old actor teaching Arturo how to walk, stand and speak, was brilliant, with many of Hitler’s mannerisms appearing during the lesson. In addition to the very funny “Friends, Romans, countrymen”, this was a version of the play which used a great deal of Shakespearean references, with many familiar lines being mangled to fit the circumstances.
A lot of the time, though, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or not, and some scenes were very uncomfortable to watch, especially the trial of the poor chap who was being blamed for the warehouse fire. Doped up to the eyeballs, he recovered for a brief spell, only to be dosed again by the tame court doctor and inevitably convicted by the judge. At the end of the first half, with Arturo on the rise, I wasn’t comfortable about applauding because it felt as if I would be applauding him, though I did want to acknowledge the actors. At the end however, the final speech, warning us to watch out for another Arturo, changed the tone completely and I was very happy to join in the enthusiastic response from the whole audience.
The post-show was incredibly well attended, by both cast and audience. The discussion covered the question of how much historical detail was necessary, with some finding the final part too obvious, but mostly the feeling was that not everyone would know the history, and in any case it was necessary to have that final speech because the play was intended as a warning. The information on what each scene represented wasn’t being shown during the play this time, although the details are in the program. The cast had found some parts of the play not easy to perform, but enjoyed the audience’s reactions to those difficult sections when our feelings were most challenged. The set was complimented, as was the music at the start, and while Henry Goodman’s performance was rightly lauded, we praised the whole cast for their performances as well. The Minerva itself was well liked by the cast (natch), and despite the many hands being raised we finally called a halt at 11:30 p.m.
I enjoyed this production more than I expected, Brecht not being a favourite of mine, but for all that I couldn’t rate it higher than 7 stars. Perhaps the pre-show talk we attended gave too much away; I intend to avoid these in future unless I’ve seen the play first. I did find it difficult to understand the dialogue for a while, as the accents were pretty strong, but I managed to tune in eventually and the rest of the show was fine. I’d certainly see another Brecht at Chichester if they’re going to be done this well.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me