Written by Bertolt Brecht, translated by George Tabori and revised by Alistair Beaton
Directed by Jonathan Church
Venue: Minerva Theatre
Date: Thursday 22nd August 2013
Having seen this last year, we were keen to see how it had changed in revival. With most of the original cast back in harness, rehearsals were presumably more straightforward, but there were a few new actors to add in to the mix who could add a fresh take – what would we see tonight?
The production was basically the same, with only a few tweaks here and there, and none that I could specifically identify. The main difference was in the performances, with much clearer storytelling and some lovely details in the individual portrayals. We laughed about as much as last time, and I was just as ambivalent about some of the scenes and as uncomfortable about applauding at the interval as I was before. The ending was less powerful, but that would be because we knew what was coming rather than any other factor, and the audience was certainly well satisfied at the end of the performance.
We were sitting over by the piano tonight, which was still in the back left corner with the musicians clustered around it for the pre-show entertainment. There were tables back right and front left, and the back wall had the Scarface poster – the original with Paul Muni. The pre-show songs included Brother Can You Spare A Dime, Yes Sir That’s My Baby, We’re In The Money, It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) and the opening number was Daddy Get Your Baby Out Of Jail – all good fun.
The introductions by the master of ceremonies were as good as before, with each character stepping forward as he was named, but the initial meeting of the Cauliflower Trust was a great improvement on last year. Some of this may be down to familiarity of course, but the whole show was better defined which suggests that even newcomers would have found it as clear. Arturo had produced the ‘U’ and ‘I’ symbols by the end of his first scene, and along with the armbands, I noticed he demonstrated the letters with his hands when intimidating Dogsborough later in the first half.
The lesson from the actor had come on as well, with Arturo’s attempts to copy his grand gestures being hugely funny. Arturo gave a little speech in which he referred to “sacrifice”; at that moment he put his hands on his crotch, causing huge laughter. His next public address showed how much he had learned, and his use of some of the phrases from Mark Anthony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech was very entertaining. His accent improved considerably over the course of the play, much more so than last year, as I recall, but it worked to show his progress up the social ladder. It also reminded me of Animal Farm, with the pigs becoming more like the humans until the other animals couldn’t tell them apart.
I was still reluctant to applaud Arturo’s success at the end of the first half, but this time I knew there would be plenty of opportunity at the end. They restarted with Dogsborough’s will and confession, immediately followed by the reading of a forged version of his will which would be published by Ui’s supporters when the old man died. The argument that broke out between Roma and his henchmen on one side and Giri and Givola on the other looked ominous, with Roma driving out the other two and persuading Arturo to get cracking with the violence again. Despite an attempt to get Arturo to ditch Roma, it seemed that Roma would win the day, and even though I knew how things would turn out this whole section of the play had more tension than I remember.
By the time Arturo was chatting up the Dollfoots in Givola’s flower shop, his accent had become quite plummy, with only the occasional trace of a Brooklyn twang. His elegant evening attire also suggested a man of culture, although his choice of words sometimes let the side down. The murder of Mr Dollfoot, the only man with enough integrity to stand up to Ui, led to a very strong confrontation between Ui and Mrs Dollfoot which could not avoid comparison with Richard III’s wooing of Lady Anne in Shakespeare’s play. The comparison did not go badly for this scene, which was crackling with tension.
Following on from that, Roma’s ghost paid Richard, sorry Arturo, a visit, and this was also much clearer than last time. Perhaps our seats at the side gave us a better view of some aspects of the production, but again I have to commend the cast for coming up with a richer and stronger performance all round. After that there was just the final scene, with Mrs Dollfoot apparently having a change of heart and speaking in support of Ui’s offer to protect the Cicero grocery trade, and Ui’s own speech from the very tall podium. After the big reveal, Henry Goodman peeled off his ‘tache and spoke some final lines, warning us all that a tyrant of this kind could easily re-emerge and take power – “the bitch that bore him is in heat again” – and we applauded mightily for quite some time.
The post-show was very interesting, with the returning members of the cast glad to be back while enjoying the fact that there were new faces to shake things up a bit. Alistair Beaton had changed a few things here and there, but not a great deal, and there was a general consensus amongst those of us who had seen the production last year that it was much tighter and sharper this time around.
The effect of the move to the proscenium arch space in London was raised, and they explained that many of the features of the design which brought the action out into the audience would be retained, such as the tramlines. The advantage of the Minerva was that they could use the theatre audience as part of the public audience of the play, while still retaining the intimacy of other scenes, and they wanted to keep that aspect as much as possible in the Duchess theatre. The disadvantage of the Minerva is the lack of back stage space, with actors running around like blue-arsed flies along narrow corridors underneath the seating. Their performances will undoubtedly change with the transfer, and rehearsals for the new space will be going on while they perform in Chichester. Since the London part of the run will have understudies, those cast members will have to fit in learning their understudy roles at the same time. A lot of hard work to come, then.
Mrs Dollfoot’s role wasn’t based on an historical character, unlike her husband. She’s a symbolic character; Neville Chamberlain was mentioned in relation to his passive acquiescence in Hitler’s takeover of large chunks of Europe. The scene with Roma’s ghost is usually cut in most productions. This version included as many Shakespearean features as possible, so the ghost scene was a must. In the original it was meant to be a nightmare in a hotel room, with Roma’s image projected onto a wall; this version, with Roma coming on stage to tell Ui that he will be brought down eventually, worked very well.
Music was very important to Brecht, and there’s a rhythm to the language as well which can help with the text, although mostly it lets them know if they’ve got it wrong. A Post-it from the DSM will follow if that happens – Henry Goodman claimed he couldn’t see his mirror for Post-its. They also commented that the gentle rhythm of the lines lulls the audience into accepting the characters and what they’re saying, despite the nature of what’s going on. The final lines were added at the insistence of Christopher Plummer, who played Ui in America. He wanted to find a way to make the warning completely clear, and the lines have been kept in every production since. It was Brecht’s intention to warn Americans about the dangers of Fascism, and that they could succumb to it if they didn’t watch out.
The film noir references were discussed briefly, but the actors have to play the words on the page and inhabit the world created by the playwright, even if the performances are occasionally rounded out with other influences. A question about the nature of political theatre led to some interesting points. As well as giving people a warning, it could also enlighten them about a situation and warn about the present as much as the past. Gorky was quoted as saying that “theatre is where you think and feel”, which some other forms of media don’t always achieve, and it was also suggested that theatre can be provocative, encouraging new thinking.
Henry Goodman pointed out that this was one of Brecht’s more accessible plays, written during an eight year exile within Europe and intended to show what was going on in Germany. He also gave a little speech of thanks to the members of the Commissioning Circle, not forgetting the general audience members who supported the theatre through buying tickets, and with that we were finished. We let the cast get away, grateful that they’d given us so much of their time.
© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me