Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh 17/02/15
This is one of those productions that makes me want to bottle its essence, and use it when – in my day job as a drama teacher – I am introducing a class of students to Brecht and his ideas. There’s a danger, sometimes, of presenting him as too difficult or serious (he is, of course, both – it’s the ‘too’ that’s the problem), and of the alienation effect coming to mean something quite different within the confines of the classroom.
But this production was so enchanting and funny and lively and, yes, engaging (sorry) that no one in the audience could fail to feel its impact. From the moment we entered the theatre, we were made witness to events. The stage was huge and cluttered, with all curtains removed and the wings exposed; costumes hung on rails, and actors moved around the stage, gossiping, going over lines, checking their props. After a while, a couple of actors came down into the audience and chatted. ‘D’youse know much about Brecht?’ one of them asked the woman next to me. ‘Nothing at all,’ she replied, and the actor hunched down on the floor beside her, and gave a quick précis of the ideas behind epic theatre. This deliberate negation of any notion of naturalism or realism was only made more stark by the opulent beauty of the late 19th century Lyceum theatre, with its proscenium arch and ornate boxes. This was no black box of a space, where experimental theatre is par for the course; it was a studied and deliberate clash of theatrical styles, and it worked – big time.
The production was overtly musical, with a glorious performance by Sarah Swire as the singer/narrator, acting as a kind of rock-chick Greek chorus to keep up the momentum. The pace never flagged: this was an energetic ensemble piece, whose fourteen actors contrived to create the sense that they were many more. John Kielty was another standout, in a variety of roles, but most notably as the Governer’s snobbish wife; he clearly revelled in the drag and campery. Christopher Fairbank (as Adzak, among others) also made his mark, not least for his impressive rendition of a wide variety of accents.
The direction (by Mark Thomson) was stunning. It’s hard to single out particular moments in such a seamless production, but I did love the depiction of the rickety bridge, with an enormous fan blowing a paper blizzard, while three wooden planks were moved in front of Grusha (Amy Manson), their wobbling placement creating a real sense of the crevasse she was crossing and the danger she faced. The puppet used to represent Michael was another delight, skillfully manipulated by Adam Bennett, who breathed life into the (polystyrene?) head, forcing us to confront the very real dilemmas Grusha had to resolve.
All in all, this was a fabulous and celebratory piece of theatre: dazzling, spectacular, and – above all – thought-provoking. It’s on until the 14th March. Go and see it if you can.