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Phil Willmott: Is Brecht still relevant?

Tom Williams, Joe Dowling and Christopher Laishley in Phil Willmott's production of Fear and Misery of the Third Reich at the Union Theatre. Photo: Scott Rylander Tom Williams, Joe Dowling and Christopher Laishley in Phil Willmott's production of Fear and Misery of the Third Reich at the Union Theatre. Photo: Scott Rylander
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My first introduction to the theatre of German expressionist playwright Bertolt Brecht was as a kid when we did his The Caucasian Chalk Circle as a school play. Heaven only knows how or why – up to then we’d done The Boyfriend and Androcles and the Lion – so it was a bit of a departure. Anyway, thank you to my drama teacher Mrs Ryder because it was love at first sight.

I’d never have dreamed we could tell such a massive story with a royal family toppling, an escape through the mountains, a city in flames, corruption, romance, betrayal, comedy, drama and redemption with a few props, some German bloke’s words and our imaginations. And [ital] we didn’t do it on the school stage, we did it on the hall floor… and [ital] the audience sat around the edge. She was radical, that Mrs Ryder.

Any teenage drama student can give you a rundown of the Brechtian basics

Nowadays any teenage drama student can give you a rundown of the Brechtian basics, but Brecht’s physical and psychological decluttering of theatrical production is now no longer the exception – it’s all-pervasive. You can’t go to any fashionable theatre these days without the director thinking they’re being clever by, for instance, removing the furniture or letting us see into the wings just in case we forget we’re watching a play (yawn).

So has Brecht won his battle over the kind of puerile theatre that allows you to check your brain in with your hat at the cloakroom, as he once sort of put it?

Well, not really. I’m sure it didn’t cross my mind at school what BB was trying to say with his Chalk Circle text. Actually, I’m still a bit fuzzy on that now (goat-farming collectivism anyone?). And I’ve now directed it twice. All I knew was that it was a cracking story.

For me, as for many directors, the politics didn’t stick but Brecht’s revolutionary theatricality certainly did.

And that’s the trouble, we’ve mastered a sort of Brechtian chic but we seldom use it to make any kind of political point, whether ours or Brecht’s.

Mind you, he doesn’t make it easy. When directing his plays, I’ve often found it quite hard to adhere as closely to the text as the Brecht police require while also hitting a political nerve in our apathetic climate. The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui pretty much takes care of itself. I directed a new version by Andy de la Tour that aimed to make its message more universal by cutting the scene headings relating to the rise of Hitler; even so, it’s got that amazing last speech, along the lines of “the bitch that bore him is on heat again” which guarantees the audience a shiver up their spine as they relate it to their regime of choice. I staged Mark Ravenhill’s version of Brecht’s Marxist teaching play, The Mother in the heart of the City of London for 25,000 people one summer and was rather pleased with myself until I read a baffled tweet complaining it was just a story about a woman giving out pamphlets.

There’s no such problem with my current production of Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich currently playing at the Union Theatre. His depiction of a liberal middle class buckling under pressure from violent extremists to be patriotic by supporting the far right shrieks with topicality.

In the past few months, it’s become easy to imagine that should, God forbid, terrorists pull off an equivalent to the burning down of the German parliament building in 1933, the anger and disarray might draw people once again to extremist politics. Which of us can claim with any certainty that we’d risk our safety, careers and livelihoods to stand up for our principals if we had a right-wing, anti-Muslim thug on every corner?

I asked our designer, Nik Corrall, to create an aesthetic that meshed period detail with our world, with only our narrator figure in full 1930s costume. I’m particularly pleased with the emblem he’s come up with to stand in for the swastika: a circle with the letters TMRW.

The script often appears startlingly naturalistic and ‘un-Brechtian’ on first reading, but we soon found that approaching the text and characters as one would naturalism takes rehearsals down a blind alley. The performer needs to think “What am I? What do I represent?” rather than “Who am I?” Only when we had worked out what each character and incident contributed to the overall message were we able to bring them to life.

I’ve really enjoyed creating a staging that both adheres to Brecht’s theatrical conventions and shares a warning that still, alas, concerns us all.

Now, the really neat trick would be to pull this off with a new and topical piece of political playwriting.

That truly would ensure Herr Brecht’s legacy still has teeth.

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