Edinburgh Festival `98:Brecht allied to slapstick

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The Independent Culture
BRECHT'S PUNTILA is the Jekyll and Hyde of the class war. When he's plastered, this Finnish landowner drips with sugary human kindness; once sober again, he's a tyrannical bastard.

Veering waywardly between these two extremes, he'll hire new farm hands, then summarily dismiss them; arrange to marry his daughter to a foreign office attache, then insist that she wed his sardonic chauffeur, Matti, and then overturn that decision. In his schizophrenic reversals, the alcoholic millionaire of City Lights poses similar problems for Charlie Chaplin's tramp. The important difference is that Matti is no guileless innocent; he plays a cagey game of trying to nudge his master in the direction of justice while making sure he knows which side his own bread is buttered on.

In Kathryn Hunter's vigorous and very funny co-production for the Almeida and the Right Size, the central couple are played by Sean Foley and Hamish McColl, the physical comedy duo. The knockabout tone of the proceedings is established with an added jokey prologue in which, to the puckish plunkings of ukulele and double bass, the cast offer a bracingly unpious crash course in Brecht and his theories. The famous preference for drama that promotes action rather than identification in an audience comes out in this pithy ditty as the Brechtian method that "denies the viewing public Aristotelian catharsis/ Which means that all of you lot should get off your big fat arses".

With mad, penetrating eyes, distraught hair and a silly moustache, McColl's Puntila finds a perfect physical foil in the thicker-set, calmly subversive Foley. Trying to pull off his clothes like a ludicrous latter day King Lear to get down to the common humanity, McColl lets you see the absurdly sentimental self-regard in Puntila's drunken visionary flights, along with the drivenness that makes you feel that, in a peculiar way, there is more genuine energy for social change in him than in the pragmatic chauffeur.

There's a Complicite feel to the production from the opening when the furniture and the drunks in a hotel bar are presented at crazy, inebriated angles to the stage, to the moment near the end when the row of wooden doors on Tim Hatley's atmospheric set is violently kicked down to become the steep incline of an imaginary mountain.

The multi-racial cast deliver a punchy new version of the play by Lee Hall that mixes in-yer-face contemporary slang ("gagging for a bit of posh") with endearingly ouch-provoking jokes such as: "What did I do to bring such a daughter into the world?" "You shagged her mother."

Of course, you're sent home with a neat moral in a doggy bag. But, still, it's not often that you can write the words "Bertolt Brecht" and "knockabout fun" in the same sentence.