'If they'd had Twitter, then the Paris Commune may have won'

Genevieve Girling, director of The Days of the Commune at the White Bear Theatre, discusses riots, revolutions, and the relevance of Brecht in the Twitter age.

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The Independent Culture

First, can you tell us a bit about your background/ previous work?

I trained at Middlesex University, on their Theatre Arts degree. It’s a fantastic course and most certainly my training ground for learning not just the process of making theatre but also people- and project-management. I think an all-round theatre arts training is the only smart way of breaking into the industry today - it makes you flexible and good to work with. Professionally, up until The Days of the Commune I’d been working mainly with new writing. It’s an exciting area of theatre to be part of, you can see where the industry’s going. I had a play at the Brighton Festival Fringe this year which gained a Best New Play nomination.

Have you worked with Brecht before?

Not professionally though I’m very familiar with his work, albeit in a very academic way. He’s a fantastic writer, and certainly in his later work created some genuinely magnificent plots and characters. His work is a pleasure to direct. The characters leap off the page. Because of the high stakes that are almost always involved there’s the opportunity to create some real dynamics on the stage.

What were the challenges of adaptation?

It’s an interesting script with an interesting history. It was written in German for a German audience about an event in French history which had occurred eighty years prior. Now, sixty years after it was written, it has been translated into English for an English audience. And it has two versions, one which Brecht wrote and one which his theatre company, the Berliner Ensemble, adapted for the stage just months after he died.

Trying to find a coherent path through the time differences, the cultural differences and even just the textual differences was daunting to say the least, but I hope I’ve found it. It was of course also a challenge to get the sixty-six named characters down to a manageable size cast for a fringe venue.

Did you face challenges in interpreting it in a fringe environment?

Not as many as you might have thought. I think the Brechtian style lends itself very well to the fringe environment. The lack of a curtain, the audience’s proximity to the stage and the actors, and the visibility of the technical elements like the operators in their booth, are more than perfect to serve one of Brecht’s foremost theatrical ideas – that you should never forget you’re in a theatre watching a play.

Riot and rebellion have been on everyone's lips this year. Do you feel the grievances of the original Paris communists remain relevant?

Absolutely. The distinctly oxymoronic ‘freedom fighter’ - and the idea that you cannot have peace unless you take it by force - is a constant dichotomy in societies all over the world, refreshed again and again in ever new ways. And equally the fight for freedom is all around, whether it’s the Iraqi people against US and UK troops or the Libyans against Gaddafi or the travellers at Dale Farm against the police. I could even dare to include the recent London riots (many interpretations though there have been), that looting is exercising a form of freedom. Whatever their motivation and whatever their aim, what is clear is that a huge number of people took to the streets of London with a feeling that they were owed something to the extent that they were no longer afraid to show that all that keeps them from it is a pane of glass.

In what other ways does the play remain relevant?

The importance that newspapers and mass media play in our social and political consciences. In Paris, both the left-wing and right-wing papers each published lies and propaganda about the other. They were the main source of knowledge for the people to know what was happening, and it played a material part in winning the war when the Versailles army was made up of predominantly prisoners of war and country peasants who had no access to the papers, only what they were told. It is arguable that had they had Twitter, then Commune may have won. Indeed, the straw that broke the camel’s back and started the Franco-Prussian war was a newspaper article.

It's a challenging play - has this been reflected in the audience reaction?

To a degree. It’s not often in a fringe venue you get to see scenes involving twelve-plus actors on-stage at once, dancing and fighting. It’s a spectacle and I think audiences feel that.

What next for you?

Another German play! With Belvedere by Ana-Maria Bamberger. I’m going back to new writing with a play that has had enormous success in Germany and Romania and for which I’ll be directing its UK premiere.

The Days of the Commune will be at the White Bear Theatre in London until 30 October