Theatre: Heavy weather
Tuesday 09 February 1999
CHRIS HONER, directing a major Brecht play for the third consecutive year, dissents from the implications of the famous Brecht "alienation effect". In the excellent programme, he reprints the impeccably Bert Brecht poem, "Speech to Danish working-class actors on the art of observation", which insists not on type and role, but on particularity: "There is the man who is paying his taxes; he is not like/ Every man who pays taxes." Honer wants to show all Brecht's characters as individuals, and is not afraid to claim that an audience should be emotionally involved in his plays.
Unlike his earlier, superb Galileo, this play presents problems. True, in the peasant girl Grusha, who neglects self-interest to save the baby abandoned by the clothes-crazed Governor's Wife as she flees an insurgency, and Azdak, the village shyster catapulted into the chair of District Judge, the play has two of Brecht's characters who most exceed depersonalised function. Azdak's character cannot be confined within such bounds - it is a variable no structure can anticipate. But we wait half the play for Azdak, and meanwhile Grusha's perilous flight, pursued by the Ironshirts, is composed of instructive episodes and a series of minor characters.
It is here that Brecht's "speech" is most to be heeded, but unfortunately hardly any accurate observation is in evidence that would individualise the characters. The production is caught between stylisation and realistic vignette, and is consequently confusing. Michael Pavelka's designs add to this. Predominantly white and, in Ace McCarron's decisive shafts of side-lighting, so striking against the dark background, the costumes mix peasant layering and kabuki voluminousness in a way that makes the actors seem cumbersome, and the stage cluttered. The essential lightness and speed are, so far, lacking (I saw a preview).
Yet Kati Williamson's clear Grusha is consistently involving, and Rachel Smith's screeching and fluttering as the Governor's Wife does make stylisation work. David Fielder, as the anarchic Azdak, forever nursing a dog-end in his palm, scuttles over the stage like a demented but unkillable tarantula.
Fourteen actors and two musicians for Brecht in these times seem untold riches, and Chris Honer's pertinacity and vision are admirable. But in the usual four weeks' rehearsal, even he cannot bring a company through a piece as stylistically demanding as this.
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