Mrs Edward James was bored. So Mr James did what every man married to a bored ballerina would do, if he had Mr James's money. He set up a company, Les Ballets 1933, and got Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht to compose a ballet chanté in which she could be the star. Most of the singing would be provided by Weill's wife, Lotte Lenya, and the choreography – well, there was this chap Mrs James thought well of, name of George Balanchine.
But the circumstances behind the creation of The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petit-Bourgeoisie (the complete title) were wildly fraught. Brecht and Weill had ended their collaboration three years earlier: "Weill was on the run from the Nazis," says Mehmet Ergen, who is reviving the piece at the Arcola Theatre this week. "He didn't want to work with Brecht any more, and told him he wasn't interested in setting the Communist Manifesto to music." Meanwhile, Weill was having an affair with the director's wife, and Lenya with one of the tenors. Against these odds, though, The Seven Deadly Sins turned out to be, if not a masterpiece, a powerful, sensuous and eerie work.
However, it is a comparative rarity to see a staged version of it. The reason, says Ergen, founder and artistic director of the Arcola, is that the Weill estate has heretofore prohibited performances accompanied by any less than a 27-piece orchestra. Nevertheless, Ergen has managed to prevail and is the first to be allowed to do it with less – a single piano, in fact.
The Ghanaian soprano Josephine Amankwah will play Anna One, and the Japanese dancer Yumina Seki her sister, Anna Two, their physical dissimilarity reflecting the different natures of the two characters. Anna One is tough and practical, devoted to making money. She uses the titular sins to force Anna Two – more interested in art and love – onto the path of righteousness: pride is wrong because it makes you prefer lonely integrity to crowd-pleasing rubbish; lust is wicked because it makes you give away what you could sell. The story is set in America, which Brecht had not yet visited, with each sin enacted in a different city. When Anna Two complains that her contract forbids her to indulge a normal appetite, Anna One states, unarguably: "They don't want hippos in Philadelphia."
The Seven Deadly Sins is part of the Arcola's German season. "I thought that would be a suicide mission," says Ergen cheerfully, "but we're doing very well. I wanted to do something like this because... I think English theatre, which is too wedded to social realism, could use some more of [Brecht's] symbolism and absurdity."
One can only hope he does better out of the show than James. His wife, the gorgeous Tilly Losch, danced in his ballet and then, still bored, kissed his many millions goodbye. Clearly an unregenerate sinner.
The Seven Deadly Sins, Arcola Theatre, 27 Arcola Street, London E8 (020-7503 1646; www.arcolatheatre.com) tomorrow to 24 May, Tue-Sat 8pm, Sun 5pm, £10/£6 concs, Tue pay what you can
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