Wednesday, 25 September 2013

In the Jungle of Cities

Arcola theatre
24 September 2013

A trailer that tells you absolutely nothing about the work. From here.

Unfamiliar uncompromising early Brecht that deserves more performances, on the strength of this production. But it could be clearer.

A self-consciously difficult drama from the young Brecht, this sequence of scenes is made even less easy to understand through some of the choices of director Peter Sturm.

It is not easy to follow the various choices and outcomes in this non-naturalistic and existential fight between the rich Schlink and the poor Garga, whom the weary Schlink appears to select as a challenge, given the young man’s strong sense of dignity and self-worth.

In the programme Sturm claims his version is a psychodrama, with the events taking place in Garga’s imagination, but that isn’t clear from this production, nor, I think, would such a conception do justice to the author.

Brecht was aiming for a poetic depiction of cities, and ended up with whores and gangsters, families tearing themselves apart due to poverty and other premonitions of the Threepenny Opera, though the vein of black humour in the later work is missing here.

He is fascinated by our capacity to endure beyond what our sense of dignity or self-respect allows. The grotesques are taken from the expressionist zoo, and he shares the expressionist interest in degradation, but doesn’t delight in it. Brutally unsentimental, it is still certain that he disapproves, and wants us to share this disapproval. A political theory would later be developed to provide justification, but this early works shows that he always felt it, whatever he thought about (other?) bourgeois morality.

Another aspect of the playwright is apparent in this production, perhaps one he would also vigorously deny: an attraction to imaginative, forceful characters.

Schlick, the Malay who starts the fight, is undeniably sympathetic, at least as embodied here by Jeffery Kissoon. He rises to romantic heights during his suicide, and has already won our admiration for his strange courage in destroying his own financial security in order to challenge Garga’s sense of self-worth.

Of the two, Schlick seems the most understandable, despite his peculiar risk-taking. I suspect Brecht intended him to seem more inscrutable, in a racist way, but that wouldn’t work now so Sturm and Kissoon open him to us. Though rarely dignified in a conventional sense, he is never wretched, suggesting that  irreducible dignity is found elsewhere.

Schlick, then, contradicts a view that poverty is incompatible with dignity, though the dignity that can be kept in poverty is not our usual sense of it but something deeper. I suspect Brecht would object to this view, and undoubtedly it is problematic, but it keeps this dramas alive.

In contrast, Garga is confusing, probably only worsened in this production, which has him peculiarly dragged up after he has become rich, to suggest links with his equally degraded ex-lover Jane.

But it would also be possible to see Garga, who after all is the central character, as a poetic description of the compromises that someone in the city must make in order to survive, much less thrive, though his thriving has little to do with his own efforts and more to do with random chance. It isn’t surprising that the character is confused and confusing, and Joseph Arkley conveys this in a very physical performance.

The three women actors deserve special credit for turning Brecht’s one dimensional proto-whores into living creations.

And the Arcola deserves credit for tackling this intriguing, maddening work.

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