Culture

Theatre

Epic theatre

By Miriam Cosic
Technology intensifies the Brechtian in a recent series of productions

Bertolt Brecht’s “epic” theatre was not intended to assist with the suspension of disbelief, or to make audiences believe in and empathise with noble characters, as the name might suggest. Rather, its aim was to reinforce disbelief so that viewers could bring reason to bear on the political ideas being explored on stage.

He ripped away the “fourth wall” and made the viewer part of the enterprise rather than its passive consumer. He managed this by directing his actors to make eye contact with and asides to the audience, having actors play several roles in one play, placing actors in the audience, exposing the designers’ mechanics, and many more tricks

Tech developments have intensified the Brechtian. Several times in the past six weeks, I’ve found myself switching focus between actors on stage and their images projected on a screen, in real time, as black-clad people wielding black portable cameras in metre-wide stabiliser grips moved around the stage.

Are directors and designers keeping abreast of technological developments for their “wow!” factor, or are they deliberately updating the Brechtian ideal for savvy audiences who understand the relativism of truth and perspective?

The Sydney Theatre Company’s brilliant production of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, on for the rest of April, is a case in point. I’ve not always been kind to Tom Wright’s playing around with classical texts, but this time his translation and transposition are masterful.

Brecht’s 1930s gangsters, who stood in for fascists in Hitler’s Germany, are here shifted to a very seedy contemporary Sydney. A skyline festooned with cranes, symbols of not-quite-kosher planning permits. Politicians on the take. Nefarious meetings between crooks and businessmen and government ministers at a round table in the private room of a Chinese restaurant. Murders explained away.

The rise of Arturo Ui takes place in the large-scale vegetable wholesaling sector, which allows not only for our man to start small with standard protection racketeering and rise to the heights of political power, but also for endlessly amusing puns on pumpkins and kohlrabi. That Brecht left the ending open in the middle of World War Two works well now, when our concepts of power, celebrity, probity, decency and democracy are equally quickly morphing: where will it all end?

Along the way, we see Ui craft himself into a demagogue. He learns how to dress for power, how to speak in public, how to keep his own people in check, in fear of their lives. Hugo Weaving is a tour de force in the role: recognisably sleazy and yet so persuasive. The whole cast is as strong, though by chopping and changing roles, they leave the spotlight to Arturo Ui and Weaving.

Yet it is the stagecraft that channels Brecht’s epic theatre most powerfully here. From the opening scene, in which the key reprobates negotiate around the table in the restaurant, half of them with their backs to us, we are forced to watch the action via the roaming camera operators whose simultaneous video is projected on a giant screen on the back wall of the stage.

Throughout, we shift our gaze from the actors on stage to their images on the screen, zooming in and out. Sometimes we have to look at the screen to check an obscured development on stage, or something happening in the wings. Sometimes we watch it because it’s the attention default of our time. The camera operators are so good, the screen imagery is fluently cinematic, with impeccable cutting from one perspective to another in real time. The actors, apparently comfortable with close-ups on screen, are equally expert in their observation of stage conventions.

Camera operators also had their moment under lights at the Adelaide Festival last month. With its emphasis on political theatre, the mix of stage and screen emerged as the medium du jour.

Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Kings of War (directed by Ivo van Hove), promoted as the centrepiece of the 2018 program, conflated five of Shakespeare’s history plays, presented in modern dress with a spin on modern preoccupations. The high-tech delivery contributed significantly to an absorbing experience. Not only were the goings-on on stage projected onto another huge screen on the back wall, as at the STC, but so too were the characters’ off-stage power-play machinations. The many murders were not just alluded to, but we saw them in real time: the method of assassination, mostly via poison infusions on what looked like hospital trolleys parked in corridors, made a knowing reference to Alexander Litvinenko and other victims of Russian spycraft.

Another Dutch group, Hotel Modern, took the deconstruction of the theatrical experience even further in The Great War. With foley artist Arthur Sauer performing a realistic soundtrack on an astonishing array of everyday objects, in addition to state-of-the-art sound machinery, three puppeteers shifted between work tables in front of the audience, using their hands to make miniature tableaux of World War One: landscapes, military vehicles, muddy battlegrounds, people dead in trenches. They too used everyday materials. Small cameras in each of the spaces projected each scene as the “documentary” they composed, complete with narrator, unfolded against the back wall screen.

The assumption of disbelief was so transparent that the audience was invited onto the stage afterwards to examine the makings. Despite the many moments when curiosity about the production activity overtook the action on screen, there were also moments of intense empathy. The head prevailed, as Brecht would have wanted, but the heart did intervene. The final symbolism of the memorial of a gun and helmet, propped up on a twig-tree on the “battlefield”, slowly disappearing as the seasons changed, left many an eye welling as the lights went up.

And so it went. Us/Them, is a dialogue between two teenagers for the Belgian company BRONKS. Created by playwright and director Carly Wijs, the piece is about being caught up in the 2004 Beslan school siege. Within an increasingly complex space of scrawled plans, chalked calculations and rope running taut across the stage, two actors speak the words the Russian children might have. It came about from a conversation Wijs had with his eight-year-old son. “A child,” he writes in the program notes, “unlike an adult, does not think: ‘That could have been me’.”

Forget for a moment the assumptions this makes about children’s ability to reason; a dead bird in the garden can lead children to obsess about the eventual death of their entire family and themselves. The cerebral mechanics of the set precluded us losing ourselves in empathetic response. We were alert and assessing throughout.

The idea for Brink Productions’ Memorial (also at Adelaide Festival) came to director Chris Drummond when he read Alice Oswald’s poem Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad. Oswald’s preface struck him immediately. She writes: “This is a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story. Matthew Arnold … praised the Iliad for its ‘nobility’. But ancient critics praised its ‘energeia’, which means something like ‘bright unbearable reality’.”

Drummond made something extraordinary out of it. The work defies theatrical invention to arrive at something combining documentary and dance. As 215 community members – men, women and children, some of them choral singers – circle the stage and form transient tableaux of mourning, the names of Australian soldiers who died in World War One are remembered. Helen Morse delivered a powerful reading of Oswald’s work as music by Jocelyn Pook permeates the space. The result is both brutal and elegiac. The deep political message comes not from high-tech disruption here; instead, it is evoked by the blurring of genres, with the eternal grieving woman, powerfully delivered by Morse, at its heart.

Postmodernism has made us savvier and more cynical than we were when Brecht was working. No text is sacred now; all written words are, in the end, just text. What’s more, we are leaving a word-based civilisation behind for an image-based one. And if the 20th century gave us horrifying lessons on the difference between verbal truth and propaganda, the 21st century has taught us first hand about manipulation of the visual. We can even do it ourselves on our own devices.

It’s hard to judge whether visual surprises that directors and designers create for us now have a Brechtian pedigree, or are the inevitable development of showmanship in a high-tech world. Or both. It’s hard to judge whether audiences trade emotion for reason because of the stagecraft or as a result of our own disenchantment with the world. Or both. The history of culture, like all of history, is a blind journey. It’s only from further down the track that we can look back and understand exactly where we were.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

Anita Hegh and Hugo Weaving in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. © Daniel Boud

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