Scottish slant gives edge to Brecht

TAG's focus on modern Glasgow adds an extra dimension to Standard grade and Higher drama, writes Brian Hayward

There are times when theatre companies stop being simply useful to schools and start being positively invaluable. That must be the case for TAG's production of The Good Woman of Setzuan, which has started touring from Glasgow to Findhorn to Dumfries.

Brecht features prominently on drama syllabuses and Naomi Ludlam, who is co-ordinating the TAGschool partnership, says bookings for the production and workshops have been high. That's no great surprise: the prospect of a performance from this talented company and the finely-tuned educational support must make drama teachers excited.

The care with which TAG tackles schools' needs is nothing short of gratifying. Louise Brown, the theatre company's education co-ordinator, has worked closely with John Turner, the creative and aesthetic adviser for Edinburgh, and drama teachers in the Greater Glasgow area to create a resource pack that provides dynamic material precisely aimed at Standard and Higher levels.

Apart from giving a substantial background to the play and writer, Ms Brown suggests drama games every bit as challenging and involving as the play. Excerpts from the text are supplied with structures for analysis and, to help Advanced Higher students with their theories of performance studies, there is a succinct comparison of the philosophies of Brecht and Stanislavsky, the Russian theatre director, with practical work, not least a reinterpretation exercise on a passage from The Cherry Orchard.

TAG also offers schools live interactions. The company will travel to classrooms to give a workshop that helps pupils engage with the production in an informed, critical manner. It is coupled with insights into how TAG works as a producing company; this is an essential, demystifying exercise for a group which needs to focus on the performance rather than the performers.

A more elaborate workshop takes place in the theatre, before or after the performance. This allows the company to make full use of production aspects, which is particularly useful for Higher students studying text in its theatrical context. For example, the company demonstrates not only the extraordinary effect of music on mood, but also lets students experiment with the same or different tracks at different points of the play. The actors can show how they can use music to enhance or alienate the thrust of a scene.

One of the themes of The Good Woman of Setzuan is the question of whether it is possible to be good and successful in business. The play lingers around the poverty line, contrasting individual wealth with a society scraping along, surviving by fair means or foul.

James Brining, who directs the play he has admired for years, sees the same contrasts between wealth and poverty in modern Glasgow and pushes the comparison further by using the Santa Monica 1943 version of the play. Brecht was keeping out of Hitler's way in the United States and, finding Californian producers less than excited by his left-wing theatre, tried to excite them by introducing an opium dealer into the text. Given Glasgow's problem with heroin, this version gives a keener edge to what is already a moral problem.

With such a contemporary and local interpretation of the play and a considerable educational undertow attached to the production, Brining could have been tempted to decorate it with some Brechtian techniques. But, happily, he was not.

"A girl beating a drum to warn her fellow human beings of the danger they are in; a mother letting go of her child's hand to save her child's life: these simple moments of emotional crisis are the strongest and most affecting parts of Brecht's work," he affirms.

TAG Theatre Company tours 'The Good Woman of Setzuan' from September 12 to November 2, tel 0141 552 4949 www.tag-theatre.co.uk

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