Brecht the moral master

20th February 1998 at 00:00
Bertolt Brecht, a century old and out of date? Not according to Kenny Ireland, whose production of Mother Courage plays in Edinburgh and Derby. This is one of a number of events to mark the centenary of Brecht's birth.

Ireland believes that a re-evaluation of the German playwright is imminent, "for his humanity and poetry. Brecht explored complexity. Mother Courage, who sells goods to troops in the Thirty Years War during the 17th century, doesn't simply react to war to get as much money out of it as she can - she has to survive. Audiences must feel she has no choice. If Mother Courage was shown today in Bosnia they'd understand the complexity of the morally unjustified decisions she makes to survive."

Ben Twist, directing the play for Manchester's Contact Theatre, agrees. "Look at Mother Courage bargaining for her son's life. You know what she's doing and wish she wouldn't. Brecht takes you through it almost in slow motion. He shows that big moral dilemmas are as valid an experience for ordinary people as for Shakespeare's kings."

Twist does not accept that Brecht and Stanislavsky, the Russian pioneer of realistic acting, must be seen as opposites. "Brecht spent a lot of time discussing psychological motivation. He wasn't opposed to Stanislavsky's technique. Mother Courage gets psychologically richer the more we work on it." But he objects to any determinism in the outcome.

"Brecht didn't like the audience to think everything was decided - he wanted them to question decisions.Circumstances change people's ideas, and because Brecht shows this his characters don't develop in a single line. Actors can't take the energy and emotion from one scene to another."

Chris Honer's production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui - Brecht's play showing Hitler as a Chicago gangster - also plays in Manchester. "Brecht is a great humanist. His Marxist ideology is no more important than the human story. He's had an enormous effect on British theatre and on one of our great strengths, which is intelligent, understated acting." Honer deplores over-demonstrative acting, "editorialising all the time".

Kenny Ireland also thinks that we can leave behind aspects of Brechtian tradition. Honer points out that we no longer have to fight the excessively sentimental theatre fashionable in Brecht's day.

The music of Kurt Weill drew Neil Murray, at Northern Stage, to The Threepenny Opera. Murray sees the work as relevant because it deals with begging, Newcastle's growth industry. Just as Honer thinks less of Brecht's earlier, more didactic plays, Murray believes Brecht often overstated points, but appreciates his irony and wit.

At her wedding with Macheath, for example, Polly sings "Pirate Jenny". "It's a tale of absolute tragedy and torture, a woman's dream of ploughing through humanity for revenge," Murray says.

"Matt (a gangster) says 'it's very nice'. Macheath says 'it's not nice; it's art' ." or Murray points to the play's brothel scenes where the women go about their lives, washing, mending, waiting, like the bourgeois women in the audience."

Brecht productions, Murray says, "need a light touch". As these directors make clear, this is not superficiality. Brecht's attraction for young audiences, Twist believes, lies in his large-scale handling of big issues. But politics and humanity are not opposed.

The politics is in the humanity and the poetry of these big plays that expose the contradictions of life. Brecht lets you know, Ireland says, that you cannot cut yourself off from life, for life and its dilemmas come sweeping in.

Centenary events:'Mother Courage', Contact Theatre, Manchester until February 28. Public discussion (Pounds 1.50) 4.45pm February 25; Brechtfest Youth Conference February 27. 0161 274 3434. Also Edinburgh Royal Lyceum March 13-April 4. 0131 229 9697, then Derby Playhouse April 9-May 2. 01332 363275.Edinburgh Goethe Institute schools workshops available March:0131 229 7404'The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui',Manchester Library Theatre, until March 7. Tickets: 0161 236 71l0'The Threepenny Opera', Newcastle-upon-Tyne Playhouse, March 12-28. Tickets: 0191 230 5151At the National Theatre, Lyttelton, Di Trevis directs a programme of poetry, prose and songs, March 17 and 18 0171 928 2252

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