In The Big Brecht Fest (Part 2) the Young Vic continues paying homage to Bertolt Brecht with two more short plays: How Much Is Your Iron? and Senora Carrar's Rifles.
Both pieces are, of course, politically and morally driven and both are fine examples of the playwright's narrative or 'epic' style.
Translated by Enda Walsh, How Much Is Your Iron? is a sharp, satirical piece examining the arms trade. Written in 1938, the play highlights the alleged neutrality of Sweden while it continued to supply iron ore to Nazi Germany even as Hitler proceeded to invade both Austria and Czechoslovakia.
The action unfolds in an iron dealer's shop. Svendson (Joseph Alford) sells iron to earn a living. He pays no attention to the nature of the customer; he doesn't particularly care what happens to the iron afterwards; he is driven by his needs and his needs alone. With characters such as Frau Czech (Naomi Frederick) and Herr Austrian (Michael Colgan), Brecht brilliantly mixes art with politics in an attempt to highlight the growing dangers of the contemporary political situation. As the trading trap deepens, the consequences become clearer and the piece metaphorically races to an effective and powerful climax. Gareth Fry's looming sound design works Hand in Hand with Orla O'Loughlin's astute direction while Jon Clark's lighting soaks the piece in a subtle haze of alienation. Dick Bird's remarkable set design continues this effect, setting the shop deep inside a Scandinavian pine forest complete with fog, telephone and exposed loudspeaker. A lively cast make great use of the witty and satirical dialogue and the whole performance breathes life into Brecht's theatrical aims, whilst effortlessly finding parallels between his world and ours.
Senora Carrar's Rifles was written in response to the Spanish Civil War and follows the harrowing journey of one Mother's attempts to prevent her two sons from taking up arms. As she struggles to justify her belief in neutrality, the war continues to rage; revolution rises up around her and, in the light of tragic developments, she is forced to make a decision.
Again, this short play emphasises Brecht's need to give art a social function. From the onset, his 'epic' theatre is in full force as the cast march through the auditorium and proceed to greet the audience and introduce the play…in Spanish. Translated by Biyi Bandele, the mixture of English, Spanish and Carrar's Scottish accent gives the play a sense of inclusion and accessibility. Paul Hunter's direction is sensitive to the plight of the individual human being while also reflecting the limited choices of an oppressed humanity. Supported by a strong cast, Sandy McDade is spectacular in her role as Senora Carrar. Although Brecht preferred that his actors dispense with character empathy to prevent the audience from passively following the action, McDade manages to do both simultaneously. Robert Innes Hopkins' set, complimented by Mischa Twitcin's lighting design, is quirky and clever; at one point, the oven is opened to reveal the head and shoulders of General Franco himself (Aitor Basauri) mid-speech; the decision to literally represent the dictator in such a way induces the spectator's sense of impending doom and inescapable oppression. Senora Carrar's Rifles is fiercely political and the revolutionary voice of the play is clearly heard throughout the performance.
Although Bertolt Brecht with his vision of theatre and its potential to effect change is not for every theatregoer, it has certainly been a pleasure to see some of his less-frequently performed work produced so deftly and effectively. The Young Vic has succeeded in creating a very memorable season whilst giving testimony to the expertise and skill of a man destined for theatrical greatness.
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