Brecht: Bilbao and Beyond – The society we permit ourselves

On a dim stage with only a piano and two chairs, veteran performer Chuck Mallett ambled on stage with the screen of his tablet – later his musical score – lighting the way. What a suitable conjunction of “the new and the old” for a show about the life and work of Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), a writer who can still fracture the comforting impressions of the society we permit ourselves.

Brecht: Bilbao and Beyond
Brecht: Bilbao and Beyond

Mallett was joined by John Muirhead who provided the song and spoken word elements for the evening. While the program included some well-known songs of Brecht’s lyrics with music by Kurt Weill or Paul Dessau, Mallett has created “new” Brecht songs by composing music to accompany Brecht’s writings, such as the poem “He’s So Different” in which a young character becomes aware of the negative perception of his difference. It’s a fitting way to start the show as Brecht’s writings often reveal a concern for the desperate and the outsider, and the performance suggests that Brecht had first hand experience of being the latter.

For a show aiming to be “an evocation of the life of Bertolt Brecht”, the chronology of events was quite sparse and didn’t substantially illuminate influences on Brecht’s art or character. Perhaps there is just too much to cover – it was always going to be very ambitious to tell us much in around 70 minutes. Given that Brecht married actress Helene Weigel and the pair ran the Berliner Ensemble together for many years, this important life and work partnership possibly deserved further inspection. It was also somewhat unfortunate that the significance of “Bilbao Song” wasn’t explained given the show’s title.

Setting aside the biographical aspect, Muirhead’s performance of Brecht’s writings communicated an articulate but leashed frustration, detached resignation and even light moments of Brecht’s fancy, such as in the poem “Violets Should Be Arranged”. Mallett’s compositions included melodies prone to abrupt changes in tempo that complemented the mood swings of Brecht’s words as they moved from describing the actions of characters to the consequences.

A group of poems on theatre included disapproval of the audience’s willingness to act as voyeurs, an attitude we know guided Brecht’s approach to theatre.

When you read your parts
Exploring, ready to be surprised,
Look for the new and the old.
As the people say, at the moon’s change of phases,
The new moon for one night
Holds the old in its arms.

From the theatre poems in “The New and the Old”

The night displays Brecht’s talent for creating mythologies. While some are poetic or nightmarish others mirror the silenced realities of our time, as a look at conflicts and poverty around the world would show. Efforts to stimulate a critical view of war and nationalism – or remind us of an old one – remain a valuable pursuit.

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