THIS PLACE WE KNOW Shepherd’s Bush Theatre 29 September, 2016 THE THREE PENNY OPERA by Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill National Theatre 1 October, 2016 IMOGEN (from CYBELINE by William Shakespeare) Shakespeare’s Globe 2 October, 2016
Theatre cannot, by its very nature, dispense with a sense of place and time: As much as theatre lives in a created world of transporting stories, it lives in the immediate time and place where it is created in the living moment. Because of this dual nature, theatre has a unique ability to allow us to see ourselves in context to our time. Three different theatre piece this week had me thinking about this, and about the ways that theatre has of drawing our focus beyond the play by focusing it through the lens of the theatre itself.
This Place We Know is a month long project at The Bush Theatre which literally does draw the audience outside of the theatre building itself: six plays have been commissioned to be performed in small, non-traditional spaces along the Uxbridge Road, home to the Bush Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush, a lively and economically mixed area of London’s west side. In this experiment, the community itself becomes the setting:
‘Being proud of your home could feel a little dangerous in this moment. Asserting a singular national identity is often being used as a tool to divide rather than unite us. Against this backdrop it has never been more important to create art that celebrates and recognizes that, more often than not, it is often the diversity of a place which gives it identity’
- Ellie Horne, Bush Theatre
The evening that I attended ‘This Place We Know’ consisted of two distinctly different pieces, ‘Aadam and Zaida,’ by Gbolahan Obisesan (performed in the day room of the Nubian Resource Center, a care center for seniors of African and Haitian descent), and ‘One Cold Dark Night’ by Nancy Harris (performed in The Defector’s Weld, a beautifully grand pub circa 1900, now a trendy night spot). ‘Aadam and Zaida’ are two young Muslims living in Shepherd’s Bush, and both are monitored by the Prevent program, a national security program where teachers and administrators are compelled to flag students who display actions or behaviors which may be considered a product of radicalization. Aadam’s brother Hussein (who is also Zaida’s husband) has fled London for Syria, where he has been recruited into ISIS. As a result of this, Zaida’s daughter by Hussein has been removed from her care. Both respond to the pressures of being monitored: Aadam shaves his beard, and joins a youth program dedicated ‘keeping Muslims on the British path;’ Zaida struggles with the reality that Leyla will be removed from her forever and placed in a foster home. When the opportunity for both arrives to join Hussein in Syria, both are in conflict as to why.
The second piece, ‘One Cold Dark Night,’ is a long monologue for a recently widowed woman who lives in a gentrified home. Educated, artistic, very blonde, and well-heeled, she describes the evening she felt two eyes watching her as she crossed Shepherd’s Bush Green – an incident which leads to a new understanding of her recently deceased husband and his secret life. Described as ’a ghost story but not in the traditional sense,’ it is a piece about what haunts us, and what lives on. The husband’s presence is never far, his presence looming over the room; and her identity is entwined with his, and his past.
Identity is at the core of these plays, and I admit I wanted to see ‘This Place We Know’ more for the community event and experiment in exploring identity than as a theatre piece: the two plays could not have been more different, and yet they existed within one community, only blocks apart. The physical act of changing places, moving from one location to another, made me aware of the differences and journey from one to the next. I viewed the first piece very much as a voyeur, seeing a world and I knew little about and working to connect empathetically; the second was a world I know too well, which made me feel a little anxious, very aware of my own entitlement and white privilege. This experience made for an evening which stirred in me many thoughts and reactions to the experience, coping with identity versus diversity, and a theatre experience which lived beyond the evening, due to the awareness I had of the project and physical act of theatre of which I was a part.
To say that the act of theatre as an immediate and physical act is on the mind of Bertolt Brecht and his Epic Theatre is an understatement. Brecht’s Epic Theatre seeks to remove its audience from immersing within the story of a play itself, by breaking the ‘Fourth Wall’ and making clear and constant references to the theatrical act itself, and leading to reflection upon the work and subsequent understanding. Brecht and Weill’s masterwork, The Three Penny Opera, as presented at The National Theatre in a new adaptation by Simon Stephens, keeps this idea in the forefront.
‘The Three Penny Opera’ is London through a different lens- actually, through several. Based (loosely) on John Gay’s 1728 ‘The Beggar’s Opera,’ Brecht lifted it from Hogarth’s London and placed in Victoria’s, by way of Weimar Germany. Brecht and Weill saw in this satire about a moralist / charlatan (Peachum) whose beneficent works cover the racket he runs in managing the ‘trade’ of begging in London; and the charming murderous sociopath who oversees all the crime (MacHeath) a reflection of the of Berlin they inhabited in 1928. It is a society where the capital is not only money, it is duplicity: wealth built on the backs of the poor, respectability gleaned from whore mongering and crime. In a world where whores, thieves, beggars, and the disenfranchised are used as tools to gain power by businessmen and con-men- is there a better mirror for the Berlin where Hitler rose to power? Or, for that matter, the present day?
‘The Three Penny Opera’ rockets us back and forth through these different visions of London, always dropping us back in the tangible world of the production in front of us, and the London of 2016. The stage machinery is in full view throughout the production and scenery flats are reconfigured before our eyes. The huge drum revolve of the Olivier Theatre (itself a jaw dropping piece of theatrical magic) is operated by a ‘lever’ wheeled onto stage and pulled by MacHeath. The stage flats are covered not in canvas, but in butcher paper, so characters crash through walls and into a scene; or slice through them with knives, literally splitting a wall open to create curtains which part like those of the theatre itself. The audience is willfully rocketed between the imagined reality of the story and the concrete reality of the moment, breathing and alive, in front of them. This unique truth about the act of theatre:
"...creates a critical consciousness...a laboratory where an audience of people have a direct experience of being able to believe and disbelieve, at the same time...(and so teaches that) you cannot be a literal reader of life: you must be an interpreter"
- Tony Kushner
Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning theatre artist Tony Kushner talks about the power of theatre to never completely create an illusion
Being alive within the story, as well as within the ‘this place, this time’ of the theatrical act gives theatre the power to inform how we learn to see our world, each other, and the ethical outcomes of our decisions.
The National Theatre’s ‘The Three Penny Opera’ pulls the staging into the ‘now’ of it’s audience – quite literally in a moment when MacHeath speaks to the theatre goers. Coming onto the bare stage after the intermission, MacHeath (Rory Kinnear) spoke off handedly with the audience as he prepared for act two. He joked about the set, and the production values, adding:
“But everything is alright if you’ve got money, isn’t it?”
…repeating the line, as he looked at each audience member…
“No I mean it. Everything’s alright if you’ve got money… isn’t it?’
An audience who paid anywhere from 15 to 80 pounds per seat understood exactly what he meant. And so, when Peachum, in a threat to create riots and ruin the coronation procession, amassed his army of the ‘disenfranchised and veterans,’ it was chillingly immediate for the audience the Red Cross of St. George, the banner of the Nationalist UKIP movement, filled the stage. An audience of Londoners still reeling from this summer’s Brexit vote understood the demagoguery implicit in Peachum’s control of the masses.
One final look at the London of today is currently onstage at Shakespeare’s Globe: Imogen is subtitled ‘Shakespeare’s Cymbeline renamed and reclaimed.’ The production does exactly that: Shakespeare’s late play about tribal Britain is edited and scenes from a treatment of the play adapted by George Bernard Shaw are interpolated to refocus story on Imogen (king Cymbeline’s daughter, and the character at the center most of the play’s action). In addition, ‘Imogen’ adds explosive aerial fight sequences, and hip-hop movement and dance to update the story and transport to modern day London. The warring factions of Britain and Rome are replaced by drug dealers, and the turf war moves from one of historic empire to the defense of an empire of the modern day. Adidas track suits and heavy gold chains denote royalty; the swagger of the fool Cloten is replace with the stiff legged strut of a Chavvie boy, and Imogen herself is left trying to survive in a world fueled by greed, conquest, and anger. It is particularly stirring to hear Imogen (Maddy Hill) denounce the betrayal of her husband and demanding his apology before accepting his love at the play’s conclusion. The words spoken may be GB Shaw’s, but they seem very right for a heroine who has endured a mad series of disguises, escapes, betrayals, lies, reversals,(and beheadings) in order to survive to the play’s conclusion, and VERY right for a woman of today. The production ends with an ELECTRIFYING company dance- athletic, bold, powerful – and the audience wildly and enthusiastically cheered this powerful reflection of London street life. As a coda- I am including a video from Shakespeare’s Globe which looks at the ideas behind this updating, and talk with the dance artists and designers who refocused ‘Cymbeline’ for this place, and this time: