Katie Mitchell & Joe Hill-Gibbins
It’s easy to forget there was a Brecht before the pedagogue; before the Marxist pronouncements and the Alienation effect. But a series of the man’s early short plays at the Young Vic allows us to recognise the germination of his themes.
This double bill, the first of two coming under the banner of the Big Brecht Fest, features The Jewish Wife and A Respectable Wedding. The second, to come later in April, will bring Seora Carrar’s Rifles a political reinvention of J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea and How Much is your Iron? to the stage.
For the first of the former, we join Judith Keith, The Jewish Wife, as she urgently packs her bags; life has become too difficult in wartime Germany, her bare presence threatening her friends and her family.
Judith expounds upon her fate, aiming a furious diatribe at the processes of change. Her husband returns, and pathetically conforms to her expectations; their parting is a simulacrum, an empty act, its sincerity undermined by its listlessness and resignation.
Katie Mitchell’s realism is contingent on building a fourth wall, a convention Brecht would later refute. Its inclusion here is more partitionary than solid, however; it breaks down towards the finale, rudely punctuating the seamlessness which had suckered us in. The audience becomes complicit in ostracizing Judith, unwittingly bearing down on the reluctant exile.
Anastasia Hille’s performance in the role approaches beauty. Her husband, portrayed by Sean Jackson, is less than convincing but necessarily so, adequate in the tight confines of his character.
The latter production, A Respectable Wedding, offers lighter relief. The writing is deliciously contrived and self-reflexive, with comic heavy-handedness.
Following a wedding whose brevity betrays the manner of its inception or conception, to be more accurate all the airs of congeniality break down. These are, ostensibly, individual people, individual characters; only by ignoring their differences by conveniently overlooking the frictions, by distracting one another with drink (the glue that binds us) can any semblance of unity prevail. But in such close proximity, aversion can only last so long; as the lack embodied by their relationships is exposed, the walls are cascaded amongst them.
The set is seemingly double-hinged. The house is balanced on a scaffold, and everything within can be collapsed, kicked-in, torn to shreds. The parallelism is clear; in addition to the social commentary, however, we find a more encompassing critique of bourgeois values. Joe Hill-Gibbins teases out an anti-consumerist thread, contrasting the perfection of media imagery with the disappointment we associate with its realisation. The imploding household is placed alongside a catalogue illustration; upon entering, the cast assume a photographic pose, full of disingenuous smiles.
The cast is somewhat familiar, containing two History Boys and a host of British comedians. Everyone is superb; every pun is perfectly delivered, the physicality is at once naturalistic and unbearably absurd, and affairs are as thoughtful as they are elating.
The plays compliment each other splendidly. This presentation is as haunting as it is hilarious, a fitting tribute to the diversity of Brecht.