Review: Eccentric evening of Brecht

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Chuck Mallet and John Muirhead
“Brecht: Bilbao and Beyond”, at The Street Theatre, closed June 3.

THIS is surely one of the most eccentric productions of the season.

Largely a tribute to writer Bertolt Brecht, it was created and performed by two veterans of the West End theatre, American musician Chuck Mallett and Australian-born actor John Muirhead.

Muirhead  as “I, Bertolt Brecht” and Mallett at the piano, selectively chronicle his life and career until his death in his native Germany in 1956, touchingly played with new words to Kurt Weill’s song “Mack the Knife”.

The creators have  hit upon something known to Brecht-lovers, the fact that he was one of the 20th century’s greatest poets.

They perform four poems concerning his theories of the theatre – lighting, actor audience relations, emotion – and another two concerning unwanted pregnancy, abortion and infanticide.

These poems delineate Brecht’s antiheroic yet  humanitarian views  of the world.  An unhappy conscript to World War I, he was the most virulently anti-war playwright of his time, shown perfectly in the hit from “The Threepenny Opera”, “The Cannon Song”, where  he pokes macabre fun at the fact that young soldiers coerced into signing up will invariably end up as “beefsteak tartare”,

Mallett has set stories and fables to his own whimsical music and has recklessly re-set a couple of truly famous Brecht-Weill  compositions used in  “The Threepenny Opera” and “Mother Courage”,  “What Keeps Mankind Alive” and “Solomon Song”.

More judiciously, Mallett  retained the bleak but haunting music for “Song of Fraternisation” written by Paul Dessau, the composer chosen by Brecht for his more political poems.

Bertolt Brecht
Muirhead presents Brecht as a man of passion and ego, driven by ambition, cynical about power and heroism but determined, as seen in his brief sojourn in Los Angeles, to be the centre of attention.

With Mallett occasionally providing a second voice, and both making no secret of the fact that they have the script and score on iPads, they present an animated, at times emotionalised reliving of Brecht’s life, with Muirhead particularly relishing the coarseness of the man who came to the cities but with his heart in the Black Forest.

And what about the title? One of the high points of the evening is their rendition of of the “Bilbao song” from the musical “Happy End”, entwined seamlessly with the “Whisky Bar” song, “Moon of Alabama”, used in “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”,

Oh well, as leading Brecht interpreter Robyn Archer often remarks, his knowledge of geography was exceedingly rudimentary.

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Helen Musa
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