Let’s Talk About Brecht…


Other than William Shakespeare, is there any playwright who has shaped modern theatre more than Brecht?

I had the great pleasure of seeing the Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan last Friday night. It wasn’t a flawless production (it’s certainly not a flawless play). The first scene of the play fumbled awkwardly to keep the audience’s attention. But the second half, after intermission, was a truly evocative piece of social critique, and went down like a warm glass of milk. The story of a hooker with a heart of gold who struggles to stay good under the stress of economic pressure, but can’t find stability without creating a male alter-ego, is not something from an understated drama. In fact, it’s incredibly didactic, bludgeoning you with its “ideas” and “themes” and “messages”. But it works because that’s Brecht’s intention. He asks us difficult questions but is smart (honest?) enough to know he doesn’t have any answers. Despite the fact The Good Soul of Szechuan isn’t much more than a parable, it manages to be heartfelt and humanistic, much to the credit of Robyn Malcom’s performance in the central role.

For all the “distancing effects” and ideas of “epic theatre” Brecht and his practitioners apply, there is an undeniable empathy in his works. They might be political works that attempt to make us think. But the personal is political, as it is often said. We cannot separate the two. And if we dare to turn theatre into pure spectacle and mere entertainment we do a great disservice to the medium.

If you had told me I would one day consider Brecht to be one of my favourite writers just a couple of years ago I’d have laughed and rolled my eyes at you, sarcastically retorting, “Yeah, right, mate,” in an intensely dismissive and glib fashion.

But Brecht will never be out of fashion. His messages are as pertinent as ever.

I’d like to wrap up this little tribute with a quote from the man himself. I feel Brecht’s fingers pointed directly at me as I read these words. No doubt they will only mean more to me as I grow older, echoing in my mind:

“The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.”

Theatre of Colour

“In my twenties I thought that I would write hundreds of plays. I had so many stories to tell. In my thirties I began to suspect that maybe I wouldn’t get to tell them all and by my forties I knew that that was true. I simply wouldn’t get to write them all.

And I feel a sense of grief about those stories I won’t tell. I mourn them. As it is I write and have produced a play about every five years. Two a decade. Some writers are more prolific but I’m not. Though there are films in between those plays so it’s not like I’m not working. But theatre is my first love and so I know the number of plays left is finite. I can probably count them on one hand.

And so I have resolved to make each one count.”

For the opening of the 2014 National Play Festival in Australia, Andrew Bovell delivered a powerful keynote speech, pleading for playwrights to write the stories they NEED to tell.

I’m often concerned that what I right lacks accessibility or that there is no desire to produce it, so I attempt to write what I think others will want to see. I find myself afraid of what I really want to write. This fear prevents me from expressing myself with any clarity. This has to stop. I don’t want to end up having written maybe two or three plays I barely like because I never pushed myself towards truth.

Bovell also talked about the whiteness of theatre, which is something prevalent not just in Australia. I see it in the theatre scene in New Zealand too. And, of course, a predominately European country is going to shaped heavily by the western canon of great theatre.

At this moment in our history I find myself hungry for content…. For plays that are saying something. I want meat on the bone. I want to think. I want to be upset. I want to be shocked and shaken. I sense a rise of conservatism in this country. A narrowing of opportunity. A widening of the gap between rich and poor. Between black and white. A meanness of spirit has crept in to the social discourse. I want to challenge it. I want to get in its way. And I don’t know if we can do that with Chekhov anymore.

Now, I for one, love Chekhov. Love Brecht. Love Shakespeare. But when Bovell said, “Australia is not a white nation. Australia is not an Anglo-Celtic nation. Australia is not a Christian nation. We are much more than that,” I couldn’t help but nod my head in agreement. Agreement in a universal sense, rather than at Australia specifically. Where is the colour in our theatre?

The Auckland theatre scene, for example, is predominately white, despite the fact that 23.1% of the population identified themselves as Asian in the 2013 census. This year I have only seen one “Asian” play, Lantern put on by PAT, and a compilation of scenes from various plays, to form ASIAN INVASION, performed by Ensemble Impact. It’s a noticeable absence that leaves one wondering WHY? Does it not perpetuate the false idea of Asians as being purely academic types? Is there really not much room for ethnic or coloured theatre?

I refuse to believe that.

And that’s why I write. Not because I’m necessarily any good. Not because I know what I’m doing. Not because I’m saying anything that unique. But because of a lack of visibility. Because it is too easy to say it’s not our job to tell those overlooked and unknown stories. Because if I don’t do it then why should anyone else?

So, I will strive. I’ll do what I can to write stories that shed some light on aspects of our culture others would rather ignore. The stories I want to see that haven’t been written. That’s my promise to myself. Let’s just see if I can keep it.

Film Reviews: Venus in Fur, Under the Skin

img_venusinfurimg_undertheskinCheck out my reviews for Venus in Fur and Under the Skin at the The Lumière Reader.

Film Reviews: Love Is Strange, Lilting

My reviews for Love Is Strange and Lilting can be found here at The Lumière Reader.

Notes on Masculinity, Part Seven: Five Easy Pieces; Night and Day

For a man, there is no ending
To his journey home.
Because, it’s like James Baldwin
Said: Perhaps home is not a place but
Simply an irrevocable condition.

He is a lone drifter,
A wandering soul,
A hungry vagabond,
A wing-clipped angel.

Don’t wait for him.
He cannot stand still.
Just watch him run –
A child at heart.

five_easy_pieces_final_image night_and_day_final_image

Mourning Jodorowsky’s Dune

Maybe someday – sometime long after Jodorowsky passes away perhaps – we may see his vision, or, at least a version of his vision, take shape on our screens. Until then, Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary by Frank Pavich, is the closest thing.

If you have any interest in film as a purely spiritual medium go see Jodorowsky’s Dune now. He is a true artist, unwilling to compromise his values – which is the very reason Dune was never made. This man put so much into this film, and inspired so many others to do the same. It feels truly like a crime that Dune is unlikely to ever come to life in Jodorowsky’s lifetime. But his work wasn’t all for nothing. We have this story. 

Notes on Masculinity, Part Six: Five Easy Pieces; Night and Day

He is ashamed
For others to
See his stony face

But crumble is
What will be –
Tears of lifelong

Only figures of
Fatherly stature can
Claim witness to such

five_easy_pieces_crying night_and_day_crying

Notes on Masculinity, Part Five: Five Easy Pieces; Night and Day

Man is strong
Like ox or beast.
See him wrestle with defeat.

Much rather would he die
Than lose a fair fight.
See him grin with pride.

Even mere games
Must resemble a war.
See him never lose sight.

five_easy_pieces_masculine night_and_day_masculinity

Notes on Masculinity, Part Four: Five Easy Pieces; Night and Day

He would rather
Paint pictures or
Play piano than
Raise a child.

He would rather 
Stay a child – 
Be free of all responsibilities – 
Than raise a child.

He would rather
Run freely towards
Far away places
Than raise a child.

He would rather
Avoid the future 
Until its all that’s
Left to do.

five_easy_pieces_baby night_and_day_baby

Movie Lessons: Tokyo Story (1953)

tokyo_story_movie_lesson_1 tokyo_story_movie_lesson_2