bliumchik: (quantum)
[personal profile] bliumchik
I found it odd initially that the UTS theatre society, Backstage, wanted to do a double bill of The Real Inspector Hound and Mother Courage & Her Children, but I must admit it's worked out pretty well. You come away from the night with a real sense of the general theme being Plays That We All Studied In High School er Won't Let You Forget You're Watching A Play. Fourth wall? Hound's got five. Suspension of disbelief? Bertholt Brecht spits upon suspension of disbelief. And yet, it goes without saying, the skill of the respective playwrights means you can actually make a pretty entertaining evening out of it, and this the actors did with aplomb.

We open with Tom Stoppard's absurdist classic The Real Inspector Hound, and let me reassure you I am fully aware of the irony of making any sort of critical review of The Real Inspector Hound, and promise not to use the word "elan" at any point other than that one. To say this production was on a budget is to make university students the world over laugh uproariously and insist that it is your round, so rather than engaging in funny business with mirrors, the traditional Messrs Moon And Birdboot Are In The Audience game was played by means of several chairs extending the audience seating onto the stage (floor) in a curve with Reserved signs on two of them, not that this was necessary because the audience knows what's what and nobody wants to sit in the weird seats where the lighting kids can stare at the back of your neck. I hadn't brought a companion, so I ended up sitting in the middle of the second row next to pair of men with accents so incredibly German they could not possibly be actual Germans from Germany.

I was initially dubious about Callum Braithwaite as Moon, for while he looked the part he didn't ramp up his big Moon Eclipsed speech very well, more or less just skipping straight to the incensed bit. However, he won me over during the second half by means of hilarious facial expressions. There goes a man with exquisite comic timing and eyebrow control. Lachlan Bennett's Birdboot, meanwhile, began with a perfectly serviceable oily persona and then managed to quite out-Gascoyne Simon Gascoyne (Pat Griffiths), although the latter was certainly very pretty and had an excellent waistcoat, a skillful nonchalant sidle and enough chemistry to go around. The rest of the cast also provided a good show - obviously these were all slightly two-dimensional characters, which I think is rather the point, but I find personally that the more self-awareness is demonstrated, the more I am amused, which is probably why the clucking, fluttering, slightly Nanny-Ogg-ish, whodunnit-scenery-narrating Mrs Drudge (Maddy Clouston) was my favourite. She did not, alas, use the traditional Cockney accent, but it's better not to have one than to have one done poorly. A purposefully terrible accent is quite distinguishable from an accidentally terrible accent.

On that note, during intermission between the two plays, I wandered over to the fake Germans, who had not a chink in their armour - they had kept the accents up even in whispers during Hound, and I began to suspect that they could in fact be real Germans from Germany. This despite "Oh ja, ja, I vos just saying the man playing Moon looks like a blond Daniel Radcliffe before he became gay!"

"When did Daniel Radcliffe... become gay?" I said, wrinkling my brow.

"Ze question is, vhen did he NOT become gay?"

"Ja, ja, he vos alvays gay, hahahaha!"

It was very disconcerting. On the one hand, these men were clearly idiots. On the other hand, it was within the realm of possibility that they were German idiots. Surely if they had been idiots who were not German, they would have dropped the accents at some point? Fearing the awkwardness that would arise from asking real Germans if they were fake Germans, I wandered back in to await the second half.

What can I say about Mother Courage? Many things, but a lot of them involve trying to pronounce Verfremdungseffekt. It seems like each new production uses different theatrical devices to shoot for Brecht's ideal of estrangement, and each one manages to shoot itself in the foot by casting likeable, empathic actors. This was basically the case here. It is of course possible that the artist's goal of undermining audience immersion in the story to breaking point in order to make them think about the issues presented is truly impossible to achieve, and it is also highly probable that anyone who's going to think about it at all is capable of doing so while totally engrossed in the story, but it is more to the point to note that the spread of postmodernism and the vagaries of student theatre mean we are entirely accustomed to a fourth wall that's more of a colander, to highly non-naturalistic scenery and to metanarrative commentary. The only things that remain unique to Brecht and therefore remotely jarring are the thing where you announce what's going to happen in the following scene and the thing with the awful music. All of the above were used quite well in this production.

I firmly believe that Michelle McGowage can excel at anything she puts her hand to, so I wasn't surprised that her Mother Courage was pretty damn good, although I was surprised by the heavy Scottish accent. (Having recently watched Pixar's Brave, which featured a heroine whose hair was exactly like Michelle's but more so, I felt like I ought to be making comparisons, despite there being pretty much zero appropriate ones.) Obviously her being relatively attractive and having a beautiful singing voice were marks against her in the context of this role (Millie Hauritz, in the role of Eilif, also had an inappropriately sweet voice), but she had the attitude down pat, and frankly that's all that really matters. In any case, they partially neutralised the singing voice by making one of her songs a Fresh Prince of Bel Air style rap duet, complete with baseball caps and both Courage and Yvette dropping their respective accents for the duration.

The music throughout was either pleasantly melodic or hilariously, purposely awful, like they couldn't quite make their minds up how much verfremdungs to effekt. One or two songs were cut and others cut short, presumably to save time. They also had a cast member run out onto the stage with a microphone whose cord was not attached to anything and hand it to the singer before each song, except for one the Pastor (Janek Gonsalkorale) sang, before which he stood there awkwardly for a short while, giving meaningful looks to the side of stage where the microphone carrier was failing to appear, and then shrugged and proceeded to sing anyway. I can't decide if that would be more awesome as an improvisation or done on purpose. Other alterations I enjoyed: the Wagon as a wire shopping trolley; the projection screen which held the scene captions also providing background pictures and at one point the rainbow letters of PEACE, which the characters were entirely aware of; rather more sexual innuendo than I remember in the last production I saw, with Mother Courage winking hilariously at the audience; and Solomon's Song being set to the tune of Take On Me by A-ha. I also enjoyed Jake Nielsen's oily German Cook - Jake is very good at playing characters who get hit and then you cheer - but was mildly discombobulated by the fake? real? fake? Germans next to me laughing uproariously German laughs whenever Jake did his own obnoxiously German laugh. It was like being in an echo chamber. I can't help feeling this contributed a net positive to the play.

There were a few changes, though, where I felt the play stumbled too far askew of Brecht's quite clearly stated intentions. Most of the excision was fairly smooth, I didn't even notice the lack of several small scenes including the Complaint and the baby and the bandages. The first place where I sat up and took notice was the scene where Kattrin gets her scar. You see, the version I saw in high school, which may have been at Belvoir Street? It was the one with chalk on the walls and an honest to goodness twee little brass band, if anyone else remembers. That version had Kattrin in white stockings just like this one, so for the whole play I was subconsciously expecting her to stumble back in with them half-off like she did in the other one. But it was just the facial injury. They did mention rape, but quickly, moving on to the difficulty of finding a husband with a scarred face. This didn't affect the plot at all, but I felt it might run counter to Brecht's wish to get all the horrors of war out into the open, without glossing over anything. Interestingly enough, Kattrin also accepts the red shoes at this point, instead of rejecting them as useless as in the original. I mostly only noticed these changes because the other version was so arresting. What really got my goat was the ending! After doing so well, mostly, throughout, Mother Courage saw out the play not with a "back to business" but with sobs in the darkness. It's tough, resisting the urge to make your character sympathetic, I know, but I was a little disappointed. Courage's moral callousness as a representative of those who profit from war was the whole point of the play, really. Now, there is something to be said for an oppositional reading in which she's a woman trying to get by in a world with very few options for feeding her children, but since this is Motherfucking Brecht, I feel like that sort of thing needs to be lampshaded to hell and possibly just done as an inverted derivative work instead of a version of the original play. In any case I'm not sure that's what they were trying to do.

Regardless of questions of faith to the source, I did enjoy myself greatly throughout, and I found most of the devices, like the shopping trolley, delightful. The actors were all excellent, the costumes and other design elements competent and interesting, and generally if it hadn't been for the ending I would probably have ignored everything else and given it a straightforward two thumbs up squee.

Oh, and the Germans, upon inquiry, turned out to be fake after all. Since accusing real Germans of inauthenticity would be extremely rude, in the face of uncertainty I came at it from the other side, treating them as real Germans and commenting that their accents sounded exactly like the accents people use when imitating a German accent.

"Ja, zat sounds about right," they said, and fell about laughing.
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October 2014

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