Seven Deadly Sins of the Petty Bourgeoisie
Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weill; translation by W.H. Auden & Chester Kallman
It's nice to see this final collaboration between Brecht and Weill divested of mothballs and given a welcome airing. The background to its original staging is as interesting in the domain of theatre history as the project itself. In fact, if I could seduce Dr Who into loaning me the Tardis, I'd make several excursions into Berlin during the last decade of the Weimar Republic, one of the most fascinating eras of twentieth century theatre history played out against a backdrop of inflation, unemployment, grinding poverty, political upheaval and the 'divine decadence' of which Isherwood's character Sally Bowles is so enamoured. Wouldn't it be 'divine' to step into the hall for the first performance of Brecht/Weill's delicious Mahagonny, with Lotta Lenya stunning the punters with her passionate but anarchic voice, and watch as fisticuffs between Nazis and Communists put a stop to the action on stage?
By 1934, when Weill had been commissioned as composer on this piece, the collaboration between two of the most important artists of the early 20th century had ended with resentment on both sides. Brecht had been less than honest with Weill about the monies owing to him from The Threepenny Opera, and, moreover, Weill, concerned with his artistic credibility, noted that he had no intentions of putting the Communist Manifesto to music. However, Weill, finding refuge in France from the Nazis, had failed to engage Jean Cocteau as the librettist for Seven Sins and once again approached Brecht. It is hard to imagine what Cocteau would have done with it, but Brecht was true to form in depicting the sleazy side of life and the materialism that corrupts. While it smacks of Berlin, like Mahagonny it is set in America, and Brecht, in spite of his Marxist principles (he never joined the Communist Party), was fascinated with that most capitalist of countries, though it would be yet another decade before he himself found refuge there from Hitler's persecution of "decadent and socialist art".
Seven Deadly Sins is rarely performed. The executors of Weill's estate protect his artistry like the three-headed Cerberus guarding the gates of hell. Financial backing was forthcoming from a millionaire industrialist with a bored wife. Brecht had no qualms about taking money from a capitalist to finance his Marxist theatre. The original production had a full orchestra to give vent to the extraordinary innovations that Weill was making in the realm of opera. Nowadays, The Threepenny Opera and Mahagonny are seldom given the attention they deserve in the canon, and such a little-known piece, garnering a less than enthusiastic reception during its original staging in Paris, is regarded as something of a dud, not worthy of the significant production cost incumbent on satisfying Weill's estate.
Happily, Mehmet Ergen, director, and artistic director of Arcola Theatre, has taken up the gauntlet, pushed his case for a production, and acquired the rights that allow him to do a pared down version with a single pianist belting out the music with aplomb. He has also found a cast with song in their hearts and their vocal cords of which Weill would have been proud. Josephine Amenkwah, as Anna 1, has the carriage and the facial bone structure of an African queen, and a voice of such purity that there is an apt illumination of Brecht's theories of theatre in the contrast between the voice and the words she sings, conjoining Anna 2 to sacrifice integrity, body and happiness for material success. Ergen directs it with an eye for detail that lifts the production above the starkness of too many Brecht interpretations with ancillary characters evoking the clubs and cafes, the film studios, and a host of characters Anna 2 will meet on her downward spiral from innocence. The chorus of parents and brothers left behind on the farm sing like a choir of saints incarnate in the shabby attire of the rural poor (Aaron Shirley, Scott Ainslie, Julian Simms and Ben Gelbrun).
Anna 1 and Anna 2, the split personas of the one character, leaving home to make money for the family to build a house in Louisiana, are thrust into the seedier dens of Memphis, and, as the 'split I', going in turn thropitalist system. Yumino Seki as Anna 2 is moving as the ever-troubled puppet of Anna 1's sound buugh each of the sins, which, in Brecht's view, are both virtues and vices twisted to facilitate the casiness sense. To my mind this is a fine piece of Brechtian staging: crisp, confident and pleasantly unassuming. It is both moving and thought provoking in a measured balance and entertaining enough to offset any Marxist didacticism.
Brecht's theatre theories have been misinterpreted and misused badly in Britain where 'gestic' acting and the 'alienation effect' have been construed as the natural antithesis to the psychological engagement and emotional journey enjoyed by audiences for the ever-ubiquitous Realism. But Brecht never intended rationality to entirely bannish emotion: tune into Lotta Lenya singing with anarchic gusto, tune into his wife, Helene Weigel, as Mother Courage. Walter Benjamin, that consummate critic of German culture, said of Brecht that 'we think feelingly and feel thoughtfully'. To have a truly Brechtian experience one needs both engagement and distance. Ergen's production hits the mark.
The 1934 production was also a ballet. At the Arcola Ergen has cut the choreography. While he has produced a piece that is engaging artistically and ideologically, and his basic choreography of secondary characters on stage is finely honed, cutting the dance sequences has given us just 45 minutes of what must once have been a striking piece of originality. To do justice to Ergen, it is impossible to make an authentic reconstruction. But, in 1934, the choreographer was a young man who would become one of the most influential movers of dance in the 20th century: namely, George Balanchine. A collaboration between Brecht, Weill and Balanchine? Oh, for that Tardis!
"Seven Deadly Sins of the Petty Bourgeoisie" plays until 24th May.
Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher