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Fear and Misery of the Third Reich

Bertolt Brecht (translated by John Willett)
The Phil Willmott Company
Union Theatre

The company in Fear Misery of the Third Reich Credit: Scott Rylander
Feliks Mathur as SA Man and Joshua Ruhle as Worker Credit: Scott Rylander
Joe Dowling as Klaus Heinrich and Feliks Mathur as SA Man Credit: Scott Rylander
Clara Francis as Wife and Phil Willmott as Husband Credit: Scott Rylander
Clara Francis as Wife Credit: Scott Rylander

In this play, Bertolt Brecht presents multiple snapshots of life under Fascism on the form of two dozen short playlets and an epilogue. It was written in Denmark and first staged when eight of its scenes were premièred in Paris in 1938 under the title 99%.

Phil Willmott’s production isn’t the complete text but offers more than a dozen scenes, not necessarily in their published running order, lasting 2½ hours including interval.

The script places individual scenes in certain years, which may have held significance at the time but are unlikely to mean anything to a modern audience. Each scene is a stand-alone encapsulation of an aspect of life in Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s featuring different sets of characters but, with the inevitable doubling of roles presented without costume changes, these tend to merge. In some ways, this heightens the effect of the growing oppression inflicted by the state on individuals whether workers or bourgeoisie.

When the play was written, this was a powerful exposure of what was going on in Germany, from brownshirt violence on the streets to interference with the judiciary and growing persecution of Jews and other “undesirables”.

It shows the arbitrary arrest of innocent people and tellingly presents the ease with which compliance and complicity are gained. Neighbours become informers, partners fear thoughtless remarks may be repeated, parents exposure by their own children, friends fall away making people pariahs, in one scene a woman (powerfully played by Clara Francis), insufficiently Aryan in appearance is abandoned by her friends and plans flight abroad lest her origins endanger her husband.

There were many in the 1930s who were blind and needed to be told of these things but isn’t this something we all know now? The Holocaust (not just for Jews) and totalitarianism are part of school history, subject of movies and television documentaries. Is this still a play for today?

Director Phil Willmott clearly thinks so. Instead of using Nazi swastikas, his SA and SS men sport a badge that reads T.M.R.W. (Tomorrow, though you would have to read his programme note to know that) but inevitably it's Brecht, the names are German and when the production puts the cast in Hitler masks insidiously encroaching you inevitably think Third Reich—you can’t escape the title.

But with the far right gaining power across Europe, racist opposition to immigration, the opposite threat of draconian Islamic fundamentalism, this is no time to shut our eyes to what is happening now but the Hitler history is so strong in our thinking that it is difficult to turn its 1930s exposure into a contemporary awake call.

That doesn’t stop its scenes from being sickeningly forceful—and unlike its first audiences we know the further excesses they led to. There are moments such as Tori Louis’s woman suddenly saying the wrong thing to a radio interviewer or realising what she has had done after accusing a neighbour that give an instant image.

Jeryl Burgess’s cook has been won over by the Nazis; Harriet Grenville’s young woman notices how her fiancée has changed since he joined the SA. We witness the breaking of Joshua Ruhle’s unemployed man’s spirit, the cruelty of Ben Kerfoot and Tom Williams’s Hitler Youth members and Feliks Mathurs predatory SA man, the moral impasse faced by Phil Willmott’s judge and the vicious serenity of Christopher Laishley’s his superior, party-member judge.

Short scenes follow each other at a rapid pace, each introduced by a lively verse from Joe Dowling’s chorus, making their points so promptly that some of the longer scenes seem too extended for an audience today.

The treatment throughout is very serious but might be even more effective if it found an occasional lighter touch, the ironic humour that is surely sometimes present.

This production claims to be the UK professional première, though there have been student productions and a schools tour a couple of years ago with various scene combinations. Willmott’s company provides a valuable opportunity to catch a major Brecht work in a committed production that clearly demonstrates its effectiveness. I am less certain that an audience will read it in contemporary terms; that may depend upon how large the Third Reich looms in their memory and imagination.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton