“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.”
- Bertolt Brecht
And so to the theatre and indeed to the opera. Much of October's fare had a more or less overt political message. Brecht's 'Mother Courage and Her Children" isn't just anti-war, but also makes the point that anyone who thinks they can profit from war without being affected by it is deluding themselves. The eponymous vivandière, played in this Red Ladder production by Pauline McLynn of 'Father Ted' fame, isn't to be sympathised with for her losses, but rather criticised for not understanding the reality of the situation in which she finds herself. If I were to offer advice to Brecht (and given that I have previously been known to point out where Mozart got it wrong then why wouldn't I?) it is that the character's name does tend to mislead the audience as to how they should view her. Brecht's trademark Verfemdungseffeckt was on this occasion achieved by it being a promenade performance around a deserted warehouse of the type much favoured by villains in the Adam West Batman TV series.
The reason for the location was that Leeds Playhouse, as it has reverted to being called, is having a year long refurbishment, which also meant that I had to trek across to York to see the latest Northern Broadsides production 'They Don't Pay? We Won't Pay!', an adaptation of the Dario Fo farce 'Non Si Paga! Non Si Paga!' by Deborah McAndrew. I've never been sure if Fo, who was certainly influenced by Brecht, was as much of a straight down the line Marxist as his predecessor, but this play leaves one in no doubt that he believed the problems of the working class to be caused by both capitalism itself and by capital's use of the state's (*) powers of coercion in order to suppress opposition and maximise profits. It's also very, very funny, drawing on verbal dexterity, physical comedy and amusingly out of context props; a coffin in the wardrobe anyone? I was also very pleased to see the false moustache given a twenty first century run out with its comedic validity emerging intact.
Coming back to state repression, this is very much the background setting for 'Tosca'. Opera North have a new production, and it's wonderful. Beautifully sung, with the orchestra on top form, if the bleak ending doesn't make you cry then you have no heart. Whilst we are all pleased to see the death of chief bad guy Scarpia (**), played here as a Gestapo/NKVD type boss, we would be advised to bear in mind another quote from Brecht: "Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.".
Opera North's 'Merry Widow' is set in a political and diplomatic milieu, but that is presumably merely because it has to be set somewhere. Even I can't pretend that there is anything substantial in it - despite the many jibes against bankers that make the audience laugh, perhaps in recognition of their own powerlessness against the forces represented by what Marx referred to as money capital (***) - but it's great fun. Let me give a special mention to Amy Freston as Valencienne for combining excellent singing with the occasional cartwheel across the stage, just to show off.
* NB 'State' in this context is not identical to 'nation state'. There are (at least) two distinct strands of Marxist analysis regarding the relationship between nation and capital: state as superstructure (e.g. as per Marx and Miliband, father rather than either son) or state as capital (e.g. as per Lenin and Bukharin). I would suggest Brecht leaned to the former in 'Mother Courage', but feel free to disagree.
** Scarpia was of course based on a real person, one who co-operated closely with the British in Naples. We turned a blind eye to his brutality because it suited us politically. Plus ca change.
*** "What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?" - Bertolt Brecht