At The Street Theatre, Saturday June 3
Some musical or theatrical performances require no knowledge of the production's subject or context to be understood, enjoyed and remembered. Others require so much prior knowledge that anyone lacking a complete anthological understanding of the subject matter shouldn't even bother. Brecht: Bilbao and Beyond lies halfway between these extremes. Knowledge of the plays, poems, stories and songs of Bertolt Brecht – the eccentric German writer and theatre director of the early 20th century – grants viewers vastly greater appreciation of this production than their less informed counterparts. Yet, either way, the sheer talent, charm and effortless charisma of Chuck Mallett and John Muirhead keep the audience submissively enthralled as the duo recount, in cabaret-like fashion, the life, times and artistic highlights of Brecht.
Mallett (a Detroit-born pianist and former vocal student of Sergei Rachmaninoff) and Muirhead (a Melbourne-born actor) met and worked in London's West End for almost half a century before moving (returning, in Muirhead's case) to Australia a decade ago. After assembling shows comprised of songs and stories chronicling the lives and works of Noel Coward and Irving Berlin for private audiences in South Melbourne and Bermagui, the pair undertook a similar project for Brecht.
The production follows, more or less, the course of Brecht's life; his birth in Bavaria, his most prosperous and successful years in Weimar-era Berlin, his travels throughout Europe during the early years of Nazism and later to the US during WWII, and finally his return to Berlin during the Cold War. Unsurprisingly for an artist living through such an epoch, Brecht's eccentricity and avant-garde theatrical methods are underpinned by his Marxist politics and pessimism towards humanity.
A majority of the production's music is written by Mallett, whose piano compositions accompany Muirhead's part-musical, part-spoken word performance of a miscellany of Brecht's work. Muirhead switches regularly between the character of Brecht or one of Brecht's own characters, while Mallett remains behind the piano, regularly addressing the audience (or Muirhead) to recount a particular event or period of Brecht's life.
While Muirhead and Mallett's performances are irresistibly enthralling, the disjointedness between Muirhead's character changes, excerpts of Brecht's work, Mallett's music, and overall chronology of Brecht's life can become disorientating. Yet, whether intended or not, it is this effect of which Brecht would have been most proud. A vanguard of theatrical deconstruction or 'defamiliarisation', Brecht sought to amuse and provoke audiences by challenging audience's traditional expectations of, and relationship with, theatre performances.
Regardless of their intentions, at the end of the day, it is through Muirhead's perfect caricatures and Mallett's brilliant musicianship that the pair ultimately do great service to a 20th century icon.