Bertolt Brecht: In the Jungle of Cities

Set in the mythologised wilderness of the modern city, the play sketches two men in mortal combat. Brecht is revealed here as a radical theorist of struggle, even before he had any notion of what precisely that struggle might be.

Tom Kuhn
27 September 2013

Split Moon at London’s Arcola Theatre, till 5 October: theatre review

This very early play of Brecht’s is almost notorious for its impenetrability. It is a brave company and a brave director who will take it on ... Split Moon and Peter Sturm have done so triumphantly.

Set in the mythologised wilderness of the modern city (which Brecht often called ‘Chicago’, although he as often meant ‘Berlin’ or ‘some bleak anywhere’) it tells the story – no, that’s not right: it sketches, in scenes of a heightened, almost surreal intensity, the situation of two men in inexplicable, existential, mortal combat: George Garga, a humble employee at Mayne’s lending library, and the mysterious Schlink, a Malay entrepreneur in the lumber trade.

At this early stage in his creative life, Brecht is not really on to a social analysis of capitalism, but he is revealed here as a theorist of the struggle, even before he had any notion of what precisely that struggle might be. The play is full of the talk of white and brown and yellow, and of thick and thin skins, all brilliantly set against one another in Sturm’s production, and painfully suggestive of the extreme fragility of identity in the metropolis. Garga (Joseph Arkley) has some of the nervous cynical energy of a young David Bowie. His family are honest folk ‘from the prairies’, but in this production fast on the way to becoming ‘white trash’. Schlink (Jeffrey Kisson, a great actor with a wealth of experience from Glasgow Citizen’s, Peter Brook, the RSC) is a wonderful entity, at once both porous and threatening. The multi-ethnic cast are skilfully deployed to suggest waves of migrants, each as marginalised and alienated as the other. Even the smaller parts are often beautifully realised. Especially worthy of mention: Worm (Jurgen Schwarz) and the young black MC (Joseph Adelakun)  who calls out the ‘rounds’ of this boxing match of a play with carefully timed and knowing glee. Such figures have to be conceived from the outside in – not from their psyches, but from their poses, their behaviour and their situations. And from their language. Brecht’s characters don’t so much exchange meaningful dialogue, as indulge in wonderful Whitmanesque monologues and throw Pinter-like fragments at one another (my favourite: ‘Do you still know your catechism, Jane? – ‘Things are getting worse, things are getting worse, things are getting worse.’). 

After the show, the director told me how hard it had been to persuade his actors to cast off their notions of psychological motivation (legacy of their drama school training). But, he declared, the more Shakespeare they had done, the better they could play Brecht. Whatever he has done with them, they seem now able to inhabit the language (Gerhard Nellhaus’s sometimes irritating, but often radiantly lyrical version) with an uninhibited gusto, happy to speak the poetry, betraying no homesickness for naturalism. 

The setting itself (realised by Nicolai Hart-Hansen) helps to encourage an energetic and often breathless performance. In fact there is little sense of what we might expect of the modern metropolis. There are George Groszian notes, especially in one later brothel/bar scene, but much of the action plays out in some faceless interior or abstract outdoors – an office, a tenement slum, the fog-bound shores of Lake Michigan, all just gestured at by a few pieces of superbly hacked-up and uncomfortable furniture, strewn across the three levels of the stage.

The city itself is no concrete certainty, but as precarious and provisional as the identity of its inhabitants – as quickly thrown up, and as quickly ruined. Throughout the play the floor remains littered with the torn up pages of the old culture, the ruined books of the lending library (one imagines: Upton Sinclair, Kipling, Rimbaud, Schiller ...), the library where Schlink first throws down his challenge to the young Garga, and a ghostly metaphor of the real library in Augsburg where Brecht’s extraordinary literary career had its beginnings.

This play reminds us of the radicalism and brilliance of Brecht. The production is a revelation. Go and see it while you can.


Photos by Rachel Ferriman.

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