Saturday, June 2, 2012

BRECHT: BILBOA AND BEYOND


Devised, written and performed by John Muirhead and Chuck Mallett
Street Theatre 1st to 3rd June 2012.
Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Who would have thought that an evening of Brecht could be so joyous, exhilarating and profoundly moving? Not adjectives usually associated with Brecht but perfectly appropriate for this spellbinding evening of superb cabaret.

No microphones, no setting except black drapes, just a piano, a chair, a couple of scarves, and most surprisingly, two Ipads. Yet these two performers, elegantly attired in black (what else?) shared their fascination and deep knowledge of the life, from cradle to grave, of Berthold Brecht, through his songs, poems and writings in a 70 minute virtuoso performance which left their audience excited and enthralled.  

This is cabaret as it should be. Interesting material performed by extraordinary artists. Usually there would be no need to mention their ages, which normally would be irrelevant, but with these two extraordinary performers, their ages are a crucial factor in their show, because John Muirhead and Chuck Mallett between them bring over 90 years of accumulated theatre experience to their performance, and it shows.

Now 76 years old, John Muirhead’s careful enunciation and strong mellifluent baritone confirm the legacy of more than 40 years working as an actor, mainly in England, performing on stage in productions such as Tommy, Stop the World I Want To Get Off, Boys in the Band (the original Emory) and in The Seagull with Judi Dench, as well as films including On The Beach, Ned Kelly and Juggernaut.

Chuck Mallet, a sprightly 87 year old, has worked for more than 50 years in London’s West End, including seven years as Musical Director at the English National Theatre during the reign of Sir Laurence Olivier. Among the hundreds of professional actors he coached have been Sir Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, Angela Lansbury and Miriam Margolyes.

In “Brecht: Bilboa and Beyond” all this experience is distilled into a performance, extraordinary for its authenticity and economy of focus. Witness the ease with which John Muirhead, with just a scarf tied around his head, or a coat with the sleeves tied behind him to become an apron, or held aloft to represent a baby, conjures up Mother Courage, Mrs Peachum, Brecht’s lover, Arnholt Bronnen or a whole stage full of Brechtian characters.

Marvel at how simply and unobtrusively Chuck Mallett, in addition to providing superb piano accompaniment and exquisite musical settings for several of Brecht’s poems and writings, further enhances the performance by occasionally leaving the piano to join Muirhead in songs or dramatic vignettes.

"Brecht: Bilboa and Beyond" is a highly polished and deeply entertaining experience, not so much in a laugh-out-loud way, but more profoundly, from the privilege of sharing with the rest of the audience a very rare and special theatrical happening.

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