Date: May 19 2012
Although Bertolt Brecht died more than half a century ago, his writing remains as relevant as ever, say Chuck Mallett and John Muirhead, who are presenting a cabaret tribute to the German theatre giant. With more than a century and a half of theatrical experience between them - Mallett is 87, Muirhead 75 - the two men have channelled Brecht's fierce scorn, bitter laughter and scathing sociopolitical critique into Brecht: Bilbao and Beyond. It presents the life and work of the German writer and director, author of such plays as Mother Courage and her Children, who used theatre as a means of presenting political ideas. ''What is interesting to us,'' Muirhead says, ''is that nothing has really changed.''
Brecht was a longtime Marxist and Muirhead says his thoughts on such subjects as the church, politics, and poverty still strike a chord, even with people who weren't born in the writer's lifetime. Muirhead says, ''Putting it together they say, 'These things are still happening; nothing's really changed. Even in his time it was the 1 per cent owning 99 per cent of the capital.' ''
Born in 1898, Brecht served as a medical officer in World War I before establishing himself in theatre. He became a committed Marxist in his 20s and after the rise of the Nazis he left Germany, living in Europe and then the United States. Although he was not a member of the Communist Party, in 1947 he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and did so, then returned to Europe. He died in 1956. Muirhead says, ''I had a choice: I could do a show about me or about Brecht, and Brecht was a little more interesting. I'm tired of seeing shows where people do their own lives.''
While he might be selling himself a bit short - of which more later - Muirhead certainly has a point about Brecht being interesting.
In addition to the plays for which Brecht is best known, Muirhead says, ''Brecht wrote thousands and thousands of wonderful poems … on the most amazing subjects … they're not all political but they have all his philosophy behind them.''
The show will feature music by Brecht collaborators Kurt Weill and Paul Dessau, dramatic excerpts from some of the plays and other examples of Brecht's work. Most of the music is by Mallett, who has converted some of Brecht's poems into songs for the show and handles the musical side of things, chiming in occasionally on vocals, while Muirhead plays Brecht and the other characters (''I change my glasses'').
And it will all be performed in English. Brecht wanted his work presented in translation so it would have the most immediate audience impact. And audience impact is something both Muirhead and Mallett understand. Life partners for half a century, they both spent decades working in theatre in Britain and Europe. And, as suggested above, Muirhead's life story and Mallett's too command their own interest.
As a student, American-born Mallett was a page-turner for such musicians as pianist Vladimir Horowitz. He also worked as an audition and rehearsal pianist for musical theatre composers such as Richard Rodgers before heading to Britain. He was musical director of the National Theatre for seven years (1965-72) during Laurence Olivier's administration.
''They were magic years: it was a golden age of theatre. I once said to Sir Laurence that I would pay him to have that job - but I said, 'I'm only going to say this once!'
''He just laughed.''
He has worked as a vocal coach for such actors as Judi Dench, Anthony Hopkins and Angela Lansbury. He also worked with John Willett, a friend of Brecht who translated many of the German writer's works into English.
Melbourne-born Muirhead worked as an actor for 40 years, appearing in repertory theatre in Britain (''a play a week for about six months'') then went to London where he appeared in such shows as The Seagull at the National Theatre with Dench.
They moved to Melbourne a little over a decade ago and collaborated on shows featuring the songs of Irving Berlin and Noel Coward. Muirhead has even performed at The Street Theatre before, in QED several years ago (''I only do stuff if people ask me''). Although now officially retired, the creative juices are still flowing and they performed Brecht: Balbao and Beyond in Melbourne last year.
Muirhead says, ''I think people see us coming on stage and their hearts sink … two old men!'' but they managed to overcome such prejudice: they received a glowing review in The Age and are in talks to perform the show at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival. The ''Balbao'' in the show's title, by the way, is in Portugal. It refers to one of the songs Brecht wrote with Weill, about going back to a place fondly remembered from younger days.
And what about what is arguably Brecht's most famous song, Die Moritat von Mackie Messer, or Mack the Knife, also written with Weill, for The Threepenny Opera? Mallett says, ''It's right at the end. The tune appears used with different words specially for the end of the program. John has written them.''
Brecht: Bilbao and Beyond is on at The Street Theatre, 15 Childers Street, Canberra City West, on June 1 and 2 at 7.30pm and June 3 at 4pm. Tickets $25/$19. Bookings: 6247 1223 or www.thestreet.org.au.
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