IBS Symposium Oxford 2016


Recycling Brecht

15th Symposium of the International Brecht Society

25-29 June 2016

St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford, United Kingdom


Tony Kushner in conversation with Tom Kuhn



Workshop with Henrik Bromander and John Hanse on Violence & Learning (David Barnett)

Performance by Lore Lixenberg and Richard Uttley (Heidi Hart)

Performance by Robyn Archer and Michael Morley (Robert Lyons)

Roundtable: “Political Theatre Today” (with Simon Stephens, Lisa Channer, Lyn Gardner, Di Trevis and David Barnett) (Bill Gelber)

Perspectives from student helpers (Samuel J. Thompson and Alexander Shaw)


Roundtable: “Working with Brecht” (with Mark Ravenhill, David Constantine, and Stephen Parker)
Production photo from Brecht’s Fatzer, staged at the North Arts Wall Centre (director: Di Trevis)


Feuilleton essay (in German) on the sixtieth anniversary of Brecht’s death and the afterlife of his work at the Oxford symposium (Katharina Laszlo, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 14 August 2016)

Henrik Bromander and John Hanse: Violence & Learning

John Hanse came to the circle of audience-cum-participants who had stayed on after the performance of Violence & Learning with a slightly sheepish expression. He opened with the observation that he usually had to explain the main point of reference, Brecht’s Die Maßnahme (The Measures Taken or The Decision, depending on your translation of choice), but that, in this case, that might not be needed. He was, of course, right: the audience of Brecht fans were well aware that they had just experienced an updated version of one of Brecht’s most radical and provocative plays.

Hanse, the co-director and co-writer of the piece, had begun the performance outside the Mordan Hall at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, with some guidance for participants – that we might be required to play roles, that we might be performing actions, that we might be throwing or being hit by small foam cubes that represented stones. Already, some people were speculating that they were in for an experience of the Lehrstück form and they weren’t wrong.

Once inside the open space, we were put into two lines and told to applaud loudly. The gathered crowd, it seemed, was a reincarnation of the Control Chorus, praising the work of the four figures we saw before us. They, in turn, noted how their work had been successful, but that they had had problems with – you guessed it – a Young Comrade. The ensuring promenade piece allowed the audience to experience a small number of episodes, recognizable from contemporary leftist struggles, in which the Young Comrade acted in the name of the short-term alleviation of social wrongs rather than understanding the bigger picture, reform and not revolution. In one, for example, the theme was the enforcement of the minimum wage in a bar frequented by the activists, but run by a less than scrupulous owner. Along the way, members of the audience were given tasks, such as linking arms in solidarity or playing the role of right-wing thugs. The four actors rotated the part of the Young Comrade, as implicitly suggested in the original play, and thus turned the figure into a type, not anchored in the personality of any one of the actors.

So far, so Brechtian. The twist came at the play’s conclusion: the Young Comrade decided to make and detonate a bomb outside the city’s town hall and was confronted by the other three figures. Rather than stopping the Comrade, the three withdraw, only to repeat the gesture a further time. They knowingly commented that in the past, they would have thrown the renegade into a lime pit (as was the case in Die Maßnahme), but that as times had changed, so had their strategy. As the Young Comrade walked off to plant the explosive, the actors demanded our opinion before a black-out ended the performance.

There was much to like about the ambition and shape of the piece. The situations were all credible and reflected a shift, palpable today, from politics to ethics. The dialogue was also well crafted: the articulation of contradiction was convincing as argument was pitted against counterargument – there was nothing false about either side’s approach to the topic in question. And the actors had to be lauded: they left their native Swedish to learn the whole piece in English for our benefit, and their performances were fluent, precise and strong throughout.

But, for all their good intentions and thoughtful execution, the post-show discussion revealed a level of dissatisfaction. The audience had no text to deliver, unlike the Control Chorus of the original, and so tended to populate the scenes, carrying out the actors’ directions, rather than act in them. The setting of the action in contemporary Europe and not somewhere far-away was also criticized for not lending the action enough distance. The final twist also disappointed some participants in that the text shifted an extreme internal measure, the murder of the Young Comrade by the Agitators in Die Maßnahme, to the Young Comrade’s extreme external measure, one that s/he was allowed to carry out without any violence being enacted to defend the leftists’ positions.

All in all, this was an admirable failure. It was a genuine attempt to connect with a radical text and to see whether it could be transposed into the present. It appeared that the audience of Brechtians, while acknowledging that the effort was brave and praiseworthy, were not certain that the group had managed to do this. From what seemed the majority of the audience, a production of Die Maßnahme would have been preferable.

David Barnett
University of York, UK

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Lore Lixenberg and Richard Uttleylixenberg

“If you don’t like this recital,” said mezzo-soprano Lore Lixenberg before her IBS Symposium performance with pianist Richard Uttley, “my name is Gisela May. If you do like it, my name is Lore Lixenberg.”  Both she and Australian singer Robyn Archer (in a separate IBS recital with Michael Morley at the piano) strayed quite far from the biting sobriety of May’s approach to Brecht songs, Archer bringing gusto and humor to the repertoire and Lixenberg inflecting it with operatic warmth and flow.

Lixenberg and Uttley opened their recital with selections from Hanns Eisler’s Hollywooder Liederbuch, with a few additions from the Danish exile period preceding it. Uttley brought classic Eislerian dryness to the piano’s percussive treatment in the “Drei Wiegenlieder,” which Lixenberg sang with an impressive balance of depth and brightness. In the Liederbuch selections, a tendency toward literalism in dynamic contrasts (the almost-whispered line “Sprach ich leise oft in mich hinein,” for example) and loss of clear diction in loud upper-tessitura passages did not allow the music and text to speak for themselves as clearly – and sometimes uncomfortably – as I would have liked. Overall, however, Lixenberg’s clear diction saved her decidedly lyrical interpretations from veering too far into the dreaminess of Matthias Goerne’s 1998 recording, whose merits Eisler scholars hotly debated at a recent symposium in North Carolina.  The simpler Lixenberg’s approach, as in her “An den kleinen Radioapparat,” the more Brecht’s text and Eisler’s music spoke to our “dark times,” the Brexit split still a fresh wound.

In this first third of the program, several errors in pitch, diction, and rhythm signaled the sheer difficulty of Eisler’s 1943 “Hölderlin-Fragmente“ from the Liederbuch.  Lixenberg sang three selections from this cycle, composed in fraught homage to Schubert and Schumann and in an effort to reclaim the poet from his fascist appropriation, in its troubling trajectory from Heidegger to Goebbels.  The three selections were “Elegie 1943,” a setting of Eisler’s fragmented version of “Der Frieden”; “An eine Stadt,” a similarly fractured take on Hölderlin’s “Heidelberg”; and “Erinnerung,” the setting of “Gesang des deutschen” that Brecht worried was too nationalistic, until Eisler explained that the “composer’s dialectic” demanded he talk back to those “Scheißkerle” (“bastards,” “shitheads,” take your pick) back home by writing music for them anyway.  Rather than allowing the music’s associative polyphony (from Schoenberg to a whiff of Harold Arlen) to do its own work, or playing with and against the cycle’s accumulation of lyric charisma, Lixenberg gave these selections a recitative-aria structure, particularly in “Elegie 1943,” and phrased them almost too sensitively throughout. Following this music’s complex gestus requires more precision and contradiction than operatic overlay. That said, for listeners not familiar with these Eisler songs, hearing them sung with lyrical care is a valuable introduction.

The second part of Lixenberg’s recital focused on new Brecht settings by Danish composer Niels Rønsholdt, who joined the mezzo onstage to sing her melodies in unison over Uttley’s firmly triadic, monumentalist-minimalist piano chords.  This music’s architectonic texture is set to Brecht poems on migration and exile, with contemporary reference to Europe’s refugee crisis.  The cycle begins with “Über die Bezeichnung Emigranten,” sung in plainchant-like, melismatic lines as the piano evokes bells or a percussive construction project. Its chords thicken and intensify in the second poem, “Gedanken über die Dauer des Exils I,” sung like the first movement in English. Combined with Rønsholdt’s grand vocal gestures (his own performer’s voice sounding simple and direct in contrast to Lixenberg’s sometimes overpowering volume and vibrato), the piano’s triads began to sound quite hegemonic; during this performance textual references to wall, barrier, and timber endured a very vocal beating. Were the voices complicit in Brecht’s sense of “CONCRETE” (in the poem “To my Danish refuge”) as truth – or in its bombardment? Eventually the piano’s chords morphed into tone clusters and started to disintegrate. At the end of the work, soft pop- and trance-inflected lines (“And soft enough/ Was your arm, girl, on that/ Not to be forgotten night,” from the second “Dauer des Exils”) took over, leading some audience members to sway in their seats. I couldn’t help but think of Eisler’s warnings against musical narcosis, whether used toward capitalist or fascist ends. What does give Rønsholdt’s Brecht settings critical distance is his interpolation of Auto-tuned fragments of Arabic speech, the result of running the texts through Google Translate.  This distorted-speech supplement adds a hyper-mediated quality to the music and may pull the listener out of whatever degree of passivity has tempted him or her, according to Brecht’s “don’t leave your brain at the coat check” ethos. Perhaps this contradiction is enough.

All of this said, and well aware that “fidelity” is called “the ‘f’ word” in adaptation-studies circles, I don’t want to sound like a Brechtian curmudgeon – when he himself was hardly that. When I overheard an exasperated teen sputter “Danke!” after Katrin’s death stopped her drumming in Mutter Courage at the Berliner Ensemble several years ago, the possibility that Brecht might have loved that moment wasn’t lost on me. These new settings may critique Brecht in a way his work encourages. Still, the final portion of Lore Lixenberg’s program veered so far into Broadway-style facility, I could hardly pay attention to the texts at all. This Brecht sans critical distance springs from composer Richard Thomas, best known for his Olivier Award-winning Jerry Springer opera. In the spirit of such American composers as Jake Heggie, who bring a lighter touch to conventionally weighty topics, Thomas inflects his Brecht settings with musical-theater tropes and occasional excursions into extended vocal technique for dramatic effect.  The final lines of Brecht’s “Driving along in a comfortable car” (all of these selections sung in English) explodes into crazy melisma; “Keep your thoughts away from everything” ends with a ragged shout worthy of the Jerry Springer Show itself.  Most of this music celebrates its own operatic lyricism and Broadway-style chord patterns (“This is the year people will talk about” sounds a bit reminiscent of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Hello, Young Lovers” from The King and I); it could be heard as calling attention to song as song, in a classic Brechtian reading, but to me it sounded more uncritically pleasurable than that. Thomas’ setting of Brecht’s “Die Vergessenen,” by far the most understated in this grouping, may also be the most effective, letting the text speak over chorale-like piano writing. The song that concluded this final portion of the program, “As one who comes …”, burst into a Broadway power ballad, diminishing – or perhaps exploding! – the text’s contradiction between bureaucratic and personal language. The audience went wild. I had to smile, leaving the recital hall, though, as someone in the crowd hummed Eisler’s “An den kleinen Radioapparat” in a wobbly voice; another Symposium-goer picked up the tune on a whistle and vanished down the stairs. This for me was a fleeting and meaningful gestus, not unlike the crooked, not-so-useful tree Brecht picked up from Taoist thought, the tree that therefore manages to keep on living.

Heidi Hart
Utah State University

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Robyn Archer and Michael Morley


Robyn Archer (credit: Rohan Thompson)

In proud Mordan Hall, portraits of St Hugh’s founder Elizabeth Wordsworth, early deans – all women – , and alumna Aung San Suu Kyi line the walls. The hall is full, ready, waiting. And then suddenly, briskly marching down the center aisle to the front, closely followed by pianist and cohort in music Michael Morley, Robyn Archer appears, stylishly clad all in black relieved only and dramatically by the silver-tipped points of her blouse collar. Opening her performance without introduction, she launched into Brecht’s poem from 1920 Remembering Marie A, an appropriate choice in a recycling symposium, since the poem began its second-hand career early on in productions of Baal. She went on to use the theme of recycling as a unifiying element in the performance.

Archer’s evening of songs, from that first striking and moving rendition throughout the evening was characterized by musical precision, visual clarity, and the strength of her deep, and versatile voice in dialectic opposition to her easy, playful rapport with virtuoso Morley and her truly captive audience. She and Morley kept us generously, albeit gently, entertained from start to finish.

Performing Brecht for this group of Brechtians was no problem for Archer, a true expert herself, having sung his texts and the music of Weill, Eisler, and Dessau continuously since the 1970s.  Archer’s enunciation is impeccable. I heard each and every word and through her vocal interpretations, paired with well-chosen moves and poses, could experience the irony so central to so much of the material. Among my favorites were her chillingly understated version of Ballad of Mack the Knife (Brecht/Weill), the rousing, brutal Ballad of the Sailor Kutteldaddeldu (Ringelnatz/Grosz), and the impious, impish Thank God for Hollywood (Kreisler). We the devoted fans (I’m one of the new ones) ate it up and brought her back for a couple of extra numbers. We could have gone on all night.

Robert Lyons
Gothenburg University, Sweden


Click here for the trailer of a 50 minute documentary about the theatre production “Dancing On The Volcano” performed by Robyn Archer and Michael Morley in Adelaide and Oxford in 2016.


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Roundtable: “Political Theatre Today”

On June 27, 2016, David Barnett led a roundtable discussion on “Political Theatre Today” at the IBS Conference “Recycling Brecht” at Oxford University. Participating in the panel were Simon Stephens (playwright and author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime), Lisa Channer (co-founder and director of Theatre Novi Most in Minneapolis), Lyn Gardner (theatre critic for Guardian Newspapers), and Di Trevis (theatre director and teacher).

It was a particularly timely discussion, as the EU vote had taken place just a few days before. The first question, appropriately, was “What is Political Theatre?” Each of the participants offered their thoughts here. Simon Stephens believed that “[a]ll theatre that I’ve made is political. Plays explore contradiction, mess, and uncertainty.” Lyn Gardner noted that in order to create new works which speak to us politically, “[w]e need to look beyond David Hare’s Stuff Happens,” that we need to see “political theatre as a metaphor.” She noted the struggle that can arise between art and commerce. She talked about seeing Leo Butler’s Boy, about a jobless seventeen-year-old, in the Almeida, where the message of the play clashed with the audience: “I was surrounded by people who will go out for a nice meal afterwards.” Such a juxtaposition “disrupts the spectacle of capitalism itself. It might not be viewed as political but makes a statement: who owns the land and how it might be [recovered].”

Di Trevis has been creating political theatre her entire career. Recently she has worked at the Freedom Theatre in Palestine–“at the very pivot of the world’s problems.” To the members of that company, theatre was literally life and death: “The artistic director was assassinated.” Trevis was staging a fragment of Brecht’s Fatzer for the IBS Conference, and she saw the very act of mounting this production as “political”: “I asked the actor playing Fatzer to get a haircut. He said, ‘I would, but I’ve got no money.’ Young actors are subsidizing our theatre with their hard graft at part-time jobs.”

Lisa Channer has been doing political theatre since the 1980s; in that decade, her company, Sleeveless Theatre, had “toured comedies about difficult issues such as abortion.” She noted that “political” theatre was often equated with the “radical,” but quoted Holly Hughes the performance artist: “‘All I have to do to be radical is sit onstage in a chair and say, ‘I’m a Lesbian.’”

In the discussion, several themes arose: in particular, how can theatre attract a diverse audience when ticket prices are cost prohibitive: Lyn Gardner feels that “[i]t’s tricky. We need to think fundamentally: what is the function of a theatre today? Stop being monasteries and [start] being town squares. They aren’t going to rally around theatre until theatre is rallying on behalf of them.”  According to Gardner, “[w]e need to stop judging theatres based on what is on its main stage. You can produce fantastic work if you are imbedded in your community. They’ll buy a ticket if they see themselves reflected back at them.” Meanwhile, Simon Stephens noted that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has a diverse message: it “taught the importance of tolerance and communication…but it’s £500 per ticket. Even the cheapest [seat] is £40.”  Lyn Gardner agreed: “Things that would most speak to people [are in theatres] that most people don’t have access to or on land that is ‘privatized.’”

All agreed that Britain’s recent vote to leave the EU was disturbing, and Simon Stephens, whose latest work is a translation of The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre, saw this reflected in the performance: “The context of England changed the gesture of the play in a way I’ve never seen before.” After the interval, Roy Kinnear as Mac the Knife addressed the audience with, “’You decided not to leave—you came back.  Of course you did—you’re the moneyed class!’”

The panel felt that real change must start with the artistic directors. Lyn Gardner suggested: “[y]ou make less radical theatre if you are thinking about how to sell tickets.” As an example, Lisa Channer spoke of the recent programming by Joe Dowling, artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, which became known as the “White Male Season,” with no plays written or directed by women or persons of color. It was hugely controversial but it was not a success: “[i]t put them in the red.” Di Trevis offered the idea that “[w]e need to look at how artistic directors are selected.” According to her, the artistic director is often chosen from “the people who can talk about how they are going to do successful seasons,” with the implication that these will not contain “radical” work. At the National Theatre she was told, “[w]e can take one risk—and you’re the one risk.” That “risk,” her production of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, “made them a fortune by the way.” Her feeling? “It’s very cynical, the talk that goes on all the time.” Lyn Gardner felt that the artistic directors were making decisions based on other factors as well: “[t]here’s an issue around boards [of directors].” If there is going to be change, “it is only through cooperation and collaboration.” In the current climate, Lisa Channer wondered aloud, “[c]an they move past austerity?”

Barnett also asked, “What kind of theatre do we need?” Lisa Channer answered without hesitation, “Gay Pride Street Theatre.”  She also pointed out that more theatre needed to be done outside of the standard venues—that important work is being done by “getting away from the trappings of the theatre purposefully.  Shift the money towards the artists.” Di Trevis concurred: “[t]ake the example of the Living Theatre.” They staged work in “a car park, the set could be five objects.” In a time when young people are told to concentrate on their careers, she felt it was important to make art: “I urged all young actors when leaving training school that they will ‘career’ downhill.” Instead: “[y]ou’ve got to make the work.”  Lyn Gardner spoke of making theatre that spoke to a larger audience and having a specific mission to do so: “Bill Gaskill was asked, ‘What is your policy?’ [He said] ‘Policy is who you work with.’” Creating important theatre means “making theatre with someone who doesn’t look like you [or] sound like you.” Simon Stephens, in answering, was still thinking of Brexit: “I didn’t sleep Thursday night.” The next morning, he “talked to students about being artists. Optimism is the only mature answer to the world. The truth of our system is that money is going to render it difficult.” He held up the example of the Royal Court as a theatre that was political but relevant. They, “handled real, important issues in the outside world.”

In the current climate could political theatre really make a difference? Di Trevis saw how important it could be. When she arrived in Palestine to work she heard, “’Don’t strap on a suicide vest.  Come do something. Become an artistic resistance—not a suicide bomber.’ I thought, my god I’ve never experienced anything like this before.”

Bill Gelber
Texas Tech University

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A striking feature of the ‘Recycling Brecht’ symposium was its tremendous diversity – in the range of perspectives and interests represented, and in the varied backgrounds of its contributors alike. We as conference helpers, assisting with the practical running of events, had been engaged with Brecht in markedly differing ways – approaching his works variously as students of English and of German, or simply with personal interests in dramatic theory and practice. It speaks to the great richness of Brecht studies that we each left the symposium challenged to view our own fields of study differently, and yet also to see Brecht in connection with entirely new media and contexts, broadening our interpretation of Brecht immeasurably for future projects.

A compelling theme running throughout the symposium was, for all of us, the dynamism and internationalism of the reinterpretations of Brecht. All too frequently, his oeuvre is seen from one-sided standpoints – whether in conjunction with a particular political era and the tenets of Marxism, or as expounding a static set of monolithic theatrical doctrines. The untruth of this view, an untruth so familiar to Brecht’s admirers and scholars, was demonstrated by the many contributions over the five days – proving Brecht as an author not ossified but vital, and as being adapted, reclaimed, developed and redefined across times and cultures. The talks surrounding Brecht in India bore witness to this fact: though I was, alas, unable to attend the three speaker sessions, nevertheless Amal Allana’s keynote address, and the dialogues which followed it, offered an intriguing insight into the role of Brecht’s works in an age of nascent independence – with the techniques of Epic Theatre seen as paralleling the traditional conventions of Indian theatre, and as a movement to complement the identity of distinctly modern Indian drama. The role of the Epic in relation to cultural identity, as against the purely political, stands in sharp contrast to many preconceptions, and brings into clear relief the varied possibilities afforded by the ‘reclaiming’ of Brecht. With respect to other modes of ‘recycling’, a further area of focus was the diversity of political theatre – as with the uncovering of Brecht productions and influence as far afield as New South Wales’ Newcastle (Laura Ginter’s presentation on the Ragged Cap, which has inspired me to look into the production history of Brecht in my own region), and with lively dialogues about the present and future of political theatre. One particular discussion raised the view of theatre as an inherently political form – the executive decisions thereof as an ideological statement in themselves. In times such as our own, where venues (particularly in smaller cities) are beset with a difficult financial climate, and with a consequent pressure to embrace an established and guarded programme, the plea to re-engage with politically rooted and provocative theatre – as a means towards rejuvenating the dramatic arts – was a powerful one.

Under challenge and consideration at each stage were, however, the possibilities and limitations of reinterpretation: the academic sessions surrounding Brecht in visual art (a further new approach for me) engaged with questions of ownership, contemporary relevance, and accessibility – particularly in the case of the War Primer 2 of Broomberg and Chanarin, and in its reworking in Lewis Bush’s War Primer 3, as Kristopher Imbrigotta and Karin Leeder demonstrated. In War Primer 2, the modern imagery of the War on Terror finds juxtaposition with the photography and verse of Brecht’s Kriegsfibel surrounding the Third Reich. The media of Brecht’s age of film and print thus interact with the media of the digital era, and lend a complexity of interpretation to both the Brecht original and to modern political critique. A duality of effect is achieved, channelling and renewing the spirit of the original for a modern world, and yet with the diction of alteration, appropriation, ‘simultaneous betrayal and homage’ featured prominently in descriptions of the project – with Heiner Müller’s assessment directly recalled, that ‘to use Brecht without changing him is an act of betrayal’. The Bush reworking of War Primer 2, at a double remove and double reworking from the Brecht, turns a critical gaze on the perceived elitism of the Broomberg and Chanarin project, whilst raising questions around the limitations and pitfalls of successive reinterpretations. The lively debate and questions following the session raised topics of relevance not only for the recycling of Brecht and the ownership of art, but of allusion and recycling in a digital age of open material: in an era of unprecedented access to texts, artistic sources and visual media, the interplay of references facilitates new subtleties and dynamism of interpretation. Yet it raises equally the danger of cultural elitism, of an abstraction that inhibits broad accessibility: particularly given the centrality of dialectic function in Brecht’s own writings, appropriation and alteration may more negatively be viewed as distortion. The very subtlety of criticism that the allusive or interpretative form facilitates may, conversely, hamper the appeal of a work to wider audiences.

Highlights for us as student helpers included, not least, the opportunity to experience the works of Brecht hautnah: the reworking of Die Maßnahme as Violence and Learning by Bromander and Hanse put into a participatory performance context a Lehrstück familiar to many of us from our first year of studies. It thus allowed a proximal insight into a theatrical experiment so dependent on audience response, and provoked engaging questions on the relevance or effectiveness of the genre in the modern age, now detached from the familiarity of the revolutionary world-view to the original audiences – a question of effectiveness, or otherwise, which I have found myself considering frequently since. The song recital evening with Robyn Archer and Michael Morley was a particular delight – a true privilege to see, capturing in performance the spirit, wit and biting insight of the original, and showcasing the possibilities of Brecht translation (of double relevance to those amongst the students who had attended the Modern Poetry in Translation day only a few months before). Highlights of a more organic sort abounded also in numerous dialogues and performances – not least in a second musical evening on the final night, an impromptu gathering around the piano, with contributions in song and performance from a number of those attending. It was spontaneous moments such as these, I feel, which captured the success of the symposium as a whole: they demonstrated the continued ability of Brecht’s work to be renewed, to inspire, to provoke, and to entertain in equal measure – a dynamism that must surely be true to the Brechtian spirit.

Samuel J. Thompson
Magdalen College, Oxford

Having long been interested in Brecht’s work, I was delighted to be involved in the ‘Recycling Brecht’ conference as a Student Helper. As a Joint Honours student in English and German, I am fascinated by the rich German tradition of recycling Shakespeare. Hence, Mark Ravenhill’s stimulating seminar on ‘Recycling Coriolanus’ proved a highlight of the conference for me.

Ravenhill’s seminar explored productions of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and Brecht’s adaptation, Coriolan, highlighting Brecht’s status both as a recycled writer, and as a recycler himself. Although Coriolanus is an Elizabethan play set in Ancient Rome, its enduring aptness for recycling was clear from the outset, as Ravenhill played the fast-paced opening of Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 film adaptation. Featuring rolling news and camera phones, Fiennes’ Coriolanus had a clear contemporary flavour. Shakespeare’s dissection of insurgent populism, set against social inequality and economic hardship, could hardly be more relevant to contemporary audiences.

By inviting delegates to compare multiple versions of Coriolanus and Coriolan, Ravenhill drew attention to subtle contrasts – often created by a mere word – in narrative framing. Brecht’s evocation of the Coriolanus narrative as ‘Material widersprüchlicher Art’ in Die Dialektik auf dem Theater captures its latent contradictions, and the possibilities that they offer for divergent adaptations. Ravenhill joked that his audience for the seminar ranged from the ‘innocent’ to ‘jaded’ experts! As an undergraduate, I valued the opportunity to discuss textual nuances with world-leading authorities on Brecht and Shakespeare.

The intellectual generosity and openness of the ‘Recycling Coriolanus’ seminar were in keeping with the spirit of the ‘Recycling Brecht’ conference as a whole. In cross-fertilising academic discussion with musical and theatrical performances and film screenings, the conference impressed on me the continued vibrancy of Brecht’s legacy.

Alexander Shaw
Jesus College, Oxford

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working with bb

Roundtable: “Working with Brecht” with Mark Ravenhill, David Constantine, and Stephen Parker

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Production photo from Brecht’s Fatzer, staged at the North Arts Wall Centre (director: Di Trevis)

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