Brecht in Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre
I went to see Brecht’s MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN in the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester. It’s a beautiful building: as soon as you walk in, you’re greeted by high impressive ceilings and pillars and archways (and that’s just the lobby area!) The main stage is circular, and the audience are seated around it in tiers. The stage’s floor rotates. This allows every audience member to see various parts of the show without the actors having their backs towards the audience throughout a whole play. It’s always interesting seeing how the performers and directors and stage design team and so on navigate it. As a side note, I went to see Beckett’s HAPPY DAYS in this theatre. If you’ve seen it, you’ll be aware that the main actor must be buried in a mound of earth throughout the whole play. When this was performed in the Royal Exchange theatre, they had the mound of earth rotating slowly and continuously throughout the whole performance.
The thing about having a circular theatre is that there are no “wings” for the actors to run off into. Like the audience, if they left the stage they’d be in the lobby.
In the Brecht play, however, this worked in their favour because Brecht is all about drawing attention to things so the audience can retain a critical distance without getting sucked into the storyline and experiencing catharsis (as with Aristotelean theatre). With the Brecht play, the dressing rooms were on the outside of the theatre by the doors so we could all see them! They were makeshift dressing rooms: just a curtain and frame. Before I went into the theatre, I saw some costumes ready and waiting for some of the actors. As an audience member I was constantly reminded this was a play in a theatre and these were actors. However, as an actor, I’m constantly reminded of that anyway but that’s another matter.
Brechtian Techniques (Not in Depth)
So, yeah, Brecht is all about alienation and epic theatre and the “V” effect (also called Verfremdungseffekt). The “V” effect is a type of estrangement and ties in with his notion of ‘epic theatre’. I was interested in this when I did my PhD on Avant Garde music and, basically, how everything is just absurd. That’s a long story though, but if you want to read my thesis, I won’t stop you. If you’re interested, Brecht talks about the ‘V’ effekt in his article ON CHINESE ACTING which you can find online. Here’s another useful source.
Basically, Brecht attempted to defamiliarise dramatic events via a series of techniques that would prevent the audience from becoming emotionally absorbed in the play’s story. I could see this aspect of Brecht’s technique in MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN as soon as I entered the theatre. There were signs hung around the stage with ‘scene one’ and ‘scene two’ and so on written on them. These helped to prevent you becoming too emotionally absorbed throughout the whole play because, during the play itself, as soon as you risked becoming absorbed in the storyline, you were thrust back into the theatre by a placard that hung down and announced the next scene. And this was accompanied by one of the actors breaking character and introducing the next scene via traditional narration.
In addition to this, the same actor would play multiple characters and the props were relatively simple compared to some other plays. Harrowing storylines were juxtaposed with songs that forced you to think about the play’s message.