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BrechtIt's not the right kind of howling yet

Dalston's Arcola is the perfect setting for Brecht's early play In the Jungle of the Cities. Review by Corinna Lotz

The programme notes of In the Jungle of the Cities include a facisimile poster of the play’s Munich premiere in May 1923.

It says the best seats would have cost you 8,000 German marks, and the cheapest 1,200. If that sounds like a lot of money, it wasn’t really. 1923 was the year when hyperinflation hit the Weimar Republic.

That was the economic crisis raging when Brecht wrote his play, “Im Dickicht” – literally, “In the Thicket”, or “In the Jungle of the Cities”, as it is also called.

In this astonishing staging at Dalston’s Arcola theatre, Brecht’s anarchic, violent, no-holds barred script is dynamic, brutal, anguished, mesmerising and urgently political.

It reflects the tumultuous nature of the times in no uncertain terms. At its first staging in Munich Nazi supporters threw stink bombs at the actors. The star critics of the age had diametrically opposing views.

In Brecht’s native Bavaria, the 700-year Wittelsbach dynasty was overthrown and a Soviet Republic (Räterepublik) declared in April 1919, inspired by the Russian revolution. Jewish playwright Ernst Toller was president of the Räterepublik for all of six days. But by May 1919, a brutal coup by the anti-communist Freikorps defeated the communists and anarchists.

Shlink [Jeffery Kissoon], Garga [Joseph Arkley] & Mary [Rebecca Brewer]

In the Jungle of the Cities was written in the aftermath of these events. Like other young men and women, Brecht was navigating stormy seas in the intermeshed worlds of personal lives, art and politics.  Above all, his play, inspired by Upton Sinclair’s novel of capitalist Chicago as well as Schiller and Rimbaud, captures the shock of living in the metropolis and how those living in it are tossed about by powerful economic forces.

Unlike Brecht’s later work, this one has an entirely baffling, non-didactic plot. Indeed, it shares much more with James Joyce’s stream of consciousness technique than with Brecht’s later and much more familiar plays.
Brecht urged his audience “Don’t worry our heads about the motives for the fight; concentrate on the human stakes. Judge impartially the techniques of the contenders and keep your eyes fixed on the finish.”

This is excellent advice. The story of librarian George Garga (Joseph Arkley) and his epic verbal wrestling match with lumber dealer Shlink (a Mephistophelean Jeffery Kissoon) lasts eleven rounds. Each bout is brilliantly introduced by the superbly androgynous (think Bob Fosse in Cabaret) Joseph Adelakun.

Brecht Brecht

As Garga, Arkley undergoes a painful metamorphosis from well-read bookseller to wealthy man living from the proceeds of crime and finally, to bankruptcy. He fails to save his lover and family from the underworld, even to the extent of pimping his own sister.

Director Peter Stürm believes that that the play, full of soliloquies and poetic riffs, is basically autobiographical – “about childhood and innocence being smashed by the adult world” and that it offers great artistic freedom. He dug up the original 1923 version to “listen to the undertow and discover that it is never what I thought in the first instance”.

Jane [Mia Austin]

That sense of ebb and flow is overpowering as the life of George Garga and his family is turned upside down by the terrifying influence of Shlink who worms his way in and out of their lives. But Shlink himself becomes a victim of the lynch mob as the tide turns again.

In the course of these men’s journeys through the jungle of the capitalist city, innocent parties – mother, sister and lover, played by Helen Sheals, Rebecca Brewer and Mia Austen – are injured and corrupted by the entirely menacing Skinny (Alex Britton), Worm (Jurgen Schwarz) and Baboon (Michael Walters).

What comes across even more powerfully than the Weimar resonances is the relevance of Brecht’s poetic vision to today’s events. Through the mingling and cacophony of accents, colours and origins – eastern European, northern England, British Asian, Afro-Caribbean, German – we are in 2013 in a mythical metropolis where dark forces are on the move, from Greece to close at home.

Brecht wrote in 1928 that this play “turned out to be such a difficult proposition that only the most courageous theatres have been prepared to tackle it”. Thank you, Arcola, and all praise to SplitMoon Theatre for your vision and daring.

20 September 2013

Photos are by Rachel Ferriman

  • In the Jungle of the Cities is at the Arcola Theatre until 5 October

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