Director: Nicholas Johnson
Translator: Nicholas Johnson
Adaptor: David Shepherd and The David Ensemble
Reviewer: Liam Harrison
In 1920’s Munich the young Bertolt Brecht aspired to make his name writing a play about the biblical David. Yet Brecht’s David never became more than a flurry of contradictory notes and sporadic scenes, material which is now taken up by Nicholas Johnson, David Shepherd and The David Ensemble.
The David Fragments fuses Brecht’s life, diaries and the incomplete pieces of his David play, in a research ‘laboratory piece’ which does not focus on creating a neatly coherent or linear play. Rather, the emphasis is on teasing out parallel resonances across Brecht’s life and works in a performance split into disjointed, fragmentary scenes, as the title suggests.
We are greeted by two rogue clowns who rove among the audience, loudly discussing dramaturgical concepts, undermining the action before it has begun. The whole performance might benefit from more interventions from the clowns, as they bring a levity and subversive style which the rest of the piece, despite its experimental form, is often lacking.
Brecht himself is presented as a pretentious and precocious young man, strutting about the stage wielding a guitar, acting the kook and ruffling the feathers of his contemporaries. The benefits of the ensemble research and rehearsal practices become apparent in a scene of ‘Brechts Anonymous’, where numerous Brechts, adorned with ‘Hello my name is’ stickers, confess their angst in a Brechtian support group, performing a synchronised hive-mind rendition of Brecht’s diaries.
amid the assorted pieces from Brecht’s diaries, life and the ensemble research, we witness two scenes from Brecht’s play David. The first is a confrontation between Saul and David which is punctured when Brecht’s characters turn on the author sitting at his desk, berating him for his loose artistic license “have you even read the bible?”. Bathsheba steps up brilliantly to scorn Brecht for her exclusion from the action, as she is reduced to an absent symbol of lust, a mere plot prompt for the men, running Brecht through his own personal Bechdel test.
The performance deftly shows how the magpie-like appropriation and manipulation present in Brecht’s works mirror his life, in his poor treatment of women like Hedda Kuhn, and the hints of plagiarism of fellow playwrights Otto Zarek and André Gide, who were also writing on the story of David at the same time as Brecht.
The performance eventually presents the street scene from David, a full Brecht scene based on the lazy and pontificating David sitting high above a circle of world-weary Israelites. Yet the characters turn on Brecht once more, breaking out into Bacchanalian frenzy, defying the artist’s control over his creations.
The David Fragment’s amalgamation of diaries, drafts, biographies and histories, along with the experimental techniques borne from the theatrical laboratory, are not designed to give any definitive form or shape to Brecht’s fragmented David play, or to provide any fixed judgement on his life. Rather the restless, protean form of the performance research seeks to engage with unexplored avenues of Brecht’s work and legacy. However, such an investigative and intellectual form of drama feels at times more edifying for the cast rather than for the audience. The David Fragments in its current elusive form, perhaps deliberately and appropriately, keeps its audience rather alienated.
Runs until 2 July 2017 | Image: Kasia Kaminska