It would be an overused and incorrect platitude to say that ‘a play about Nazi Germany is more relevant now than ever in the current political climate’. The suggestion that rising popularity of right wing politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, and neo-fascist groups is tantamount to the rise of Nazism in the 1930s is sensationalist and ahistorical. The play, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, performed by BUST in the Bath Fringe Festival, is however relevant to modern life. Not because of anything particularly remarkable to 2018. Regardless of whether the world has a rising number of fascists or none at all, it offers a unique perspective on a defining point in European history, and arguably humanity’s consciousness to this day which must never be forgotten.
Bertolt Brecht’s play first debuted in 1938, it is a collection of short playlets depicting life in Nazi Germany. It employs Brecht’s famed ‘Epic Theatre’. Contrarily to the more popularised naturalistic style which espouses that a play should reflect life in its truest form, epic theatre is unashamedly abstract, using stylised devices to remind the audience they are watching a play.
There is a litany of plays, films and novels about Nazi Germany; Bent, Cabaret, The Reader, and perhaps most famously Schindler’s List. These works are excellent insofar as they focus on the brutal treatment of the victims of the Nazis, and offer a poignant portrayal of this period of human history. Fear and Misery however, portrays the complex reality of life in its various forms in Nazi Germany. This production (wisely, for a Fringe audience) did not perform all 24 of Brecht’s playlets. The ones which stood out most, were those looking at the matter-of-fact misery of Nazi life; a pig farmer struggling to afford feed, a mother who cannot afford shoes for her Daughter in The Hitler Youth, and an anxious boy who is unable to remember a Hitler Youth motto. They showcase that whilst it is the grand gestures of destruction and human-breakdown: war, racism, and of course the holocaust, which characterise Nazi life, for most people it was these ordinary struggles which embodied what Nazi Germany was like. Whilst the play was originally intended as a didactic tool to undermine the Nazi Germany, retrospectively the play has become a reminder about the complexity of totalitarian politics.
It is also rare to find a play about Nazi Germany which is quite as amusing. Director Owen Biggadike was unafraid to treat the play as a satire, and play to the comedy at times, something his cast did with aplomb. In particular was a scene in which two scientists spy on the work Albert Einstein in an intercepted letter.
It was a bold choice by BUST to choose this play to perform at this year’s Bath Fringe Festival, but the quality of the Production vindicated the choice. The production embraced Epic Theatre with great imagination, with two wooden crutches variously reimagined as guns, spades, and window shutters, actors multi-rolling (sometimes zoomorphically), and individual makeup used for each character. The ensemble cast was used to effect, and were led by Alex Lawson-May and Sarah Bridge with energy and purpose. One of the Production’s best assets was its original music. Comprising of a keyboard, drum kit and bass guitar, it had an electric feel, offering a sense of modern relevance. Each scene was underscored with a suitable composition, whist frequently returning to a melodic, recurrent theme, helping illustrate the play’s episodic feel. The only detriment was that in the final third of the play, when the musicians become actors, the play lost some of what made the first two thirds so impressive. Whilst this may have been an intentional production choice, it meant a slightly ‘flatter’ end to the performance, even though the action on the stage remained strong.
Brecht’s friend, the Frankfurt School theorist Theodore Adorno, wrote that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. BUST’s production of Fear and Misery however showed art is necessary and illuminating to such acts of barbarity. As well as showcasing the talent and of various members of BUST, on stage and off, the play was also a pertinent reminder that art has a duty to examine such moments of darkness for what they are. In spite of its abstract style, the play offered a kind of closeness between the audience and those in Nazi Germany being portrayed, be they willing participants or victims. Whilst the top-down analysis might be more convenient, the bottom up is arguably more imperative.