Issue 222 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published August/September 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
Mr Puntila and his man Matti by Bertolt Brecht
If there is one play this year that socialists should go to see it is the touring production of Bertolt: Brecht's Mr Puntila and his Man Matti performed by the Almeida Theatre Company and 'the right size' performers, Hamish McColl and Sean Foley.
Brecht wrote the play in the darkest of times. He had escaped from Germany in 1933 (he was near the top of the Gestapo's hit list). The play was written in Finland in 1940 while Brecht was waiting for a passage to America-and what for him were to be black years in Hollywood, virtually ignored by the studios. While in Finland he was guest of Helen Wuolijoki, a playwright who specialised in 'people's folktales'. They agreed to work on one about a Finnish landowner and his chauffeur. Brecht was dissatisfied with the original treatment and decided to write a version of his own.
The play explores the relationship between Puntila, the rich landowner, and his chauffeur, Matti. When drunk, Puntila is full of good fellowship and bonhomie, declaring his belief in the brotherhood of man, his trust and affection for his workers. When sober he is a suspicious, evil minded tyrant. A subplot involves Puntila trying to arrange a marriage between his daughter and a vacuous and impoverished member of the upper class, desperate to get his hands on some money. Unfortunately, the daughter has romantic fantasies about Matti which are quickly discarded when faced with reality.
Puntila shows his true colours
Brecht's play challenges the ideas we are brought up with-ideas about 'our heritage', 'our community', 'our country'. He also looks at the ways bosses sometimes try to buy us off, with flattery or personal promotion, at the expense of others.
The company makes a splendid job of this production in a new version by Lee Hall, directed by Kathryn Hunter (who has a number of fine productions under her belt). They perform with tremendous energy and a kind of disciplined anarchy which evokes gasps of amazement at their physical feats, and gales of laughter, including the laughter of recognition.
I saw this production performed at the Malvern festival on a sunny summer afternoon to what appeared to be an average respectable middle class audience. I feared the production would have an icy reception. However, at the end. with Matti's words, 'Drunk or sober, he's still a shithead', ringing in our ears, the audience (or most of it) stamped, clapped, cheered and whistled its approval. Go, see and celebrate.
Norah Rushton Mr Puntila and his Man Matti is at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, 12-18 September, tours to Oxford and Coventry and opens at the Almeida Theatre, London on 13 October
Unsurprisingly, given the ongoing moral panic about paedophilia, the London production of this play triggered a debate on the 'morality' of showing a paedophile in a sympathetic light and the abused girl as a 'Lolita' figure. The insinuation was that Paula Vogel's story of the sexual abuse of a girl by her uncle was in some way an apology for paedophilia. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The title How I Learned to Drive refers to the dramatic device of the uncle teaching his niece to drive. This becomes the setting for his groping. The action of the play moves backwards and forwards in time, from the girl Li'l Bit at 11 years to her eighteenth birthday and ends with her as a mature woman looking back. In a series of fast moving scenes the horrible distortions of family life within which abuse takes place are acted out. The mother and grandparents oppress the girl by sexualising their talk, hence her name Li'l Bit, which causes her excruciating embarrassment and pain. Uncle Peck offers himself as a confidant and friend. He is weak, seen by his own family as a failure, and traumatised by war. He uses alcohol to ease his pain, and then instead turns to his niece.
We see him trying to fulfil his needs by making sexual advances to a child. The very gentleness of his demands makes them horrible. He is the only person who appears to offer Li'l Bit love and understanding even as he abuses her. What he does is monstrous, and the consequences for Li'l Bit are terrible, but the tremendous strength of Paula Vogel's play is that she has the confidence not to make him a monster. We can understand and pity him even as we condemn and hate what he is doing.
The portrayal of a young girl struggling to come to her own sexuality in this distorted environment is deeply truthful. Vogel doesn't duck the appearance of sophistication and flirtatiousness, the deep insecurity and fear, the sheer embarrassment of developing breasts, all the minefields of sexual identity and awareness that arise for an adolescent in a profoundly alienated society. The mother and grandmother move between their own fears and oppression. The grandmother tries to frighten her about sex so that she will not become involved with boys whereas the mother tries to tell her the truth, but they both condemn and judge Li'l Bit. In a devastatingly quiet small scene the aunt reveals that she knows what is going on, but rather than condemning her husband she blames the child. She wants rid of Li'l Bit so that she can have Peck back for herself. The women in the play who might have protected Li'l Bit turn, at best, a blind eye to her abuse. At the end of the play we see Li'l Bit in her own car remembering the driving lessons, scarred but a survivor, wanting to understand the uncle who had abused her and wanting to know what experiences might have led him to such dreadful acts. How I Learned to Drive shows with unflinching clarity how a girl cannot consent to sex with an older man, how the uncle abuses his position of trust and how the family creates distorted and flawed human beings.
Vogel's two other plays to have been produced in England, Baltimore Waltz and Hot 'n' Throbbing, both deal openly and honestly with sexuality. This is theatre at its very best - complex and challenging, but deeply moving and engaging. It presents its argument and leaves you to continue the struggle to understand and change the world.
Pip Utton's one man play Adolf was a sell out success at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He explained what he sees as the aim of his play. 'I believe that theatre has many jobs, and one of its jobs is to face an audience and make it not sit back in its seat, make it sit up and face things. Sometimes the only way to do that is through confrontation, and Adolf is a bit confrontational.' This is how playwright and actor Pip Utton describes the motivation behind his solo performance work about Hitler's last day in his Berlin bunker.
There is no question about the play's ability to confront its audience with a whole series of issues, from the nature of fascism to the role of theatre itself. Adolf is an astonishingly powerful presentation of what Utton imagines as Hitler's final speeches to the Nazi faithful.
An actor with no formal training, Utton says he has 'unashamedly tried to imitate Adolf Hitler's 'ranting style' in order to force his audience to consider what made the genocidal dictator and his movement tick. His performance is both terrifying and mesmerising.
In the last 15 minutes of the play he pulls a stunning theatrical trick on his audience by in turn playing, apparently, himself, then an increasingly right wing figure who seems to be an extension of himself, and finally returning to the character of Hitter. This blurring of the lines between the 'fictional' representation of the Nazi and the bigotries and prejudices which persist in our society is a frightening jolt to the system, and one which deeply affects Utton's audiences - sometimes to the point where they begin to think he may actually be a racist bigot 'A young woman at one of the Edinburgh shows had to be held back,' says Utton. 'She wanted to get on stage and punch me. Now, if you can get that reaction that's the hope with this play.'
The Hitler speeches get right to the heart of the Nazis' ideology. They reflect sharply Nazism's offer of the most barbaric but simple solutions. Utton brilliantly reduces fascism to its appeal to what Leon Trotsky called 'counter-revolutionary despair'. 'They said to people, "This is the focus of all your problems. if you get rid of it there won't be any more problems.' It's like saying, if you put all the unemployed against a wall and shoot them, then you've got full employment.'
Utton is concerned not only with Nazism but with the wider dangers of populism, of undemocratic measures introduced by means of an appeal to a manufactured 'public opinion'. Although he believes that. 'in the end, the power is with the working class', Utton does not describe himself as a socialist. He has a humanist outlook, a reaction against Stalinism - he still fears what he calls the 'Animal Farm scenario' of a dictatorship acting in the name of the working class.
On the question of how to deal with fascism today, he admits to seeing 'no easy answers'. He believes that, although 'it is very important that people are allowed to hold their own views', there also 'has to be a point at which those views become dangerous to society. I don't know who could or should draw the line ... but the views of parties like the British National Party and Le Pen's National Front in France are repulsive to any right minded person.'
Pip Utton as Hitler
Horrified by the xenophobia of recent conflicts from Rwanda to Bosnia and by Israel's persecution of the Palestinians, Pip Utton still maintains a faith in human beings' ability to overcome the forces which divide them, and he aims to use the theatre to contribute to that process. We've got it within us to react against prejudice. But you can't react against something until you realise there's something there that needs reacting against.'
Adolf goes on national tour early next year