Brecht: Bilbao and BeyondThe name Brecht sparks many emotions in the minds of theatre-goers. Most of us have heard of him, even studied his theatre, but he tends to remain a mystery – a name bandied around, never really understood. In this dedicated production, we experience Brecht through his poetry, as he reflected on the nature of aspects of the theatre, and other topics like infanticide and war.

I was eager to see this show in the hope of some enlightenment on the man himself. Frustratingly, I came out with no epiphanies, no greater understanding. However, I did enjoy the experience of Brecht’s short, witty poetry, and his sharp condemnation of war and human judgmentalism and foolishness.

The production was appropriately minimalist – no set, only a chair and a scarf for props, and iPads displaying the performers’ music and scripts. The iPads were a wonderful inclusion – so incongruous on a simple stage with two old-timers, and yet so effective as a reminder of the technical aspects of production, and our everyday reliance on such devices.

The two performers, veterans of the West End, come with such a history that you think must surely glow in them. My anticipatory daydreams imagined the show would be like seeing Robyn Nevin or Sir Ian McKellan perform live.

The reality was simply two old men, dowdily dressed, telling stories and playing songs. As my partner commented, “If they didn’t have such a history, they’d just be strange old men.” With 40 years of performing under his belt, John Muirhead has performed in many plays and musicals. His voice has not aged very well, and while he carries the show with skill and professionalism, the vocal aspects are not a highlight. His caricatures are amusing, especially his impression of Brecht’s paranoid and pessimistic grandma, and other female characters. His movements are spritely and his energy high, but I sensed none of his great experience shining through.

I warmed to Chuck Mallet the moment he bustled out to his piano. With an incredible past of working as a vocal coach, pianist and musical director, the music remains strong in Mallett – like the Force in ancient Yoda. Mallett provides the musical accompaniment to Brecht's poetry and wrote most of the music for the poems included. The recreation of Brecht into a cabaret piece is the strongest aspect of this show. The light, fun style makes Brecht accessible, and lets us enjoy his words and thoughts without bogging us down in seriousness.

There are many gems of writing and wisdom in Brecht’s work, and our two veterans support and express them skillfully. While the stories are segments with no strong narrative thread, the performance is well supported by this great man’s ideas.

2012 Melbourne Cabaret Festival
Brecht: Bilbao and Beyond
Devised, written, and performed by John Muirhead and Chuck Mallett

Venue: Chapel Off Chapel
Dates: 13 – 15 July, 2012
Time: 7pm
Tickets: $35 – $32
Bookings: 03 8290 7000

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