Originally published on Reviews Hub
There is a well-expounded piece of advice in the theatre that if you can get your beginning and end right the rest will take care of itself. From the moment Joshua Robinson, as greedy and powerful Chicago factory owner Pierpoint Mailer, bursts onto the stage in a full on display of animalistic power, soon to be accompanied by a troupe of workers, zombified by hunger and despair, Brecht’s powerful adaptation of the Saint Joan story, transported to 1930s Chicago, gets a vital shot of adrenaline to start us off.
Constantly studied, less seen, Brecht’s plays have over the years been unfairly seen as dry, lacking humour and emotionally cold. His politics are always worn close to his sleeve, here pot-shots are taken both at capitalism and the well-meaning charity organisations that will make deals with the devil in exchange for cold hard bucks.
It is easy to see why director Nick Partridge chose to stage this play in a time when economic uncertainty still prevails and where 16% of people in the UK are still actively at risk of poverty. Starving and cold the stockyard workers find themselves without work in an economic crisis a couple of years after the great crash of 1929. As the threat of violence takes hold, Joan Dark, a missionary girl sets out to try to understand the workers plight and try to win over the cold heart of Mailer, the cold heart of capitalism, who may be ready to give up this ‘bloody business’ and hear Joan out.
Yet in Ralph Manheim’s translation and admittedly cut in half to two and a quarter hours for this youth production, it does not play out as one of Brecht’s stronger works. The character of Joan feels a cipher of ideas, less a martyr and more a girl who seems to naively fall foul of capitalistic forces. Brecht is not exactly known for creating fully three-dimensional characters but here they really feel like the voice of an author moralising rather than fully living breathing characters.
One of the joys of seeing Bristol Old Vic Young Companies shows is to see the range of influences taken from recent companies and artists to Bristol. Here we could tick off Hofesh Schechter’s Political Mother in some of the viscerally exuberant movement sections and Christopher Brett Bailey’s This Is How We Die when Joan takes a mic and rails against the world. Played in traverse, Partridge’s production is overly busy and sometimes lacks clarity but excels when he goes full out and lets his theatrical imagination run wild. The final quarter is wildly enjoyable as we are subjected to a blitz of imagery, characters and blaring strobe lighting while Ben Osborn’s original music veers from ear-bleeding rock to choral hymns.
The talent on show is as usual strikingly impressive with committed and focus performances from the entire ensemble. Kate Alhadeff is a strong central presence as Joan, making the most out of a character that can never hope to compete with Bernard Shaw’s or even Shakespeare’s rather haphazard takes. Robinson is smugness personified as the gangsterish Mailer, while Zoe Hitchen makes a strong impression in the ensemble as her voice soars across the choral ensembles.
Not one of Brecht’s best but another showcase of the multi-faceted talent of the Bristol Old Vic young company and a welcome reminder that not much has changed in a world of commerce that still allows the rich to get richer at the expense of the poor.