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Exhibition review The body language of fascism

JAN WOOLF recommends an exhibition of Brecht’s collages whose message is driven home by actors recreating scenes from his unfinished plays

Brecht — Fragments
Raven Row, London

 

IF you manage it right, there’s a treat in store at Raven Row, London E1.   

Twice a day theatre performances accompany an exhibition of Bertolt Brecht’s archive in an hour-and-a-half of terrific theatre, as world-class actors lead you through the rooms for dramatic fragments of Brecht’s unfinished plays from 1920s Berlin. 

As vividly costumed as anything from the Weimar Republic — and a broken fourth wall — these sketches are as relevant now as when Brecht wrote them. They cover class struggle, poverty, accumulative capitalism, religion and war, and crucially how they all relate to one another.  

For example, the dysfunctional processes of Chicago trading in Fleishhacker leads to a woman and her five children being evicted from their home in the Berlin Breadshop. This is extraordinary, in-your-face theatre.  

But if you just go for the exhibition, important as it is, you get a monochromatic archive of newspaper and magazine cuttings (most of them in German), original manuscripts, labels, packaging and collage. These all helped Brecht’s playwriting and fired his creative imagination, but it is as if we are entering an archived studio.  

Brecht’s work was aimed at the worker in the street, not the one off a media studies course. Brecht pioneered collage as a visual art form, like his contemporaries John Heartfield and Hannah Bloch, and as Peter Kennard does today, often through photomontage.

In making new images out of existing ones through juxtaposition or overlap, the artist creates another truth and finds a way forward. A dialectic art form, if you like, and the viewer sees afresh.  

I noticed that the flooring made of cardboard packaging in the lower ground floor room included Amazon cardboard boxes. Nice. 

Images from the archive include newspaper cuttings of Nazi high command: gesturing by Hitler, brooding posturing by Hess and Goering could be off-taste comedy; it is if Brecht is studying the body language of fascism, its emotional sign language and how ordinary people could mirror it.  

He recorded social and political events and those that acted it out — politicians, soldiers, workers and people on the street. Then comes the heartbreak of WWII from his exile in the United States, including images from China and the Russian front. A press cutting of Lenin and Stalin sitting together is tantalisingly absent of comment. Yes, all the world’s a stage, but this only comes alive after you’ve seen the players.  

The now-ness of it is brought out by the troupe of actors who drench the monochrome with colour, and right under the nose of the City of London. 

Brecht: Fragments is curated by Phoebe von Held, in collaboration with Tom Kuhn, Alex Sainsbury and Iliane Thiemann from the Bertolt Brecht Archive at the Akademie der Kunste, Berlin. This is a hell of a thing to be offered free to the public. 

Bravo, Raven Row!

Runs until July 28. For more information see: ravenrow.org.

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