In his dramas, Bertolt Brecht is famed for his use of what's popularly known as the "alienation effect", where the personal and emotive is jettisoned in favour of the more rational and universal. Brecht believed that the common practice of performing plays that, as he saw it, predominantly stirred the emotions at the expense of the intellect, was a misplaced emphasis and in a poem reflected: " It seems to me a sorry trade / Putting on plays solely / To stir up inert feelings."
He thus consciously chose to write dramas that subverted conventional expectation, most familiarly in Mother Courage and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The latter was written in 1945 but was turned down at the time for having "too little dramatic tension and too much political commentary"; a judgement that reflects the early misconception of Brecht's avowed purpose as a playwright.
In Sam Walters' current pacy production, which robustly refutes any accusation of dramatic flatness, Brecht's prologue is dispensed with in favour of a contentious local concern instead - that of the fate of the riverside Twickenham Baths site, with the various schemes proposed hotly debated. Brecht's social concern invites a collaborative approach and, though such a device lends a topical flavour, it's not really necessary in order to make its political point. Aiming to achieve the desired effect of universality and emotional distance, Walters has the cast adopt interchangeable roles, each moving fluidly into roles that thus never become associated with any specific individual.
Grusha, a servant girl, rescues the baby son of the overthrown Governor and, despite numerous obstacles, brings him up as her own only to find that the boy's real mother, motivated as much by avarice as maternal affection, returns to reclaim him. Asdak, the colourfully realised and eccentric judge, is called upon to sort out the situation in an unorthodox courtroom trial. The plot is based upon the Biblical story of Solomon, who tried to determine a baby's true parentage by an ostensibly barbaric method; Brecht was often accused of literary plagiarism and deftly repulsed such criticisms by saying, "Shakespeare, he was a thief too!"
Walters has assembled a strong ensemble cast - including David Antrobus (pictured) for this production, and their inventiveness certainly brings out the full potential of the play. Whether or not you subscribe to Brecht's theories or feel that, despite the plausibility of his universe, the personal and collective can nonetheless fuse successfully, the Orange Tree's intimacy provides the ideal setting for such a debate.
- Amanda Hodges