Sunday, May 03, 2015

Orbits: Charles Laughton and Berthold Brecht.

Peter Saracen and Edmund Dehn as Brecht and Laughton
To the White Bear theatre last night to see our friend Edmund Dehn in Orbits - a fine play by Wally Sewell based on the relationship between Charles Laughton and Berthold Brecht.

We begin with someone we gradually realise is Galileo defending himself, emotionally drained, and then finally confessing to an initially silent inquisitor, who then bends the conversation to homo-eroticism and ends up with Galileo bending down ready for a spanking.  It then transpires that Laughton and Brecht  are improvising whilst working on their translation of Brecht's Life of Galileo.

This premise seems so improbable that it has to be true, and indeed Brecht came to the US in 1941 and after years of struggle managed to write a hit movie Hangmen Also  Die! (1941) which provided enough income for him to continue. He met Laughton, then a fading star, in 1944 and their collaboration went on famously. By the end of 1945, after Hiroshima had rather redefined what a scientist could do, they had a version that satisfied them both and Orson Welles signed up to direct it, though he later fell out with them and left. The smash-hit production opened in LA June 1947 (with Charlie Chaplin, Ingrid Bergman, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gene Kelly, Billy Wilder and Igor Stravinsky at the opening night) and then transferred to open in Broadway in Dec. But in Sept 1947 Brecht was summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and "citing his status as a foreigner, and choosing ... a strategy of appearing to cooperate with the Committee, but actually undermining their investigation with a combination of cunning, obfuscation, and the pretense of politeness."(ref)

The second act is post Hiroshima and Laughton/Galileo, initially being attacked by Brecht, turns the tables and reduces Brecht to close to tears by belittling his art compared to Galileo or Einstein's science. The final act begins with Brecht being interrogated about his communist sympathies before the House Committee on Un-American Activities although it then transpires that again this is role playing with Laughton trying to prepare Brecht for his ordeal. Afterwards they say goodbye since Brecht is going to return to Germany, and he never came back to the US.

Both actors were excellent: Edmund as always was superb and with an enormous number of lines and switching of roles-within-roles that really plays to his astounding craft. We saw him years ago in The Alchemist and then saw Simon Russell Beale in the same role at the National and Edmund was even better.  It deserves a wider audience - maybe the Hampstead Theatre would be interested.

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