“Think it can’t happen again? It’s already happening.” Robert Reid on two unsettlingly timely productions – Robyn Archer’s Dancing on the Volcano and Michael Gurr’s Crazy Brave
“In the dark times will there also be singing?
“Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.”
Svendborg Poems, Bertolt Brecht
Brecht wrote these lines in exile in Denmark after fleeing Hitler’s Germany in 1933. Robyn Archer quotes them in her cabaret, Dancing on the Volcano (presumably named for Richard Eichberg’s 1920 silent film, Dance on the Volcano, and not the song by Genesis). I carry them around in my head for days afterwards.
It is common on some social media and in impassioned café conversations to declare that the disturbing similarities between contemporary “western” society and proto-fascist Germany are piling up. I’ve seen the Early Warnings of Fascism meme regularly circulated on Facebook. It was created in 2003 by American Laurence Britt, by the way, not for Hitler but for George W. Bush – see Snopes.
Naturally the two eras are not exactly the same. After all, we were the “good guys” back then. But, as has been also reiterated with depressing regularity lately, “history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes”. With widespread poverty, the demonization of “outsider” groups, the overwhelming consolidation of power behind the wealthy and the triumph of populist demagoguery, it’s an unhappily easy comparison to draw.
In the past two nights I’ve been powerfully reminded again of the darkly historical cadences of today by Archer’s cabaret and Branch Theatre Company’s production of Michael Gurr’s Crazy Brave. Both these shows resurrect works from anxious eras in the shadow of coming dark times. In Dancing on the Volcano, Robyn Archer presents songs which reflect the spread of the fascist impulse between the two world wars. With Michael Gurr’s Crazy Brave, director Melanie Beddie returns us to an Australia on the brink of the War on Terror.
Archer assembles a repertoire of Weimar-era cabaret with songs by Brecht and Weill, Brecht and Eisler, Friedrich Hollaender, Wilhelm Grosz, Kurt Tucholsky, Frank Wedekind, Mischa Spoliansky, Joachim Ringlenatz and others. The show is structured to take us from the end of the First World War up to the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor in 1933. It was a wild and frightening time for Europe, and the songs reflect and satirise the shifting, darkening continent. The certainty of the old empires had crumbled, the newly democratic and globalising world was still in its infancy, and in the interim ancient monsters woke and crept out of the shadows of the human psyche.
In between songs, Archer tells us in conversational tone of the lives of the songs writers. Struggling artists (maybe not Brecht so much) all faced the same terrible decision as the extreme right of the day consolidated their power: flee to England and America, or stay and almost certainly die. Brecht of course began his flight to America in 1933, as did Hollaender (where he scored one of my favourite films, The 5000 fingers of Dr T). Spoliansky and Grosz escaped to London in 1934 and Tucholsky committed suicide in Gothenburg in 1935. Archer makes the point that if you didn’t get out of Germany in ‘33 or ‘34, you didn’t get out at all. I listen and wonder where we will go, if we are smart enough to get out before it’s too late. New Zealand, I suppose.
With the same, light conversational touch, Archer reminds us of the fate of the “degenerate artists” (Ringlenatz was banned in 1933) and connects the fall of Harvey Weinstein with The Threepenny Opera through The Song of Sexual Obsession. Though she draws our attention to the politics of the time, painting a picture of the German cabaret and art world during the rise of fascism, of course it’s the songs that speak the loudest.
As the evening progresses, the songs move from familiar classics such as Mac the Knife (The Threepenny Opera version), and some of the other’s more syrupy expatriate works (Hollaender’s Falling in Love Again, Grosz’s Red Sails in the Sunset and Harbour Lights). As the night, and the decade, wears on, the songs become darker, angrier: more sarcastic and subversive. Hollaender’s Blame the Jews leaves no doubt as to the tenor of the time and Weill’s The Petroleum Song (Mussels from Margate) is a devastatingly acute excoriation of Shell Oil from 90 years ago. But it is Brecht and Eisler’s Falada, There Thou Hangest, that remains with me. Here is how humanity becomes monstrous, set to music.
I leave the Fairfax thinking about how the songs are biting satires of the terrible and disastrous turn the world was taking then. Thinking about the Weimar artists who could see their world closing in around them, soon to threaten their lives, and wrote increasingly less coded protests into their work, hoping perhaps to jolt the complacent population into recognising the cliff-face towards which they were blindly racing. Thinking around the highly charged, highly political new work of today’s theatre. Artists writing and fighting to protect basic human rights for the LGBTIQ+ communities and for people of colour. So many more battles to fight, so few willing to fight them.
Which is, I’ve always felt, the fight Alice is struggling to articulate in Crazy Brave.
Gurr’s play, written and staged at the Malthouse in 2000, a full year before 9/11, contrasts the aging Australian revolutionaries of the ‘70s and ‘80s with the activists who would arguably become the Occupy movement. In Gurr’s post-90s world the Blair Cottrells and Milo Yiannopoulos’s didn’t exist, or at least knew to hide deep underground, because society then saw their beliefs as reprehensible.
Crazy Brave follows the dramaturgy common to most new Australian writing in the ’90s and early 2000s. Set in suburban Australia, a group of culture jammers (at this point they’re not really counter culture terrorists, they do “jokes”, throwing bags of vomit at gallery openings and smoke bombing corporate headquarters), are joined by a new member, Jim (Andrew Carolane) who manipulates them into revolutionary violence. This story is bracketed by a journalist, Nick (Grant Foulkes) interviewing ex-radical labor lawyer Harold, who is infamous for his protests in the ‘70s and ‘80s (Tom Considine). These two worlds are linked by Alice (Sharon Davis), the unstated leader of the group, who is friends with the old lawyer and the ex-wife of the journalist. It’s conveniently neat in the way that much Australian drama of the time was.
The argument of Crazy Brave is somewhat lost in the story telling, despite Gurr’s tendency towards speechifying. Jim comes across as smug and duplicitous, tricking the guileless group of culture jammers into becoming proper building-exploding terrorists.
Alice’s rage propels her through the bombing and right into prison, but we don’t get to the heart of that rage. Instead there are monologues about her politics which seem as confused 20 years later as they did in the original production. “What happened?” rails Alice. “You used to fight Nazis, did you all just come home and go to sleep?” The anger that seethes under Crazy Brave is anti-corporate. “There are 151 varieties of deodorant in the supermarket, I counted,” says Alice.
The world was yet to see the Twin Towers fall, or John Howards “Pacific solution”, much less Brexit, or the border wall, or the Muslim ban, or the children in cages. The anger that seethes under the songs of Dancing on the Volcano feels more like the rage of today. A rage in the shadow cast by everything that comes next.
Jessi Keyes’s set design and Bronwyn Pringle’s lighting work together to suggest the long shadows and empty arcades of Georgio de Chirico’s neoclassical paintings and the Nazi architecture of Albert Speer. More than just the scent of fascism is in the air and the artists, now as then, can feel it.
Unhappily, the remounting of Australian plays is still uncommon enough that it’s worth noting. Crazy Brave, after its 2000 season in Melbourne, was given two subsequent productions, in Launceston in 2001 and at the Old Fitz in Sydney in 2002. Returning to works like this to find how they speak to now is vital work if we are to move out of the disposable culture that has grown around Australian playwriting. Particularly when those works speak to now all too clearly.
Both Dancing on the Volcano and Crazy Brave are explicit in their politics. Both are calls to action. All these words were intended as warnings for their age, desperate, urgent, direct. Political theatre, particularly with the strident voice Gurr employs, risks seeming naïve when remounted years later. The concerns of both these works are still as relevant now as when they first premiered and arguably more so as the situation grows worse with every day.
With both shows I feel the same nagging doubt the first time I saw Crazy Brave in 2000. I worry that these warnings go unheeded. “That was then,” the chuckles of the audience seem to say, “and this is now.” Worse, I worry that they are being heard by the wrong people. That in this audience are the people who we most desperately need to be unsettled – the educated, comfortable, middle class – but instead all that education means these works are appreciated for their irony and nostalgia.
Yes, things were terrible in those days, say the knowing chuckles of the audience. The Russian slang word for this is “styob”, meaning a kind of cynical parody or a game being played with culture. “I know I’m lying, you know I’m lying, we all know that what I’m saying is untrue and the dissonance caused by it is a bit funny. If we can’t scream about it, we can at least chuckle and sing along to show we’re all in on the joke.”
As with a lot of work I’ve seen lately and for obvious reasons, there’s one name that is never mentioned but rings out loud and clear. Are we already self-censoring or is the air so filled with Trump he needs no mention? The anger, the widening gap between rich and poor, the fake news, the brownshirts… We’re the already dead in these blown up buildings and songs of dark times.
Think it can’t happen again? It’s already happening.
Dancing on the Volcano by Robyn Archer with collaborators, Michael Morley (piano and some translation) and George Butrumlis (accordion). Fairfax Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne. Closed.
Crazy Brave by Michael Gurr, directed by Melanie Beddie. Set and Costume, Jessie Keyes. Lighting design, Bronwyn Pringle. Sound design, Sidney Millar. Cast, Tom Considine, Grant Foulkes, Sharon Davis, Chanella Macri, Benjamin Nichol and Andrew Carolane. Carlton Courthouse, La Mama Theatre. Until July 15. Bookings