Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 22 September 2013

In the Jungle of Cities

Arcola Theatre ⋄ 18th September - 5th October 2013

Brecht at his most elliptical.

Neil Dowden

Bertolt Brecht’s early, rarely performed play In the Jungle of the Cities is a strange beast. This highly poetic, experimental work is Brecht at his most elliptical, alternately fascinating and frustrating, intriguing and alienating, mixing metaphysics with Marxism. It’s a challenging piece both for audiences and theatre companies, and though SplitMoon’s production has its compelling moments overall it fails to deliver a convincing interpretation of Brecht’s elusive dialectic.

Although played down here, the drama is set in pre-First World War Chicago, with two protagonists locked in an enigmatic struggle which takes on mythic proportions. Bookseller George Garga’s modest but uncomplicated way of life is rudely interrupted by the arrival of wealthy Malayan lumber merchant Shlink and his henchmen, who seem bent on dragging him into their own corrupt commercialized world where everything and everyone has a price. As George and Shlink exchange roles, with the Garga family at first gaining financially but losing their souls, a battle of wills develops in which it is far from clear who is exploiting who.

Brecht’s prologue teases: ‘You are about to witness an inexplicable wrestling match between two men and observe the downfall of a family…Don’t worry your heads about the motives for the fight, concentrate on the stakes.’ Of course, though far from being straightforwardly political rhetoric, we are aware that the wrestling is not just between two individuals but an extended metaphor for the class conflict between capitalism and, if not labour as such, the free spirit. Influenced by Upton Sinclair’s anti-industrial socialist novel The Jungle, but also sharing some of the archetypal expressionism of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, Brecht’s urban jungle of economic Darwinism represents a brutalization of humanity.

Peter Sturm’s production grapples valiantly with this awkward animal, but never pins it down. It’s all a bit too cerebral and unfocused. Despite the introduction of each ‘round’ by an MC, what’s missing is the intensity of a gladiatorial fight which would make the experience more immediate, with some of the drama’s energy being dissipated in ‘out of the ring’ staging around Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s suitably seedy set.

Joseph Arkley’s Garga is a spiky intellectual who fights for his independence, while Jeffery Kissoon gives both gravitas and pathos to Shlink’s shady businessman, but there is little sense of the strong (even homoerotic) bond that forms between them in the isolation of the big city. Rebecca Brewer gives a feisty performance as George’s sister forced to sell herself via prostitution, while Mia Austen plays his ditzy girlfriend who sleeps with the enemy, and Alex Britton, Michael Walters and especially Jurgen Schwarz lurk sinisterly in the background as Shlink’s heavies, ready to do his dirty work.

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Neil Dowden

Neil's day job is working as a freelance editor for book publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Faber and British Film Institute Publishing, but as a night person he prefers reviewing for Exeunt. He has also written features on the theatre and reviewed films, concerts, albums, opera, dance, exhibitions, books and restaurants for various newspapers and magazines, including The Stage and What's On in London, as well as contributing to a couple of books on 20th-century drama and writing a short tourist guide to London for Visit Britain. He insists he is not a playwright manqué but was born to be a critic and just likes sticking a knife into luvvies. In fact, as a boy he wanted to become a professional footballer, but claims there were no talent scouts where he then lived on the South Wales coast, and so has had to settle for playing Sunday league for a dodgy south London team. Apart from the arts and sport, his other main interest is travel, and he is never happier than when up a mountain, though Everest Base Camp is the highest he has been so far. He believes he has not yet reached his peak.

In the Jungle of Cities Show Info


Directed by Peter Sturn

Written by Bertolt Brecht

Cast includes Jeffery Kissoon, Joseph Arkley, Joseph Adelakun, Mia Austin, Rebecca Brewer, Alex Britton, Helen Sheals, Stephen O’Toole, Jurgen Schwarz, Michael Walters

Link http://www.arcolatheatre.com/

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