Monday, 30 September 2013

Theatre review: In the Jungle of Cities

Brecht scholars apparently tend to avoid discussing his early play In the Jungle of Cities. It could be because it's so far removed from the rest of the playwright's work, although it's just as likely to be because, if they mentioned it, they might be expected to understand it. Notionally set in Chicago, it follows a surreal and nonsensical battle of wills between two men. Shlink (Jeffery Kissoon) is a wealthy lumber yard owner. Looking for a worthy opponent, he strikes on George Garga (Joseph Arkley,) the dirt-poor employee of a lending library. Arriving at George's place of work with his goons, Shlink challenges him to a battle of their spirits, and seems to break the poorer man's and get him entangled in the game, to take the first round. His next move is a surprising one though: He gives Garga all his property and volunteers to be his slave.

Peter Sturm's production starts every scene with the next round being announced as if at a boxing match, which serves to remind us of the fight we're supposedly watching while contrasting with what actually happens: It's never apparent what the game consists of, what rules, if any, it has, let alone who's winning at any given time.

Instead this could probably be best seen as a battle between philosophies, Shlink's Eastern fatalism versus Garga's Western individualism. Beyond that I won't pretend to understand what has apparently flummoxed audiences for the last century, but it does make for a hypnotic night at the theatre. The two leads contrast their acting styles to reflect the differences between their characters, Arkley employing an angrily naturalistic style while Kissoon often contorts himself into exaggerated bowing and scraping.

Brecht's grubby Chicago of doxies, drink and dodgy deals is constructed out of a number of stark images - Mia Austen as Garga's lover lipsticking "slut" on her face before he arrives wearing a tatty house-dress and lacy panties. It means it's never dull, but Brecht's wilfully impenetrable philosophising does make it a frustrating experience.

In the Jungle of Cities by Bertolt Brecht in a translation by Gerhard Nellhaus is booking until the 5th of October at Arcola Studio 1.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

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