You almost certainly know the venture ends in failure and tragedy but what a gloriously exhilarating and entertaining evening JT Rogers makes of the journey. It’s 1991 and the US-sponsored Middle East Peace Conference is going nowhere, with the excluded PLO still ensconced in Tunis. Norwegian power couple Mona Juul, a diplomat posted to Cairo, and Terje Rod-Larsen, her foundation-running sociologist husband, get a chance to see first hand the conflict in Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Welcome to Weismann’s Follies. Dmitri Weismann himself presides and the old gang of gorgeous gals are back for one last reunion in the theatre where they showed a leg and sang their hearts out between the wars, before it’s pulled down. It’s time to reminisce (cue for a song-list of glorious pastiches) and take stock of the ravages of the years – physical and emotional. So it’s equally the cue for a range of mould-breaking Sondheim numbers that excavate the regrets and neuroses eating away at the two couples centre-stage, former showgirls Sally and Phyllis and the stage-door johnnies, Buddy and Benjamin, whom they married. The genius of Sondheim and book-writer James Goldman is to intertwine and meld these two strands, building to a climax of ‘follies’ point numbers which become the expression of all that angst and heartache, one for each of the four, surprising, distinctive, appropriate and devastatingly revealing. The haunting of all the returnees by their younger selves, the girls in their gorgeous costumes and their stage door johnnies, acting out the past and observing their future, is another stroke of genius, another layer to this rich, complex show.
When is an opera a play with music? When it’s Simon Stephens’ sharp new reworking for the National Theatre of Brecht’s adaptation of John Gay’s 1728 ballad opera (The Beggar’s Opera). The perfect match of Kurt Weill’s thrilling, chilling music and Bertolt Brecht’s update of John Gay’s comic, heartless satire seems as timely and timeless as ever in Rufus Norris’s new production.
Brecht and Weill’s ‘play with music’, based on Elisabeth Hauptmann’s translation, opened in 1928, two hundred years after Gay’s first night. Brecht and Weill continued the short and intense collaboration that produced Mahagonny, Happy End and more in the years leading up to the rise of National Socialism. GW Pabst’s film adaptation of Die Dreigroschenoper opened in the more dangerous Germany of 1931, and by 1933, the Jewish Weill and his Austrian wife actor/singer Lotte Lenya (the first Polly) had fled Nazi Germany, emigrating to the USA by 1935, followed by Brecht and his Austrian Jewish wife, actor/director Helene Weigel (the first Mother Courage). Their ‘opera’ had pride of place in the ‘degenerate music’ exhibition curated by the Nazis in Dusseldorf in 1938.
It’s not by accident that the title of this review recalls Yeats’ poem Easter 1916, so often quoted in this centenary year of the Easter Uprising in Ireland. Lorraine Hansberry was inspired to become a dramatist by seeing a rehearsal of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock at university. And she saw parallels in the struggle for Irish independence with the struggles for equality of both African Americans and the nations in Africa under white rule.
In Les Blancs (The Whites), Lorraine Hansberry was notably the first African-American dramatist to explore the African search for freedom from European colonization. The first drafts of Les Blancs came soon after the success of her landmark play, A Raisin in the Sun in 1960. Although at the beginning of 1965, she was dead from pancreatic cancer, aged 34, she left several drafts of the play. Its title is an answer to Jean Genet’s play The Blacks: A Clown Show, a ritual performance of black resentments against the white oppressor. She saw Genet’s absurdism as escapist, when realism was what was required. Her own story of being black and female in America, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, like Les Blancs, came to the stage thanks to her literary editor and former husband, Jewish publisher, songwriter and political activist Robert Nemiroff. Hansberry’s death inspired Nina Simone to write her famous song in her memory using the poignant title of her autobiography.
Hansberry entrusted Les Blancs, the work she was redrafting in hospital during her last illness, to Nemiroff to nurse into production. He continued to make further drafts based on notes and their conversations and gathered all the drafts into a production text so that it premiered in New York in 1970. Nemiroff kept polishing the script, publishing a revised version in 1983. He died in 1991 and his stepdaughter Joi Gresham, Director and Trustee of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust, collaborated with dramaturg Drew Lichtenberg and director Yael Farber on the text of this National Theatre production.