Señora Carrar's Rifles / How Much Is Your Iron?

Young Vic Theatre, London SE1
Opened 24
April, 2007

In performance, direction and translation, this second double bill by Bertolt Brecht comes well up to the admirable standard of its predecessor earlier this month. Brecht was of course a writer of immense political commitment, and it enriches our understanding to see such naked agitprop pieces revived. But does my discomfort increase because ours is an age beyond such simple protests, or rather because we continue to feel chastened by these kind of direct exhortations even at a lifetime's remove?

Señora Carrar's Rifles (1937) is an anti-Franco polemic. The title character, having already lost a husband in the Spanish Civil War, tries to protect her sons by keeping them at home and refusing to give the dead man's arms cache to her militiaman brother. Biyi Bandele's translation is simple and direct, and director Paul Hunter shows his more familiar comic bent only in brief radio-broadcast sequences. Sandy McDade is a typical Brechtian heroine, unfussily and firmly declaring that they have to live (in a few years' time McDade will make an excellent if unorthodox Bernarda Alba), until the final twist wakes her political conscience. How Much Is Your Iron?, premièred under an English pseudonym in 1938 and here translated by Enda Walsh, is a fierce indictment of Swedish neutrality in the face of Nazism. Amid a community of small traders, iron-seller Svendson continues to deal with Elliot Levey's mad-eyed, smiling (and notably un-mustachioed) Whatshisname even as the latter murders the Austrian and Czech neighbours, seizes their goods, makes machine-guns and then holds Svendson himself to commercial ransom. Orla O'Loughlin's production takes place in mist and yellow-rusty light, as if matters are visibly tainted from the first.

Both pieces are punctuated by basso rumbles and tremors which both sound warlike and remind us of the double-bill's subtitle, The Earthquakes To Come. And yet the unambiguous mentality of "If you are not with us, you are against us" (explicitly stated by the brother in the Spanish play) so exalted here is precisely the attitude I had seen elsewhere being dissected with regard to Bush and Blair's Iraq policy in Called To Account on the previous night. Commitment is laudable when we agree with it, otherwise it is deplorable fanaticism; and hindsight is one of our most precious gifts.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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