A few days ago I saw a wonderful performance of a lesser known Bertolt Brecht work, Happy End, performed by graduating Victorian College of the Arts, School of Drama students at Space 28, VCA, Melbourne.
Happy End is not unlike the plot of another of Brecht’s plays The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, with it’s Chicago gangster setting. For a modern audience, there is also the obvious connection between Happy End and the musical Guys and Dolls.
Not considered one of the heavyweights in Brecht’s repertoire, Happy End is perhaps better known for the songs of German composer Kurt Weill, scattered throughout the drama. Weill collaborated with Brecht on a number of works, the most famous being The Threepenny Opera, from which his best known song Mack The Knife derives. Wonderful numbers like The Bilbao Song and Surabay Johnnny are some of the highlights of Happy End.
This VCA production was directed by new Melbourne Theatre Company Associate Director Peter Evans, with musical direction from Mark Jones, who last contributed to Happy End in a 1997 School of Drama production. Both these areas were tackled with style. The musical arrangements were superb and the blocking of the actors in the space was handled with considerable flair.
Evans is one very talented director, let there be no doubt. The choerography of some of the actors in unison, the Brechtian use of projection (a technique first experimented on the stage by fellow German and Brecht collaborator Erwin Piscator), moments of dialogue with full back to the audience and the scene where two settings merged into one, were all directed with aplomb.
If it is any measure of success for this production, my Year 11 Drama class were continually reminding themselves this was, technically speaking, a university theatre production. Such was the quality of the show before them, as far as they were concerned, it was every bit as good as Melbourne Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre shows they had recently seen.
Acting highlights in the ensemble included Russ Pirie who played a thoroughly convincing gangster boss Bill Cracker and Ashley Zukerman in his dual roles of gangster Jimmy Dexter and Salvation Army person Captain Hannibal, where his comic timing was flawless. Tom Wren displayed fine expressive skills in his characterisation of Sam Wurlitzer, resulting in a highly engaging performance. Gemma Cavoli was outstanding as Salvation Army girl Leiutenant Lillian Holiday, the dame who fell for tough guy Bill Cracker. Her acting and singing were a highlight of this production.
Special mention must also go to set designer Evan Granger for his wonderful cabaret-style set and costume designer Esther Hayes for her pinpoint accuracy in the beautiful costumes.
It was indeed a Happy End for myself and my senior Drama students. They throroughly enjoyed every moment of this Victorian College of the Arts, School of Drama production. It was their first time to see a VCA theatre show, but it definitely won’t be their last. They had already studied Brecht in my Drama classes, so they were looking forward to seing a play by one of the most important theatre practitioners of the 20th century. While they had never heard of Kurt Weill until now, they enjoyed the VCA students’ renditions of his songs so much, a number of my students were singing them all the way back to Flinders St Station after the show!