Berthold Brecht was never averse to biting the hand that fed him, as long as it didn’t harm his career prospects. At the time he wrote ‘A Respectable Wedding’ he was 21, living off a generous parental allowance in his native Bavaria, desperately trying to get into the theatre by any means possible. He spent most of his time writing homoerotic and sadomasochistic poetry, and shagging anything he could get his hands on.
It was just after the declaration of the Weimar Republic, from which Bavaria briefly seceded with a short-lived Soviet Republic. It was a time of political cabarets in beer-halls, and ‘A Respectable Wedding’ can be seen as an extended cabaret sketch. As in much of early Brecht, it is very clear what he is against, but guarded about what he is for. He was too canny to throw in his lot with any political party, since you never knew if it was going to win, or even survive.
And so we have a wedding reception, with a pregnant bride, a father who puts everyone off their food with disgusting stories, an indiscreet best man, a parson’s son who brings the festivities to a standstill with an interminable hymn, bride and groom almost copping off with different partners, bitchy women and crass men. The groom’s proud boast is that he has made all the couple’s new furniture himself, and as the party disintegrates, so do the chairs.
The play is a bit of a mess, lurching as it does from one set piece to another. There are nine characters, including three who have no relation to the central family and whose relationships to the others are hardly hinted at. For much of the play most of the actors have simply to stand around while one person gets their moment in the spotlight. The English adaptation by Rory Bremner contains some fine jokes (“He’s given up the guitar so he can focus on being a bore”) but can’t really surmount the basic inconsistencies and deficiencies of the script. The production, by Owen Lewis, does nothing to fill in the gaps in the text by creating believable multiple relationships or a sense of group dynamics.
It also fails to create any sense of a solid society which can then break down under the pressure of events. This is, after all, a Petit Bourgeois Wedding (the German title), but there is no creation of stuffy and restrictive order; for a satire to work, it has to create its target. Even the contemporary costumes work against the play; half the players are not dressed for a wedding, and it is counter-productive for the Vicar’s Son to be a punk figure with a spider tattoo on his neck. Perhaps the Petit Bourgeois has had his day, in which case we need a solid historical period in which to see the action.
What we are left with – and this rescues the show – are some fine pieces of visual and observational business. Rarely has the act of tuning a guitar got as many laughs as Maximilien Seweryn manages to squeeze from the process. And then there is the set itself, a masterpiece of conception and execution by Susannah Henry. The action is punctuated by bits of it coming away in the characters’ hands, sticking to their bottoms, chairs collapsing, door handles coming off, extendable lamps which refuse to extend. The business is beautifully orchestrated and executed, and, as an exercise in physical comedy and the use of props, perfect for these third-year drama students. The set is the star of ‘A Respectable Wedding’, and I mean that as a compliment.