"I once knew a High Court Judge who farted in company," one of the funnier lines goes in Lazarus Theatre Company's breathtakingly original update of Brecht's revolutionary classic, "just to show an independent spirit." Ricky Dukes' wonderfully frenetic adaptation and manic ensemble cast show independent spirit in spades. In a room above the Brockley Jack pub in South London commuter-land near Honor Oak Park train station, a little piece of magic is taking place.
From the start, the audience in-the-round is immersed in explosive, spell-binding, fast-paced, unsettling, disconcerting, baffling comedy and pathos. A 2016 play of a play set in 1945 somewhere in the Caucasus Mountains about a parable play set in ancient China… there's a lot to take in, and this production captivates with multiple scenes taking place all at once clamouring for your attention, intriguing movement and dance, individual speeches with the crowd of actors' loud approval or disapproval, plus numerous genres of music ranging from soft plaintive strains to pumping electronica. Stuart Glover's changing coloured lighting complements each of the many different scenes played out, successfully reinforcing the mood at any given time.
It's an ambitious, pulse-raising production and they pull it off with controlled mayhem. Most of the actors play two or three different parts and each has a lot to do. The quality is high and they must be exhausted. If there is a main, central character then it is Grusha, the peasant girl in a yellow mac whose perilous journey with a rich couple's abandoned baby threads through the play. Ashleigh Cordery plays the role superbly with a fascinating mix of feistiness mixed with vulnerability. Just one of her excellent scenes is when she and the kid have to cross a rickety old bridge while fleeing violent and corrupt soldiers. Even though the bridge is represented on stage by an office table and couple of plastic chairs, the scene is so well put together that I genuinely feared for her safety. It was one of many wow-inducing moments.
Brecht's masterpiece is packed with heavy themes which this production shows, with a commendable lightness of touch, are as fresh today as ever: political corruption, post-war reconstruction, refugees, land grab, dangerous militia, buyable judges, to name a few. The clash between epic societal struggles and mundane individual domestic concerns comes through with great wit and energy. This one and three quarter hour production has no interval, and the time flies by. Rob Peacock gives a strong performance as seedy Judge Azdak in the closing scenes, hilariously and terrifyingly wearing no trousers under his beige raincoat. Even more surreally, he wears a builder's hard hat on his head in place of his judge's wig.
A few fluffed lines here and there are entirely forgivable given the roller coaster ride on offer, and will iron out as the run progresses anyway. Lazarus Theatre Company's next reimagining of a classic play is The Bacchae after Euripides at the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell in April. I can't wait.