Dear Michael Gow, Belvoir, Flack, et al.
Thank you for this play and for capturing a practitioner like Brecht, whose own plays struggled to fully realise his theories for a contemporary audience, but were so perfectly expressed in Gow’s ‘Once in a Royal David’s City’. What a clever piece of theatre in running parallel narratives about the emotion-charged issue of losing a parent and then the ideas-charged concept of Brecht, critical distancing and how to teach it, shown in the structure and staging of this play using Epic techniques and a slice of Professor Julius Sumner-Miller.
All the ways in which we are asked to look at the familiar in new ways are found in Gow’s play: through devices such as the episodic nature of the play, the inner monologue, direct audience address, narration, scene titles, transforming instantly from one character to the next or offering different character perspectives on the same event , gestus, use of past tense, lighting the audience at moments, music and song-contrasting or juxtaposing elements such as the joy of Christmas Carols with the sadness of a hospital scene, humour, seeing the workings of the stage, endowed as a location more than transformed into one. And let’s not forget that every Drama Teacher shifted uncomfortably in their seat in the scene between Teacher (Tara Morice) and Will Drummond (Brendan Cowell) as she unpacked how she taught Brecht in her flawed understanding of his intentions and techniques because it hit a little close to the bone. How refreshing to see something that educates as it entertains, a modern day lesson in theory and practice with an engaging narrative to drive it home.
This play is theatrical in expression and asks the key question that fascinated Brecht- ‘Why is it so?’ Do we accept that man’s fate is pre-determined? Can we control the events of the universe? Are we able to change our destiny? It is the big philosophical question than man has debated for centuries and ‘Once in a Royal David’s City’ lets it sit again in the minds of the audience through the sophisticated medium of theatre. This play has got compulsory text written all over it and I welcome the day it finds its way onto the curriculum.
Director Eamon Flack has done great justice to Gow’s work in embodying the techniques of Brecht into the staging of this play. There is a real sense of collaboration inherent in this work- between writer, director, cast and crew. Brendan Cowell found the lovely blend of humour, frustration and grief in his portrayal of Drummond and Helen Morse as his mother Jeannie captured the strength and frailty of her character that we had no choice to realise the peril of her plight and ask the same questions Will asks in the play. The whole ensemble was a tight knit band of energy, humour and pathos and if there was a crack in the group, it was not evident in the performances. Nick Schlieper’s lighting and set design were also used to great effect, especially the red, glitzy curtain of the stage contrasted to the bare and bleak reality of impending death in the hospital scenes.
If you want to understand Brecht in a whole new way (Verfremdungseffekt anyone?) in a play that shows you how to engage the mind and heart, here it is. This is a play worthy of your time and money.