Mrs Puntilla and Her Man Matti, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh ***
In his portrayal of Puntila, a wealthy landowner who is cruel and exploitative when sober but charming and friendly when drunk, and of his relationship with his straight-talking chauffeur Matti, Brecht explores the theme of extreme economic inequality with flair, wit, and the kind of clear-eyed realism our current political debate urgently needs; and Denise Mina’s adaptation is so sharp, inspired and eloquent that the audience almost shivers with recognition at those moments when it hits the political nail chillingly on the head.
Yet at the same time, the whole show so drastically misses the point about Brecht’s style of theatre – its simplicity of staging, its emphasis on clear storytelling that doesn’t waste time on spectacle or illusion – that it comes close to cluttering itself into incoherence.
The design, by the great Tom Piper, features such an avalanche of stuff – huge quantities of scaffolding, tapestries of kitsch Highland landscapes, a mobile baronial staircase, an onstage sauna, a flat-car wagon on which Puntila arrives enthroned, drawn by a team of human horses with golden heads – that it is endlessly irritating and distracting, and, in this context, slightly indecent in its sheer extravagance. As a result, instead of floating along on the powerful tide of the play’s argument, the cast constantly seem to be struggling to stay afloat amid an unseemly flood of objects.
Elaine C Smith, as the show’s female Mrs Puntila, makes a fine job of taking hold of Brecht’s meaning, and running with it; her performance is bold, well-sustained, and thoroughly intelligent, but hampered by a ludicrous blonde wig that ceases to amuse after about 20 seconds. Joanne McGuinness is impressive as her daughter Eva, Richard Conlon leads the chorus in fine style, and Steven McNicoll is magnificent as the supreme realist Matti, always dryly aware of his own powerlessness, but still unwilling to go along with the drunken Puntila’s nonsense about how bosses and workers can be “friends”.
In the end, though, the successful staging of great classics is all about trusting the text and the actors, and putting the other elements of the show completely at their service. That rule is never more important than with Brecht; and if this relentlessly over-elaborate production avoids a complete shipwreck, it’s only because its leading performers are such mighty swimmers, clinging to Brecht’s story as if to a lifebelt, and finally bringing it to shore.
Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 21 March, and the Tramway, Glasgow, 25 March until 11 April