Theatre Review: Mr Puntila and His Man Matti
Mr Puntila and His Man Matti by Bertold Brecht. The Right Size Company, Albery Theatre, London.
Here is a play to delight socialists. The story of a capitalist and his chauffeur, which becomes the subject of an uninhibited Marxist analysis. An evening of exuberant theatricality: an occasion when in the words of one critic, “Karl Marx meets the Marx Brothers”.
The story is simply told. Puntila, a widower and capitalist landlord, seems schizoid. When sober he is ruthless, unfriendly and exploitative. When drunk he becomes driven by lust and “sentimental overflowings of fraternity”. (At one stage he proposes to four women who are advised by Matti to form a union of fiancées, the better to protect themselves when Puntila becomes sober.) We follow several weeks in Puntila’s life as he moves between bouts of drunkenness and sobriety, trying to recruit labour and to marry his daughter to a wealthy diplomat.
“What kind of man am I?” wails Puntila in the middle of one drinking spree. “No one cares, Mr Puntila,” replies Matti, thus confirming that relations between capitalists and workers are determined not by the personalities of those involved but by their economic and social relations. And if members of the audience are unaware of the implications of the dialogue the actors occasionally drop out of character and form themselves into a group of singers in order to offer a Marxist analysis of the plot. Here is another example of the “double process” which I referred to when discussing a recent production of Mother Courage (November 1998). Brecht wants us both to lose ourselves in events, but at the same time to remain distant from them the better to understand the plight of the people in a more objective, scientific manner.
The acting is dazzling. Puntila and Matti remain on stage for most of the evening whilst the rest of the group of ten actors appear as a myriad of different characters. And the staging is full of wit and invention, and culminates in a real coup de theatre when the main structure collapses as a metaphor for the collapse of capitalism. An evening to treasure. Do look out for the Right Size Company and Mr Puntila and His Man Matti which is set for a national tour.