BRECHT IN PRACTICE
The Play’s Figures (not Characters)

There are four figures in Closer and their description in the text itself says little about their social position. It is, however, important to establish the particularities of a figure’s social make-up in Brechtian theatre, because this brings with it a series of qualities that inform the ways figures think about and behave towards each other. In addition, if opinions and actions are linked to social advantage or disadvantage, then the audience is implicitly asked what might need to change in society to avoid the problems that may arise in a play.

The text tells us the following:

Alice, a girl from the town

Dan, a man from the suburbs

Larry, a man from the city

Anna, a woman from the country

Taking the figures in reverse order, for reasons that will become clear, there are clues to social position that arise from details in the scenes themselves.

 

Anna (Click for Gestic Images) 

This ‘woman from the country’ is introduced as a professional photographer. She has an exhibition in scene five suggesting that she is either successful or wealthy enough to fund her own vanity showcase. The text leaves this question open, yet an exchange at the end of the scene tells us far more about her background. Larry reveals social anxiety when he asks whether her parents thought he was beneath her. She is thus of high social status, and this is confirmed in the final scene when she tells Larry that she will be ‘having a break’ and withdrawing to the country. She clearly has the money to do this, and it is suggested that ‘the country’ refers to the family home.

The implications of this is that Anna is the most socially superior of the quartet and this affects her status in the production as a whole. For example, Alice is intimidated by her in scene 2, her apologies in scene 8 are always insincere because she is so self-centred and self-assured, but her positions in scene 9 are predicated on being the person who should be superior to Alice, but are then challenged fundamentally.

The actor playing Anna, Emma Tugman, affected an upper-middle-class accent for the production as a whole, and built some of her performance on the mannerisms exposed in Channel 4’s Made in Chelsea. Her social position was thus performed as something taken for granted and never reflected on; it was the audience’s task to ask the questions that would never cross her mind.

 

 

Larry (Click for Gestic Images)

Larry appears to be thoroughly middle-class: we first meet him in the hospital as a confident doctor and later learn that he is a consultant dermatologist. However, as the play progresses, we discover more about his past. There is a hint of social inferiority when he discusses meeting Anna’s parents at the end of the scene 5, and he tells her in scene 6 that he is suffering from ‘working-class guilt’ when contemplating their expensive flat. (It is interesting that his social charade has convinced Anna so far, as she asks whether it’s ‘bourgeois guilt’.) In scene 10, Dan looks down his nose at Larry because his father was a taxi driver.

Larry thus presents perhaps the most socially interesting figure in Closer: he plays the middle-class professional while hiding his working-class background, something that Dan at the very least uses to pressurize him. As a result, we developed moments in the play, such as when Alice mistakes Larry for a waiter  in scene 5 and when Alice laughs at Larry’s request for money in scene 7, to show the social tensions running through Larry. The audience was implicitly asked why Larry felt he needed to deny his roots and what ends the denial achieved.

The actor playing Larry, Paul Stonehouse, affected a non-specific middle-class accent for most of the production, yet would slip into his native Geordie accent at points of stress or anger, unable to conceal his background, as a nod to the audience that the witty, socially confident figure was not always what he seemed.

 

Dan (Click for Gestic Images)

Dan’s social background is clear from Marber’s description: he is a middle-class man who comes from the suburbs. He clearly loathes his conventional upbringing in scene 1, and, as mentioned above, compares his father, a teacher, favourably to Larry’s in scene 10.

Dan’s social position allowed the production to model a certain arrogances in this figure, a self-assuredness that was reflected in his frequent pronouncements about himself, others and the world in general. However, this self-belief also revealed itself as a weakness, and there were several moments in the production where the actor playing Dan, Reece Richardson, would clearly show how he had misread or misunderstood a situation. His learned confidence was thus contradictory; allowing him to lord it over the other figures, while exposing him to ridicule when he failed to grasp the complexity of a situation. This could be as simple as trying to show off to Alice in scene 1 with his mobile phone and discovering that she wasn’t interested, or in his false summation of his self-worth in scenes 6 and 11: on both occasions Alice leaves him. Social critique thus runs through Dan, too: his background has emboldened him to make assertions and impose opinions on others.

 

Alice (Click for Gestic Images)

Alice is the only figure in the play whose background is not clearly given. Her jobs as a stripper and a waitress may indicate a lower social position than the other three figures, but middle-class women are not unknown in such occupations. However, a clear sense of social identity is a necessity in Brechtian theatre because one’s class tells the audience much about how the figures think and behave, and leads to a critique of a social order that favours one group and disadvantages another.

We took the decision to make Alice working-class in order to display social tensions more clearly. This was based on a couple of lines from the play itself which, admittedly, can be read in a number of ways, but their reading in this production had the effect of anchoring Alice socially and using her as a foil for the middle-class figures. So, in scene 9, when Alice confronts Anna for the first time, Anna asks why it took her five months to ‘come for me’. Alice replies that it took her that much time to convince herself that Anna wasn’t better than her. This line was thus read as indicated social inferiority. And in the final scene, we learn that Alice was a pseudonym, taken from the memorial at Postman’s Park. Alice took the name of ‘the daughter of a bricklayer’s labourer’. This small detail suggested an affinity with the real Alice Ayers.

As a result, the actor played Alice, Lucy Telfer, used an accent that was more Northern and initially reflected her social intimidation in scene 2 with respect to Anna. Yet she was not simply the other figure’s victim. Her often-stated stance that she didn’t require material wealth or possessions set her apart from the others and gave her an edge: she was nobody’s fool and was happy to quit situations that didn’t satisfy her.

 


BRECHT IN PRACTICE - Copyright 2017 © Prof. David Barnett | All Rights Reserved

David Barnett
Professor of Theatre
University of York

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