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On Bertolt Brecht’s 123rd birthday, actor Jack Tarlton and playwright Stephen Sharkey look back at their Brecht in Song workshop held as part of the OWRI project in September – and share five new versions of Brecht songs translated during the workshops.

Bertolt Brecht. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-W0619-307 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Jack Tarlton: It started with the choice of books that I took into lockdown with me in March 2020, which included Bertolt Brecht’s Collected Plays: One. As I worked my way through the scabrous life of Baal in the first of the nine plays, I was struck by how the flint-edged street language of each scene seemed to trip itself up and become less clear and robust when it came to Baal’s songs. The imagery became cloudy and the forward momentum lost. I was intrigued by this, and although not a translator, lyricist or musician, I have been lucky in my role as an actor and director to have worked closely with those who are. I therefore thought it would be interesting to bring together a group of translators curious about the world of theatre and song, and five actor-singer-songwriters into a virtual workshop environment to see what would happen. Could they forge new versions of the songs of Brecht that lived and breathed as short dramatic performances?

First, though, I asked a previous collaborator, the playwright, adaptor and lyricist Stephen Sharkey – whose new version of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui had been produced at the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse – to join me in preparing the workshop. Together we researched Brecht’s life and plays and selected the five songs that we would rework. Five songs that each provided a specific idiosyncratic challenge – ‘Der Choral vom großen Baal’ from Baal, ‘Das Lied von Fluss der Dinge’ from Mann ist Mann, ‘Lied vom Flicken Und Vom Rock’ and ‘Bericht über den Tod eines Genossen’ from Die Mutter, and ‘Obacht, get Obacht!’ from Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe. Supported and hosted by the Institute of Modern Languages Research, we were ready to see if the experiment would work.

On Friday 18 September we all gathered online, and after a session in which I shared my research on the importance of music and rhythm on the life, health and artistic development of the young Brecht, Stephen shared his own adaptation of ‘Das Lied vom Weib des Nazisoldaten’ from Schweyk im Zweiten Weltkrieg. The international group of translators gave their feedback to it, before the performers each took a verse and quickly collectively performed their own rough ‘n’ roll take on the song. After lunch I allocated a song and a team of translators to each performer, and they were off into their own break-out rooms to discover what they could create together.

My research had revealed that the adolescent Brecht had a close circle of friends and collaborators who would meet regularly in his attic to create verses, songs and short plays. As the workshop progressed it felt to me as though we were widening and diversifying that circle and making it our own. Brecht and his friends would then gather in a local tavern to share their work. Our tavern was the online gig that we held that night, where each song, reworked in a matter of hours and all truly alive and strikingly relevant were sung loud to an eager audience.

Below, published for the first time, are those five new versions of Brecht in song.

Stephen Sharkey: Translating the words of a song from one language to another is a devilishly difficult undertaking. How to convey the complexity and vivacity of great lyrics, the gut feeling here, the twisty-turny ironic word-play there, the explosive energy in another place? The linguistic fingerprint is impossible to replicate perfectly. But we have to try – few of us are able to read and fully appreciate songs, poetry, lyrics in a language foreign to us. For me as a playwright grappling with Brecht’s singular genius armed only with rudimentary German, existing translations and a decent dictionary, the Brecht In Song workshop was a revelation. The professional translators who Zoomed in from around the world – live from a cafe in Istanbul, or from a sitting room in Berlin – brought their urbane, incisive expertise to bear on the five Brecht songs we chose to explore.

First though, it was a real shot in the arm to have them read aloud and comment on my work-in-progress translation of ‘The Song of the Nazi Soldier’s Wife.’ Their enthusiasm was infectious, their rigour and focus impressive, and all these qualities were evident when they partnered up with our brilliant actor-musician-performers to make their own versions of the five songs.

After a whirlwind afternoon’s collaboration, an online audience gathered round their laptops to listen in to Aminita, Hannah, Jochebel, Michael and Robert, performing songs from four of Brecht’s plays. I had not expected to have quite so emotional a reaction to the pieces, but each had its own goad or sting or attack – Brecht (and collaborators) really knew how to land a line like a punch to the gut. It was a powerful reminder of how front-footed, scabrous, and vigorous is the voice of Bertolt Brecht in his plays and poems. I was moved by the voices, the physical presence of the singers, their gaze – even down a below-par internet connection. It was a painful reminder of what we’re all missing in 2020, how we need the shared experience, to be in rooms together. And how much we miss the theatrical room, in all its many forms.

Jack Tarlton is a Scottish actor, director and teacher. His stage work includes lead roles with the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Young Vic and the Royal Exchange, Manchester. Screen work includes The Imitation Game, 8 Days to the Moon and Back, Traces, Outlander, Doctor Who and The Genius of Mozart. He has taught Shakespeare and modern drama studies and adapting prose and translating for the stage at the University of London, University of Buenos Aires, Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Oxford University, East 15 Acting School and for The Old Vic and Out of Joint, and was a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London. He can be found on Twitter @jacktarlton.

Stephen Sharkey has translated and adapted a wide variety of classic and classical stories for the stage, including works by Euripides, Aristophanes, Wilde, Defoe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens and Goncharov. His most recent work includes an adaptation of WHITE TEETH, Zadie Smith’s modern classic novel, in a major production at the Kiln Theatre by artistic director Indhu Rubasingham, a version of Tolstoy’s THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYICH for one actor, and INKHEART, adapted with Walter Meierjohann from the children’s novel by Cornelia Funke for Home, Manchester. His new translation of Brecht’s THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI was commissioned and co-produced by Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse and Nottingham Playhouse. He can be found on Twitter @steshark.


The translations have been published by kind permission of Brecht Erben
Copyright agent: Alan Brodie Representation www.alanbrodie.com
Original German lyrics by Bertolt Brecht


Baal Rises! Baal Falls!! Baal Sings!!!
a new version by Michael Moreland and Syamala Roberts
of Der Choral vom großen Baal from Baal

Michael Moreland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From his Mama’s lily white lap, Baal
See the sky so bright, wide and pale.
Raw, bare, you beautiful monster
Just how he liked it when Baal came.

The sky was there, through lust and care
Even when Baal slept, blissful unaware.
Purple sky, drunken Baal
Apricot sky, praying Baal.

Cathedral, clinic, through the street
On Baal trots, never misses a beat.
Baal is fucked. He never falters
He’ll drag the sky down with him
He drags the sky down with him.


The River of Things
a new version by Jochebel Ohene MacCarthy, Amanda Oliver and Sam Williams
of Das Lied von Fluss der Dinge from Mann ist Mann

Jochebel Ohene MacCarthy

 

In Old Jehoo, the town that’s somehow always full, but
Where everyone just passes through, they know
A song about The River of Things
And it begins: 

Don’t put your faith in the wave
That breaks on your foot while you’re
Standing in the water, new waves
Will break upon it.

I was seven long years in the very same place, had a roof over
My head
And I wasn’t alone
But the man who fed me and was beyond compare
One day lay
Unrecognisable
Under the shroud of the dead
All the same, that night, I ate my supper.
And soon I leased the room in which
We had embraced, we had embraced
And that became the room that fed me
And now that the room no longer feeds me
Still I get to eat.

Don’t put your faith in the wave
That breaks on your foot while you’re
Standing in the water, new waves
Will break upon it.

Don’t put your faith in the wave
That breaks on your foot while you’re
Standing in the water, new waves
Will break upon it.


Song of the Patch and the Coat
a new version by Hannah Jarrett-Scott and Babette Lichtenstein
of Lied vom Flicken Und Vom Rock from Die Mutter

Hannah Jarrett-Scott

 

1
Always when our coat is just a rag
You all come running and say: this cannot go on
We must help him out, let’s pull out all the stops!
And you run to the bosses with your hearts full of zeal
While we wait standing there freezing,
And you return, and full of triumph
You show us what you achieved for us:
A small patch.
Good, there is the patch
But where is
The whole coat?

2
Always when we cry and howl for hunger
You all come running and say: this cannot go on
We must help him out, let’s pull out all the stops!
And you run to the bosses with your hearts full of zeal
While we wait standing there starving
And you return and full of triumph
You show us what you achieved for us:
A piece of bread.
Good, that is a piece
But where is
The whole loaf?

3
We don’t just need the patches
We’re needing the whole skirt
We don’t just need the piece of bread
We’re needing the whole loaf
We don’t just need employment
We need all of the factory and the coal and the ore and
The power of the state.
Good, that is what we need
But what
Are you offering us?


On the Death of a Comrade
a new version by Robert Lonsdale, Alice ter Meulen and Steph Morris
of Bericht über den Tod eines Genossen from Die Mutter

Robert Lonsdale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And he was led to the wall to be shot,
A wall that was made by his fellows,
The guns aimed at his chest,
And the bullets, were made by his fellows.

Though they had left, driven or chased away,
Yet for him they were present in what their hands had made,
Those holding the guns were no different from him,
And maybe could one day be swayed.

He was still bound in chains
Bound by his comrades, forged by his comrades,
The view from the road growing denser with factories, chimney by chimney.

And since it was morning, the usual time for it,
The factories were empty,
But he still saw them fill up with masses and masses.
Masses without end,
Without end.


Attention, Pay Attention
a new version by Aminta Francis, Katie Unwin and Yasmin Fitzpatrick
of Obacht, get Obacht! from Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe

Aminita Francis

 

 

 

 

 

 

No justice
No peace
What do we want?
And when do we want it?

No justice
No peace
What do we want?
And when do we want it?

Attention!

Attention, pay attention
There’s a man on the brink,
A desperate call for help now
A woman waves as she sinks.

Slam the brakes on, stop the engines
Just try to be more kind,
There’s suffering from block to block
Are you all fucking blind?

A kind word for you brother, sure
But not for passers-by,
Stand up from your tables now
And look them in the eye.

A kind word for you brother, sure
But not for passers by
Stand up from your tables now
And look them in the eye.

“They’re on their own, nothing will change”
I hear your greedy sneer!
“Injustice from coast to coast
It’s always been near.”

But hear this!

We have to march
Show solidarity and show no fear
Put our tanks and fire-power on their lawn
And get our planes and warships back over here.

And all just to get some food for the people they scorn
And even now, everybody, everybody needs to stand with us!
Because good people aren’t a big part of the populace.
Quick march! ‘Tention! Sound the attack!
People are dropping all around us and no one, no one is fighting back!

No justice
No peace
What do we want?
And when do we want it?

No justice
No peace
What do we want?
And when do we want it?

No justice
No peace
What do we want?
And when do we want it?

No justice
No peace
What do we want?
And when do we want it?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~