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Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh

Bertolt Brecht’s Mr Puntila and His Man Matti – a satire of class dynamics filtered through a prism of drunkenness – was written in 1940 and first performed in 1948. In a contemporary climate where the gap between rich and poor seems to be growing ever-wider, the Lyceum’s choice to take on the challenge of staging this play is understandable. Unfortunately, neither Denise Mina’s adaptation (which switches the gender of the titular character to Mrs Puntila) nor the production rise to the occasion.

Brecht is not supposed to be a comfortable watch. His plays are an intentionally non-immersive experience, and must have been a revolutionary and novel way to experience theatre when first performed. However, so many of his ideas now permeate modern productions (fourth-wall breaking, visible costume changes and actors played by multiple characters, to name but three), that they have lost their power to shock or alienate. In Mrs Puntila and Her Man Matti, these techniques are proudly placed front-and-centre, without any allowance being made for their ubiquity today, making their execution here look tired and clumsy.

For a satire like Mrs Puntila and Her Man Matti to be in any way satisfying – given the experience of watching it is intentionally uncomfortable – it needs to be both funny and to have a strong, incisive message. Regrettably, this production manages neither. Too few of the jokes land to make the production funny, while the message is both too limited in its specifics – poverty is bad – and too rambling in its targets (everything from pay day loans, food banks and the gig economy to the non-payment of tax, Brexit, and Trump) to be meaningful.

It is this lack of a clear and incisive message which so undermines Mrs Puntila and Her Man Matti. Brechtian alienation is supposed to focus an audience on a play’s message, and inspire them to act. What is presented here is an incoherent blend of clumsily used Brechtian techniques, mid-twentieth century references and contemporary themes, which does not inspire the audience to change the world, or themselves.

The play only flickers into life during a couple of scenes between Mrs Puntila’s chauffeur Matti (a game Steven McNicol) and her daughter Eva (Joanne McGuinness). All too briefly, we get a sense of the play this might have been – an acerbic, sharply written commentary on the class divide. Likewise, the suddenness of a gunshot is genuinely shocking, and says far more about the desperation of poverty than the entire of the rest of the play. Unfortunately, these moments are fleeting, and mostly serve to reinforce just how badly the Lyceum’s gamble has backfired.

  • Epic Comedy
  • Written by Bertolt Brecht; adapted by Denise Mina
  • Directed by Murat Daltaban
  • Cast includes: Natalie Arle-Toyne, Rebecca Banatvala, Richard Conlon, Liam King, Beth Marshall, Joanne McGuinness, Steven McNicoll, Oğuz Kaplangi, Stephanie Payne, Elaine C. Smith, Chloé-Ann Tylor
  • Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh
  • Until 21 March 2020

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Ben has many years' experience working in the heritage sector, and is currently curator at the world-leading Dovecot Studios. He is a keen watcher and reader of all things theatrical, particularly at Edinburgh’s intimate Lyceum, and has even been known to occasionally tread the boards himself.

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