Breaking the fourth wall

The thing is, I’m on my period. So I’m more than usually emotional (and that starting point is pretty high). Yesterday, I cried a single, fat, heartfelt tear because I called Saz “little one” in a text and it made me think about just how tiny she is and marvel at what a big presence she manages to be nonetheless. Today, I welled up because I learned that I’d eaten some bread made with a 120 year old sourdough starter, and again because of these pictures of a kitten in Hallowe’en fancy dress:

What I’m saying is, perhaps I should take my own sadness with a pinch of salt. And sadness is the most pointless emotion, really. I think what I need to muster is anger – and perhaps that will come – but for now I am awash in a sea of sorrow, ready to add to the flood with my own helpless tears.

But goodness. I think I am drowning.

I took A Level Theatre Studies, because I clearly had an inner will to study the least vocational subjects in the world. 

We must have covered a lot in that time. Six hours of lessons over sixtyish weeks? There must have been plenty to explore. Somehow, though, most of it has leaked away from my memory bank (along with anything I ever knew about Bach chorales; literally all psychological information bar the concept of pluralistic ignorance; and the plot of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. Told you my A Levels weren’t helpful). 

My brain has retconned me into believing that I spent two solid years studying the German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht. 

You know Brecht, even if you don’t know that you know Brecht. You know him because you can hum along to Mack the Knife. You know him because you’ve been addressed directly by Kevin Spacey in House of Cards or Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. You know him because you once went to see your friend’s student drama production and the stagehands wandered leisurely across the stage to redress the set midway through a scene. You know him, I promise.

Brecht was committed to Verfremdungseffekt: the effect of making things strange. Reminding the audience of the artificiality of what they are watching, and actively discouraging them from losing themselves in the emotion of a piece. He wanted his audiences to engage rationally with what was being presented to them, considering it intellectually. So he’d build things in to shout THIS IS A PLAY. Songs. Actors speaking direct to the audience. Placards making explanatory declarations. Stage directions spoken aloud.

(Once, we went as a class to see an amateur production of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. We were not 90 seconds in before an actor stumbled, paused, asked for a prompt. 


Aha! We thought. Of course. How Brechtian. How wry.

The second time, it got a little wearing. 

By the fifth time, it became clear that the cast genuinely did not know their lines.)

For our performance assessment in Upper 6th we staged a production of Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich. It’s a series of vignettes about life in Nazi Germany in the 1930s: a land of poverty and terror and prejudice and violence. 

We were clever girls. We understood that the assessor would want us to demonstrate that we totally got this whole Verfremdungseffekt thing. We used stark, uncomfortably bright stage lighting. We broke the fourth wall with abandon. 

While we were rehearsing, we came up with a particularly brilliant idea. We’d riff off the famous “I’m Spartacus” scene. One by one, midway through the play, we turned to the audience and declared: “I voted for Hitler.”




We were so pleased with ourselves. 

I am so sad today. So sad, and so sorry. Sorry to the decent, despairing, desperate people who lived in 1930s Germany, who I condemned with a laugh for the sake of a flip bit of drama.

How are these the headlines of the newspapers in the country I live in? 

How is this the Labour party’s official response to Teresa May’s rhetoric of hate?

My sadness is hopeless and helpless. 

What can we do?


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