How Stephen Sharkey succeeds in translating Brecht by William Wood

Posted by Blog Writer on Monday 31st October 2011

For many writers whose words are brought to life on the stage, satire has always been a powerful tool through which to challenge the establishment and question the many faces of human nature.
And with the world still reeling from the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui will take on, perhaps, even greater significance as an example of truly outstanding theatre.

For acclaimed British writer Stephen Sharkey – who has skilfully adapted Brecht’s original German script for this production – this gripping tale of a crime lord’s rise to power in depression stricken Chicago has one of the most powerful narratives he has ever read.

“This is just a great story, a juggernaut,” he says.
“There’s so much to admire”.
“It bears this huge symbolic load – that Hitler is Arturo Ui and Arturo Ui is Hitler.”

Sharkey is a man well skilled in the fine arts of symbolism and narrative that underpin all great plays.

After growing up in the Huyton area of Liverpool, the forty four year-old writer has long been fascinated with language and the power of words.

“I was always interested in words, I suppose,” he says.
“The sound of them, the shape of them and how they made people react.”

After studying both Latin and Greek at Oxford, Sharkey’s first taste of the theatre came when he was asked to adapt Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival by a friend.

In an interesting coincidence, Sharkey’s leading man for this debut piece was none other than Rupert Wickham, who played Elyot in the Playhouse’s recent production of Private Lives.
Despite his minimal familiarity with the stage, it was this experience that made the young Sharkey realise that this was what he wanted to do with his life.

“I fell in love with the theatre. I was truly bitten,” he explains.
“I think more than anything, what I loved about it was… hearing the audience and watching their faces as they responded to the story.
“Just feeling their pleasure and the warmth in their reaction and how amused they were – it really felt that through our play we were doing something that was entertaining and enlivening.
“It was as if life had been turned up a notch.”

And it is that rush, that incomparable joy that only live theatre can provide which has been the prime motivation behind all of Sharkey’s many adaptations and original scripts.

“There’s something childish about it, that I’m not ashamed of,” he admits.
“The delight in showing off and being applauded.”

But there has always been a more adult, intellectual side to the thrill of the theatre, the London resident stresses.

“You’re using an art which is 2,500 years old and a still evolving art-form.
“It’s very various and there are so many ways to tell a story on stage and it is just really mind-blowing to get involved and realise all the possibilities.”

For an already experienced playwright, adapting Brecht’s original German script for Arturo has proven quite the educational experience.

“I love working with these great, genius writers – getting under the bonnet and finding out how they work and sharing in the audience’s response to them,” he explains.
“I’ve learnt a lot from Brecht, I have to say.
“About concision, about planning a story economically, about loading up a scene with significance.
“When I read the play, I thought ‘this guy knows story’.”

While the colourful characters and pure drama that Arturo is so richly filled with would make it a great piece of theatre in its own right, Sharkey recognises there is a much greater depth and meaning to this play.

“You’ve got to remember, he wrote this play when he was in exile in 1941, in fear for his life. Not knowing what the future was holding.
“This extraordinary furious energy and mocking anger just pours out of Brecht, but it’s controlled also.
“He’s a master artist because he paints things in big, bold colours but there’s also this extraordinary detailed machinery underpinning it.
“[Brecht was] a great intellectual powerhouse and a radical thinker.”

But can a story first developed more than half a Century ago in a world far removed from ours’ today really carry the same thematic impact as it did in the midst of the Second World War?
Absolutely, says Sharkey.

“We’re still living in a world that is still shaped by the Second World War”, he explains.
“I think in the epilogue, Brecht acknowledges that the world fought back and got rid of this threat, this dreadful tyrant. But with the final line – the beast that bore him is in heat again – that’s Brecht’s warning.”

With both critics and audiences alike singing the praises of this latest production, it seems Sharkey has succeeded in capturing both the spirit and tremendous power of Brecht’s original work and created a theatre experience that is simply, well, irresistible.

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