Hell’s Fury(*) is a two man show about Hanns Eisler conceived and created by Tim Albery. It’s focussed on his time in the United States and, somewhat, on his return to the DDR. It combines songs from the Hollywood Songbook (poems by Brecht and others set by Eisler), dialogue and projections to tell the story of Eisler’s arrival in Hollywood, his work in the US, his deportation as a result of the “work” of the House Un-American Activities Committee and his return to the GDR and struggles to come to terms with the Stalinist culturecrats leading ultimately to drink, depression and death.
It’s an enormously accomplished show. Russell Braun as Eisler is brilliant dramatically and vocally. The songs are sung idiomatically. The ups and downs of Eisler’s moods are convincingly presented. Serouj Kradjian plays his own arrangements of the songs as idiomatically as they are sung. The video projections (Cameron Davis) are very striking. There are excerpts from Eisler’s two best known film scores; the Lang/Brecht propaganda piece Hangmen Also Die (about Heydrich; the Gauleiter of Prague) and the schlockier None But The Lonely Heart. Eisler’s National Anthem of the GDR gets a treatment that a Chinese propagandist of the 1950’s would have appreciated and the expanding Stalin is quite chilling. Even the surtitles get in on the action with changing fonts and type sizes that emphasise the message. The lighting (Michael Levine) is also spectacular.
Why then at the end did I feel admiration for the piece but not greatly moved? (And this is subject matter dear to my heart). Perhaps it’s the Faustian bargain that Eisler (like many others) made with Stalinism? Perhaps it’s that lingering feeling that he’s really not a very likeable person? To quote Brecht:
We who believed in Friendliness
Never could be friendly ourselves.
Maybe it’s just quiet despair that we’ve come full circle and the threat of Totalitarianism seems to lurk once more around every corner?
Hell’s Fury is jointly presented by Luminato and Soundstreams. It plays at Harbourfront Centre Theatre until June 23rd.
* With a suitably Teutonic inflection “Hollywood” becomes “Hölles Wut”… maybe…
Photo credits: Trevor Haldenby