It was just another day in Szechwan with people going about their daily business until three wandering gods in disguise turned up in the city in need of a place to stay while they continued their search for a shining example of honesty among the humans. You might think that for beings traditionally imbued with omniscience it would be an easy task. But this is theatre and more specifically the epic theatre of Bertol Brecht, who set the divine challenge eighty years ago in The Good Person of Szechwan.
Energetically and vividly staged
Nick Blakeley, Callum Coates and Tim Samuels create three contrasting deities and provide some delightful humour as they embark on their search. If they can find this person then the future of humanity is safe, otherwise we are all doomed. With the stakes set so high they are fortunate to bump into Wang, endearingly played with wry humour by Leo Wan. Wang is an impoverished purveyor of water, who knows everyone. He sets about asking if anyone has a room but to his dismay and humiliation he is turned away by them all. Enter Shen Te, (Ami Tredrea) who, as the local prostitute draws on her experience of accommodating visiting men, and reluctantly offers to take them in. Overwhelmed by her generosity and despite her profession the gods announce that she is the only good person they have encountered and after some debate about interfering in economics they decide to give her $1000. With this she rents a tobacco shop.
The news of her wealth spreads rapidly and she is soon beset by an array of locals asking for money to an extent that could destroy her business, but she finds the hard decisions of capitalism to go against her nature. Thus she invents and plays the figure of her fictional cousin Shui Ta behind whose persona she can hide to make all the difficult decisions. Trudeau flits effortlessly between the two roles, while further heightening the comedy. What she can’t do is hide where he is staying and that provokes disputes over references and rent with the landlady Mrs Mi Tzu, eccentrically played with enormous presence by Melody Brown. Now throw in a romance with the mischievous Yang Sun, whom Aidan Cheng turns into an embodiment of the yin/yang opposites, and the scene is set for a carnival of chaos with a multitude of issues emerging throughout.
Despite appeals to the gods, when all is revealed, they are unable to resolve her dilemma of being a good woman whom the system forced to become a bad man. The gods return home and Brecht gives no resolution to her plight, which is a universal paradox. Instead, there is the famous epilogue, in which he throws the ball into the audience’s court explaining that any answer must come from the people themselves in society; it cannot be handed down.
This adaptation by Nina Segal, directed by Anthony Lau at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre in an ETT and Sheffield Theatres co-production, takes that ending in its stride, devoting energy and fun to expounding the situations in a frenzy of activity. There’s none of the heaviness that might be expected in the German communist’s writing, as scene after scene espouses comedy, cabaret and circus in a fast-paced and vibrant outpouring of satire that often seems well on its way to pantomime via commedia dell’arte. Apparently Segal ‘has never been interested in naturalism’ and this production is testament to her desire to create ‘something accessible and contemporary’.
Strong performances abound on the set by Georgia Lowe, which is entertaining and full of colour in itself. Lighting Designer Jessica Hung Han Yun, Composer DJ Walde and Sound Designer Alexandra Faye Braithwaite have worked imaginatively to create coherent embellishment for the text and support for the directorial style.
It’s a joy to see Brecht’s work so energetically and vividly staged.