Public Service Announcement: Brecht is not broccoli. You don’t have to force yourself to consume it because it’s good for you. Thankfully director Anthony Lau, working with Nina Segal’s translation and Jennifer Bakst’s dramaturgy, is completely clear and adept in giving us all the fat/sugar/salt thrills of The Good Person of Szechwan as it transfers to London from the Sheffield Crucible for the play’s 80th-anniversary revival. Resplendent with panto-esque flourishes (built on the archetypes and traditions of Peking Opera which inspired Brecht to set it in China), this show is broad and bonkers brilliant. Do not be put off by the Bertold brand just because he wrote an essay about Verfremdungseffekt, this production is spectacular visually in a slightly just-woke-up-from-a-fever-dream sort of way. Of course, the story is about morality as it explores the impulses and incentives towards exploitation, corruption and greed but – through its polemic, pathos, piss-takes and protest – it entertains rather than dryly lectures, like a Woody Guthrie song.
I cannot come up with enough superlatives to describe Georgia Lowe’s set and costume design and I sincerely hope she takes the Olivier for it. Every tableau (of which there are many) is as considered and consistent in its use of colour and texture as David LaChapelle’s ‘kitsch pop surrealism’ portfolio and as whimsical, layered and knowing as Cindy Sherman’s opus. Never before have I had to fight an overwhelming urge to photograph what I was watching because it was so artfully composed. The central image of the ‘tobacco store’ as a claw machine of single cigarettes (and various echoes of it as the story progresses) is inspired and efficient. The steep ramps, ball ponds and illuminated tubes framing the stage reinforce dynamic and playful entrances and exits that serve the show’s pace. Whilst I’d love to have a coffee table book of any number of the design features of this production, none of them were merely decorative – they all served the story and the staging functionally.
The ‘good person’ of the title, Shen Te/Shui Ta played by Ami Tredrea, anchors the production with energy and focus but this is an ensemble piece with clowning, drama, singing and dancing from the whole outstanding multi-rolling cast. There is a particular type of menace of despicable characters, as the anatomy of ruthlessness and desperation is dissected, that comes across in the performances; but the entire show is tempered with enough levity to remind us that we are definitely not eating broccoli. All the cast bring complexity and commitment to the roles along with excellent vocalisation to DJ Walde’s composition and Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s movement direction.
Lau’s The Good Person of Szechwan is not about new ideas nor particularly cerebral drama but it is a hoot and a trip that will give you just enough discomfort to have a few things to talk about afterwards.
Review by Mary Beer
In the hustle and bustle of a modern-day metropolis, Shen Te is doing all she can to get by.
When three gods reward her hospitality with a life-changing sum of money, Shen Te opens a tobacco shop and claims the stability she’s always dreamed of. But the struggle is not over yet. Forced to question the cost of her own survival, she resorts to scheming and deceit to flourish in this capitalist world.
The Good Person of Szechwan
By Bertolt Brecht. Translated by Nina Segal. Directed by Anthony Lau.
15 Apr – 13 May 2023