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The Good Person of Szechwan

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The Good Person of Szechuan, Lyric Hammersmith, 2023
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

A thrillingly bold, high-energy new take on the classic Brecht play

German playwright Bertolt Brecht was famously committed to making sure that his audiences never forgot they were watching theatre, employing a bunch of alienating tactics to break any – as he saw it, dangerous – illusion of the stage as a ‘mirror’ of life. Anthony Lau’s high-energy production of ‘The Good Person of Szechwan’ – at the Lyric Hammersmith after premiering at Sheffield Theatres – runs with this. It plays out its bleakness against a set that looks like a funhouse, complete with an inflatable paddling pool and two big, red slides.

The play, which debuted in 1953, follows sex worker Shen Te (Ami Tredrea) as she uses the $1,000 given to her by three visiting gods – a thank you after she gives them a room – to start her own cigarette-selling business. But her attempts to combine capitalism with kindness are quickly taken advantage of by a parade of characters whose poverty or cruelty in a city described by a surtitle as an ‘open maw’ sees them fleece her. In desperation, she pretends to be her male cousin, ruthlessly exploiting everyone around her. But there’s a problem – those three gods are expecting Shen Te to be the one ‘good person’ they’ve been seeking, to convince them not to end the world. 

Nina Segal’s translation of Brecht is bold, sweary and blunt, unpicking the irony of the play’s title: in a world ruled by money, there’s no room for ‘good’, other than as a naïve dream. Shen Te’s would-be husband (Aidan Cheng), who she saves from suicide, will only love her if she funds his dream of being a pilot. The garishness of Georgia Lowe’s set and costume design heightens this world’s harshness. It’s like someone grinning as they pick your pockets.

At the same time, Lau, matching Segal’s translation, avoids the risk of stereotyping by bringing in a mix of accents and contemporary cultural references. A life-sized frog may occasionally wander across the stage, threatening a god, but this is a lived-in world. The three gods themselves are presented as buffoonish Western tourists, wheeling their suitcases around as they blithely set in motion the play’s catastrophic chain of events.

The ensemble cast steps up to the play’s heightened tenor – and karaoke-style interludes – with ease, often playing multiple roles. Nick Blakeley, Callum Coates and Tim Samuels pitch the deities somewhere between Monty Python and ‘The Goon Show’. As hapless water seller Wang, who also acts as our occasional narrator, Leo Wan nimbly mixes insight with self-interest. Tredrea, meanwhile, captures Shen Te’s increasing incredulity at the shit thrown at her. At times, the loudness of the surrealist humour becomes relentless, breaking the pace. But Brecht’s parable still lands its ending as it challenges us to be better – not ‘good’. 

Written by
Tom Wicker


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