‘My use will lead to my destruction’. This line seems to lie at the centre of Nina Segal’s new translation of ’The Good Person of Szechwan’; the striking, farcical tale of love and capitalism asserts the regrettable timelessness of Brecht’s 80-year-old text.
When three Gods bestow a gift of money onto kind-hearted sex worker Shen Te (Ami Tredrea), they seek to discover whether a person can remain good when they are no longer in need. Yet the Gods’ experiment is corrupted; in a system structured around exploitation, being delivered from need only delivers you into the need of others. Shen Te must choose between her own kind nature, that which makes her prey to her friends, acquaintances, landlord and the police, or to don a disguise and indulge in an alter-ego, her own hard-hearted ‘cousin’, Shui Ta, the exploiter.
It’s an inherently farcical premise, the dual identity shenanigans offering plenty of opportunities for comedy which are duly seized by the sharp comic direction of Anthony Lau. The script, production design and cast likewise do their part to contribute a sense of absurd fun, balancing the existential tragedy of seeing our own society reflected back at us in a contorted circus mirror.
The play is full of grotesque characters, brought to life by a talented mutli-roling cast. A particular highlight is Jon Chew, whose expressive performance animates multiple characters into wonderfully dynamic comic creations. The Three Gods, as portrayed by Callum Coates, Tim Samuels and Nick Blakely, also bear mentioning for their fantastic chemistry; all three strike the same harmonious balance of comic and serious, somewhere between mythic beings and oblivious bureaucrats.
Georgia Lowe’s colourful, maximalist production design perfectly matches and compliments the absurd, off-kilter tale. From the claw machine piled high with cigarettes in Shen Te’s humble tobacco shop, to the colossal, phallic cigarette mounted front and centre in Shui Ta’s brutal factory, Lowe crafts striking images which, like the play itself, swing pendulously between fun and repellent.
The play asks a difficult question of its audience: is it possible to be good in a society set up to reward cruelty and exploitation? Every plot point reinforces the impossibility of a simple answer, complicating Shen Te’s resolve and propelling the narrative forward. There are certainly points at which the momentum wavers -a dangerous pitfall when there is little emotional weight to carry such lulls- but overall, the plot maintains attention remarkably well for a play so didactic. In lesser hands, such an unsubtle lecture on the misdeeds of capitalism might bore, but Segal weaves these problems into a compelling, pacey narrative that, nevertheless, does not relinquish an ounce of its ideological core.
While the unsubtle, didactic story and pantomime-esque style won’t be for everyone, the play delivers on its every promise, packaging hard truths and difficult questions in a slick narrative that will entertain as much as it inquires.
It runs until 13 May.
Review: Seb Flatau Photo: Manuel Harlan