The Good Person of Sichuan

Bertolt Brecht Translated by Michael Hofmann
Mercury Theatre, Colchester

Tanya Franks and Gary Shelford
Tanya Franks
Lucy Williams, Stefan Gumbs, and Dominic Gately

Translated by Michael Hofmann, Bertolt Brecht’s 1943 play arrives in Colchester’s Mercury Theatre as part of its ‘The Only Way Is Ethics’ season – a series of events aimed to get theatregoers engaged in debate.

Set in the Chinese province of Sichuan, the play opens with three Gods on a quest to find goodness in humanity. A water seller, Wang (Jake Davies), offers to help them find accommodation, which is eventually provided by Shen Te (Tanya Franks), an impoverished prostitute.

Shen Te strives to follow a ‘good’ life as per the commandments laid down by the Gods and is rewarded with money for her virtue. She opens a tobacco shop and the inhabitants of Sichuan exploit Shen Te’s good nature. In order to defend herself Shen Te adopts a new persona: a stern, male cousin called Shui Ta.

The distinction between Shen Te and Shui Ta becomes blurred as the play progresses and the goodness that once existed in Shen Te begins to disappear.

Brecht’s Marxist parable highlights the issues of a capitalist society and argues that there is an inextricable link between morality and economics. 

Nikolai Foster brings the action into the twenty-first century opting for contemporary costumes, sound, and set. This, perhaps, serves to show how Brecht’s message is as relevant in today’s society as it was seventy years ago.

Grant Olding’s aggressive score matches the mood of the piece, however it is often so loud it prohibits the actors from being heard. takis’s complicated and detailed stage design captures the destitution and destruction of the province beautifully.

There is no doubt that the production is aesthetically pleasing, however, it is not without its issues.

Billed as a ‘comedy’ there were very few laughs, largely due to the poor diction on behalf of some cast members.

Tanya Franks is a very capable actress and her turn as the hard-hearted Shui Ta was easily the highlight. There were glimpses of brilliance, namely during Franks’s promise to be a tigress for her unborn son where her strong delivery is poignant and thoughtful, evoking a sense of sympathy.

Jake Davies provides a well-rounded, confident performance and I look forward to seeing him in the future.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the rest of the cast. There seemed to be a lack of cohesion among the company. Can this disjointed nature be put down to the Brechtian style, or simply because they were not on top of their game?

This leads to a key issue – an issue perhaps more with the style of Brecht rather than with Foster’s production. One of the ideas of Brecht is the awakening of the audience to the realisation of the evils in the world. The audience is supposed to feel detached from the actors and the action – done here through directly addressing the audience, song, and the interruption of the action by actors running off stage.

Does this not, then, present a paradox? How can a debate be sparked if the audience feels nothing for what is happening? The most thought-provoking moments are Shen Te’s struggle with the hardships of life and also The Carpenter’s descent into poverty. It is because there is an emotional attachment to the characters that ideas of economic and social inequality came to the fore.

Whilst the message of the play is as relevant as it has ever been, contemporary audiences are used to elements once used by Brecht to shock and alienate. Thus, it raises the question: have alienation devices such as direct address and song ultimately lost their impact?

Reviewer: Sean Brooks