The Good Person of Szechwan

Bertolt Brecht, adapted by Nina Segal
Sheffield Theatres, Lyric Hammersmith and ETT
The Crucible

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Tim Samuels, Nick Blakely and Callum Coates (The Three Gods) in The Good Person of Szechwann Credit: Manuel Harlan
Amy Tredrea (Shui Ta) in The Good Person of Szechwan Credit: Manuel Harlan
Lee Wan (Wang) in The Good Person of Szechwan Credit: Manuel Harlan

After a forced exit from Germany during the Hitler years, Brecht completed The Good Person of Szechwan in Santa Monica in 1941. Nina Segal's "brilliant new adaptation" breathes life into existing versions of the text and provides contemporary relevance at a time of economic concern.

The fable introduces Wang the water carrier who encounters three Gods who are searching the earth for ‘good people’ and for somewhere to stay. But in a time of extreme poverty, the only person who will take them in is the kind and generous prostitute Shen Te. With a reward from the Gods, she opens a tobacco shop but is hard-pressed to survive exploitation until she invents a cousin who can help her.

Director Anthony Lau builds on familiar features of Brechtian theory including the alienation or distancing effects that preclude emotive engagement in the action. The audience is encouraged to observe and respond with the head not the heart, and it is through humour that Lau achieves this.

The production uses comic techniques, outrageous visual effects, jokes, song and dance, unexpected thrills, everything to amuse and entertain while keeping the audience thoughtful.

Design by Georgia Lowe is exceptional. The set is intriguing before the action begins. Why has it got steep ramps on each side? Why is it surrounded by hundreds of black and white rubber balls? What use are the balls put to? Why is the tobacco shop represented by a heap of cigarettes in a large glass cube? The answer is inventiveness, entertainment and sheer delight.

Smaller details are also clever. In the original version of the text, Shen Te has to go off stage to transform herself. In this production, it happens in the blink of an eye or the tapping of an upper lip. Costumes are sometimes hilarious, like the one with the huge pregnancy prosthetic.

A highly accomplished cast has been assembled. Ami Tredrea is outstanding in the title role, convincing in both manifestations of the character. As Wang, Leo Wan establishes an excellent rapport with the audience from the moment he appears in diving flippers to the unexpected joke of the damaged hand. Wan is a natural comedian with a lovely voice.

The three Gods, Callum Coates, Tim Samuels and Nick Blakely, are good entertainment value, popping up in all sorts of unusual places and in strange ways, the more amusing the more disheartened and dishevelled they become.

Praise is due to each member of the cast who present their character with clarity and authenticity and are helped by costumes which reinforce the type. A feature of this production is how clear each actor is about the style and intention of the performance as well its comic potential.

The inclusion of verse set to music is an important feature of Brecht's epic theatre and a way of putting over his ‘message’. Composer and co-musical director DJ Walde and musical director Lauren Dyer finds way of stylistically distancing the music from the action to encourage reflection on the verbal content.

There is a strong impression that everybody involved in this production, actors, creatives and support teams are singing from the same song-sheet. The result is a wonderfully coherent production which excels over other Brecht plays performances I have seen and which will certainly win deserved accolades on its forthcoming tours.

Reviewer: Velda Harris