Turandot

Bertolt Brecht, translated by Edward Kemp
Hampstead Theatre
(2008)

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It is hard to believe that it is still possible to hold a UK premiere of a full-length play by Bertolt Brecht over fifty years after his death.

Hampstead's artistic director, Anthony Clark has achieved just that by discovering an unfinished play on a theme that will be far better known in other incarnations, particularly Puccini's variation. That was the opera that launched Nessun Dorma and three dueling tenors, on to the world of football and then so much more widely.

Although it has songs, this version is far quieter, more of a cross between The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

Turandot is an allegorical comedy set in an economically collapsing China that is clearly supposed to act as paradigm for a Europe that was allowing brutal Fascists to take over country after country.

The play features a number of different storylines. The Emperor of China, played by Gerard Murphy as a cross between Frankie Howerd and Victor Meldrew with what looks like a red spinning top on his head, has made some bad financial decisions and left his country on the brink of ruin. Not only are the peasants starving but they are threatening to unseat him.

At the same time, his opinion-mad daughter, Chipo Chung's Turandot, is seeking a husband and puts herself up as a prize in a Teliu contest where the losers are beheaded, finally ending up with a street-smart gangster figure in a white suit, played by Alex Hassell.

Cotton is scarce and the peasantry, represented by Col Farrell as Sen, faces first a glut and then an imperially-ordered shortage but his real search is for knowledge.

This is guarded by opinion makers known as Teliu. In fact, in a witty reversal of the norm, knowledge is the prime source of sexual gratification in this long ago China, leading the heroine to some orgasmic pleasure at the hands of the fastest talking of the Teliu.

As power shifts backwards and forwards in a two and a half-hour staging, a revolution that is both deeply political and borders on farce beckons, led by the mysterious Kai Po, with his symbolic little red book.

Brecht's message would have been recognised at the time as a barely veiled attack on sinister totalitarians and still has something to say to us today.

However, despite the efforts of Mr Clark and his spirited cast, not to mention designer Garance Marneur who extends the wood of the auditorium on to the stage, the play has an unfinished feel to it.

It might well be that had the playwright survived long enough to write a few more drafts, the plotting would have been greatly tightened and the message much stronger. Even so, this might well be the British public's final chance to see a Brecht premiere and with its nods in the direction of his other works, Turandot has a historical interest as well as being gently amusing and at times politically incisive.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher