Lyric Hammersmith (venue)
21 April 2023 (released)
23 April 2023
Philosophy and humour may seem strange bedfellows but in Anthony Lau’s The Good Person of Szechwan, there is plenty to chew on even as we laugh.
Bertolt Brecht was very much a product of his time, a Weimar Republic playwright who could effortlessly display his deep cynicism: “It is easier to rob by setting up a bank than by holding up a bank clerk”, “war is like love; it always finds a way” and “the law was made for one thing alone, for the exploitation of those who don't understand it, or are prevented by naked misery from obeying it.” We imagine he was a riot at parties but, when not cavorting around Berlin, he penned a variety of erudite works which were aimed not at the middle or upper classes but the common man.
The characters in The Good Person of Szechwan (celebrating this year its 80th anniversary) are all in a pickle and not often of their own making. Poverty has led sex worker Shen Te (an electric Ami Tredrea) to sell her body to furries and latex-clad fetishists, incessant rain has condemned Wang (Leo Wan) and his water-seller business and then there are the three hapless gods who are on a long and so far fruitless search for a good person without any real understanding of what one looks like.
In a last gamble before they call down the apocalypse and skedaddle back to where they came from, the gods give Shen Te one thousand dollars to begin a new life and escape her dire situation. Wang becomes the unwilling go-between passing messages between the desperate deities and a woman who sinks deeper and deeper into trouble with every move she makes.
Nina Segal’s translation gives Tredrea the Herculean task of convincingly portraying both a woman whose innate generosity is to the detriment of her business, her friendships and her lovelife but also her’s imaginary cousin Shui Ta, a fiction created when sexist attitudes threaten to overturn her life. The second half sees Tredrea playing the latter in an Elvis-style white jumpsuit and adorned with a clown mustache as an evil version of a now-heavily pregnant Shen Te.
The surreal ride of a plot is bolstered by two smart creative choices. Karaoke-style numbers from composer DJ Walde are used liberally throughout to push forward and expand on a narrative which threatens to lose its way on occasion and a bright and incredibly fun stage design from Georgia Lowe features slides with side of the stage, some massive props and eye-catching costumes, not least Shen Te’s blazing red wedding dress.
A meta-coda sees a Brecht-like figure come on stage and tell us that, like the cast and much of the audience, he has little idea about what has gone on and what we should think but he does know we should go home, not least because of the lighting costs. The Lyric (as it did with the hilarious Accidental Death Of An Anarchist, another transfer from Sheffield Theatres) has proved once again that is more than possible to stir the grey matter while tickling the funny bone.
The Good Person of Szechwan continues at the Lyric Hammersmith until 13 May.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan