19 July 2014

Last Chance: The Good Person of Szechuan

The Good Person of Szechuan
Malthouse Theatre and National Theatre of China
2 July 2014
Merlyn Theatre
to 20 July

Photo by Pia Johnson

The Good Person of Szechuan. Epic!

And it finishes on Sunday. So there's still a chance to see it again.

The cast and performances are divine (even the ones playing gods), the design is somewhere between wtf and wow, the text is Aussie and the direction's Chinese. And it's as Brechtian as Brecht can be.

Brecht was a German modernist and a Marxist who rejected the emotional heart-grab of namby pamby naturalism and wrote theatre that was about understanding the manipulation and falsity of realistic storytelling in order to see the creation of fiction by rulers, governments and politicians. He wrote because he saw his world being torn apart.

Be it sense, fate or luck, he left his home in Germany in 1933 and moved around Europe (avoiding German invasion) and before going to the USA in 1941. He began Good Person in 1938 and completed it in 1943; no wonder there's enough content in this play to make it feel like it's written for any audience who have seen it since.

Set in a fictional Szechuan-cum-Berlin-cum-Melbourne-cum-AnyCity, it's about three gods coming to earth to find good people. It doesn't take long for them to settle for finding one good person. With the help of a water seller, they meet prostitute Shen Te, who gives them a room for the night and is rewarded with enough money to buy a tobacco shop. And then it gets really hard for her to maintain her goodness.

Photo by Pia Johnson

This version is by Tom Wright, who makes it sound like it was written in Melbourne. And it's directed (in translation) by Chinese director Meng Jinghui, whose work in China comes close to having a cult following. His Rhinoceros in Love was part of the 2011 Melbourne International Arts Festival. I didn't get it. However, I was sitting next to a group of young Chinese women who didn't stop laughing. It clearly spoke to them, and to so many others; it's been in ongoing production in China since 1999. I wanted to know what I was missing.

But I got The Good Person of Szechuan. Perhaps all I needed was a slither of familiarity.

And from the gods arriving with shopping bags and looking like bridezilla Madonna (Christian and pop) icons (design by Marg Horwell), it's a world that's filled with the nearly unrecognisable familiar.

From designer dresses (thank you audience member for telling me that they are genuine expensive frocks and not be-dazzled K-Mart t-shirts) to the smoke machine, piles of baby dolls and the live musician (THE SWEATS) in a glass box, there are no secrets but this forced distancing is combined with performances that draw us back into the world and make us see it as us and ours.

And Moira Finucane, Genevieve Giuffre, Emily Milledge, Josh Price, Bert LaBonté, Richard Pyros, Aljin Abella and Daniel Frederiksen! What more do I need to say.

The friend who came with me did have something else to say and she said it to the man who was sitting two rows behind us, Minister Malcolm Turnball.
"At the after party, I slyly bumped into him accidentally, so he had to notice me. After introductions, I questioned him about what was happening to the boatload of Tamil asylum seekers. His answer was, 'I don't know'. He tried to reassure me they were safe because we were 'looking after them'. I politely berated him about it and he really didn't have much to say. Finally I said, 'You've just seen a play by Brecht. What do you think he'd have to say about this?' Malcolm: 'I know what he'd have to say'. Me: 'Exactly."
I loved this production because it must be talking to those who don't care about Tamil refugees and carbon taxes and slow internet. It's made for our Malcolm Turnballs. If those in power can see the world how we do, surely they'll change.


PS. I'm blaming my computer for losing my real review. And by computer, I mean I accidentally deleted it.