Brecht-Through Experience [by James Wenley]
It’s surprising to learn that The Good Soul of Szechuan* marks the first time Auckland Theatre Company have produced a play by Bertolt Brecht. Surprising perhaps because a Brechtian sensibility is very much apparent in Artistic Director Colin McColl’s signature ATC productions – recall how often he strips back the stage of the Maidment such as in Other Desert Cities or Awatea, reflecting the Brechtian impulse to draw attention to the theatrical conceit, to make the familiar strange. I think of his interpretation of August: Osage County, the sloped stage so different from the originating Chicago production that recreated a three-storey house. While Brecth’s plays are rarely revisited here, his influence dominates our modern expectations of theatre. Brecht is everywhere, and nowhere. So how thrilling to have a full blown production of a Brecht play, unseen in these parts since Silo’s The Threepenny Opera in 2008.
A cynical modernist update of a morality play, a trio of Gods arrive in Szechuan looking for someone righteous and good. The presence of trio of Gods – a muted Cameron Rhodes, Simon Prast and Browwyn Bradley in white chem suits – is barely noticed by the down-on-their-luck inhabitants of a plastic shanty town, too consumed with questions of their bodily existence than any spiritual concerns. Only a humble water seller, Wang (Shimpal Lelisi) is there to greet them. The only place to stay is the abode of prostitute Shen Te (Robyn Malcolm); and it is she, society’s transgressive tabooed figure, that is declared to be the town’s one good soul. Shen Te deals with the consequences of this proclamation, drowning in the gulf between her will and reality. With an under-the-counter payment from the Gods, she invests in a Tobacco shop – a symbol even more striking today with the demonisation of said product – to help fund her charitable desires. But the more she tries to be good she attracts an equal amount of negative energy and leaches into her life, and the more misery she creates for herself.
It’s an intellectual play of dualities, the most prominent being Shen Te’s assumption of the Shui Ta alter-ego, her invented cousin charged with the dirty work that Shen Te’s goodness won’t allow. And so we consider Shen Te’s internal conflict, theatrically split and embodied between these two halves. Malcolm’s precise transformation is a joy; she invests businessman and later drug king Shui Ta with a calm ruthlessness. Shen Te more immediately represents the heart, a hapless victim to love and Edwin Wright’s bad-boy unemployed pilot cum con-artist Yang Sun. Shui Ta is the head, the pragmatist who sees the value in a loveless marriage alliance with Shu Fu (a scene stealing Byron Coll), who can support Shen Te’s charity work. Agent Anna versus Cheryl West, if you will. Brecht focuses on choice and unintended causality, and the division between heart and head proves a messy one indeed.
And it is that conflict which Brecht’s theories have held a particular fascination for drama scholars, with the emphasis on the audience’s alert, cool reason over emotion. And perhaps this explains why I feel I’m torn in many directions when watching Good Soul.
As we enter the ushers hand out supermarket trolleys worth of rain makers – plastic bottles with water or dry rice. There is great appeal for these to be used as a means to incite active audience response, shaking our bottles in approval and disapproval at the action (a bit like Twitter maybe). The ensemble is already in the theatre chatting away to audience members, actors playing a version of themselves. Phodiso Dintwe gets a mic and tries to coax the different sides of the audience into shaking our bottles and chanting (“Who’s got the good soul? / We’ve got the good soul”). It works to varying effect, and no doubt will differ from audience to audience. But telling us what to do seems against the spirit of the thing. Dintwe makes sure to tell us it’s the Audi season of Good Soul. It’s difficult to turn the theatre into Brecht’s boxing match, especially with this comfort-seeking audience. A few delight in using the bottles throughout, and good on them. But there’s also resistance – death glares and tuts go to the man who dares to open a packet of sweets after interval, missing the point entirely. Back at the pre-show, Natalie Braid, Stage-manager, let’s the actors know they’re ready to begin. And so they end their non-conceit conceit and off we go.
John Parker’s set design, together with Elizabeth Whiting’s costume design, is an eclectic mash of oriental and contemporary influence, provocatively drawing on a Christchurch Earthquake aesthetic. While visually remarkable, it’s a hodgepodge of influence that doesn’t congeal into a coherent statement.
At charged transcendent moments the production boils over into anger; a protest songs plays over projections of financial markets. But at other times I feel the same indifference felt by the characters towards the Gods. Alienation? Defamiliarisation? I’m not so sure. For all the brilliant action-breaking songs, the suitably bizarre electronic whings in John Gibson’s score, and actors turning to the audience to ask us what we think of them, it never feels quite sure about what it wants to be. Entertainment? The surrounding characters are cartoonish, and their humour often feels rather laboured. Moving? Yes, under Malcolm. She thoroughly stirs our emotions as Shen Te, particularly with her delicate, poetic, and faltering singing. Dialectical? Can you really present a Marxist message when you are sponsored by Audi?
Colin McColl’s multi-ethnic casting only goes some way to answering the uncomfortable orientalism we perceive in the work today, despite its intention as a universal allegory. I did wonder if a Simon Stone-type adaptation of Good Soul might have been a viable route. If there’s a comment to make about the Christchurch aftermath, especially for an Auckland audience, make it. Despite the play’s quite wicked ending, it all feels rather safe. And that’s not very Brechtian at all.
*More commonly translated as The Good Person of Szechuan, this production of Brecht’s 1943 play uses a 2008 translation by David Harrower
The Good Soul of Szechuan is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at Q until 17 August. Details see ATC.