Made in Colchester at the Mercury Theatre
Brecht's play, written in exile during the war years, is intended as a parable, an epic theatre exploration of morality and society.
Can we be wholly good in an imperfect world ?
The story is set in Sichuan province, where three Enlightened Ones come down to earth in search of just one good person in a world of dishonesty, poverty and evil. They reward her with enough money to start up a business, and that's when her troubles begin …
Nikolai Foster's production uses a modern, but by no means colloquial, translation by poet Michael Hofmann. ["Is it not fatiguing to lash out at one's fellow creatures?" a typical line.] It boasts that it is "bang up to date". Now it is true that the themes of the play are very relevant to our own society, just as Brecht would have felt that China resonated with Germany. He would want us to ponder the links between economics and morality. And this is just what we're encouraged to do by the Mercury's Only Way Is Ethics festival, running in parallel with this piece and Man to Man, its companion in the studio.
But a specific, realistic setting will always be fighting against the text; the grungy urban style of this production, and the demotic delivery, seem to diminish, rather than enhance, its message.
It is a splendid set, though, – design by "takis" – on three levels, with graffiti tags, a burnt out car, a vending machine. There is music composed by Grant Olding – the Pigs Will Fly number at the wedding works well, perhaps because all the words are audible.
There are several strong performances: Tanya Franks is Shen Te the prostitute who opens a tobacco shop with the Gods' reward. She's the Angel of the Suburbs; her rice food bank is a lifeline, but her life boat is soon swamped by sheer force of numbers, so she has to invent, and impersonate, a male "cousin" alter ego to avoid being exploited by the teeming masses of the poor. Her final speech is movingly done, as she reveals her ruse to the Gods in judgement. Gary Shelford is jobless pilot Yang Sun, Jake Davis the friendly water seller Wang who draws us into the narrative and keeps a watching brief. And Sue Vincent makes a blunt, no-nonsense shopkeeper as well as the mother of the bridegroom.
Good to see a posse of youngsters drafted in to play extended families, beggars, and in a touching moment, Shen's future son.
Some of the most effective scenes are the simplest – the three Gods and Wang always strongly grouped – and the trial, least naturalistic of the scenes, is the stronger for it.
No epilogue here, but a much more powerful ending in Shen Te's heart-rending, rain-sodden plea for help, not to the departing Gods, but to us the audience.this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews