The Good Soul of Szchewan

by Bertolt Brecht

Directed by Colin McColl

Auckland Theatre Company at Q Theatre, Rangatira, Auckland

and Until 17 Aug 201

FUNNY, OUTRAGEOUS, UNPLEASANT AT TIMES YET VERY MOVING

Saturday was a fine old day for political theatre. First there was the ‘March to End the Massacre in Gaza' which ranged from Aotea Square down Queen Street to the American Consulate in Customs Street. There were banners, there was singing and chanting, there was a lie down in the street to symbolise the number of dead, there were costumes and posters, face painting and quite a lot of fake blood. There was no repeat of the flag burning of the previous week because we were encouraged to be on our best behaviour but, all in all, a point was made simply by the many thousands who turned up. All very Brechtian you might say – politics at its most immediate.

Next, a change of venue to Q Theatre foyer, a post-protest bite to eat and a cup of tea, along with a chat with a couple of sophisticated ladies of no particular age who were off to the finals of the ‘Lexus Song Contest'. Ironic, we noted, that The Good Soul of Szechuan was sponsored by Audi, indicating, we decided, that the arts must be seen by top of the range vehicle manufacturers as a jolly good way to tickle the fancy of prospective high-end buyers. I found myself quietly pleased by this but I'm not sure whether Herr Brecht would have felt the same.

Q Theatre has really nailed the hospo side of going to the theatre – the food is great as is the service and the bar well stocked and attractive. All in all, it's an especially fine way to positively contribute to the complete theatre-going experience. Artistic Director McColl, in his pre-show speech to the Audi VIPs, wisely reminded them that, if they weren't regular theatre-goers, Brecht isn't everyone's flute of Moet and not to judge ATC's usual fare by that night's performance. He was right to do this as a number slipped quietly into the night at the interval, missing the resolution of this brilliant work. Their loss, in my opinion, as the production is quite simply stunning.

McColl also said that the arrival of Berthold Brecht on the theatre scene in the early 1920s changed theatre as it had previously been known beyond recognition. He was right about that too. Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg and Shaw had only quite recently introduced the world to naturalism and Wedekind and his mates to expressionism, so it seems, in retrospect, a straightforward enough leap for someone to create what Brecht described as ‘epic theatre': a forum for political ideas, unemotional debate and dialectical materialism.

The environment he worked in was a Germany post ‘The Great War' and heading, with barely a blip, for number two. He adopted Marxism as his political philosophy and rationalised his theories in tandem with like-minded theatre chums Vsevolod Meyerhold in Russia, Erwin Piscator, long-time collaborator Helene Weigel and eventually Kurt Weill. The theatre arts weren't the only ones getting a shake-up either with James Joyce reinventing the novelists craft, Eisenstein deconstructing cinema and Pablo Picasso collaging the visual arts.

In The Good Soul of Szechuan, Brecht uses all the estrangement or ‘distancing' techniques for which he is well known. He wrote that he wanted to strip “the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and create a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them” and to remove any sense, on the part of the audience, of an emotional involvement in the action of the play or the lives of his characters, leaving them as essentially ciphers that carry the polemic of the play. These techniques include having the actors directly address the audience, speaking stage directions out loud, communicating via placards and signs, and interrupting the action with songs and poetry that progress the debate but which do not enrich the emotional content of the work. Having said all that, the theatre is about doing it rather than talking about it and the degree of success of any dramatic principle will always be judged on what happens in the performance space rather than what exists between the covers of a book, no matter how wonderful the words may seem in theory.

It's also wrong to say that Brecht is ‘old hat', despite fashions determining that his work is seldom staged in the 21st century. His theories have morphed into other forms and we don't think twice today when an actor address the audience directly, suddenly bursts into song or sets are electronically turned into billboards with surtitles, as is the case with this production. So, just how successful is Artistic Director McColl in breathing life into this old chestnut and how authentic is he able to be in his staging of Brecht's classic text?

The Rangatira performing space at Q Theatre is excellent. It's been designed to be multi-purpose and McColl and his hugely experienced design team have chosen to work with the audience on three sides and on three levels. Our arrival in the space is greeted with the option of two percussion instruments: one a plastic bottle one-third filled with rice; the other, the same style bottle one-third filled with water. My son chooses the rice and has the best time in the world accompanying some great music throughout the performance on his home-made maraca.

John Parker's ‘Occupy Queen Street' set consists of a grey, urban gothic, corrugated iron backdrop in front of which is a tent city urban slum of dwellings made from plastic sheeting, supermarket trolleys and tepee-like hovels. There's a ladder up to the left-side balcony where a clothes-line of peachy woman's-wear hangs audaciously. The floor is water-stained and there is a definite sense of longevity to this down-at-heel community. It's impressive, more particularly so when populated by the ragtag and bobtail characters who reside there, one of whom (Phodiso Dintwe) decides to educate us on the use of our shakers. It's fun and we're lucky to be accompanied in our chanting by the excellent Brett Adams (guitar) and splendid Stephen Thomas (drums). I have no idea what time the performance actually starts because that is wonderfully blurred in a suitably Brechtian way and managed cleverly from the stage.

We are introduced to the nice folks in the tents by Wang the Waterseller (Shimpal Lelisi) who has heard from a truck driver that some Gods are coming but no-one seems to care. The text is visceral and rough and it's immediately apparent that the decision to use Scottish playwright David Harrower's excellent new translation (2008) – enriched by a few unobtrusive Kiwi-isms – is an excellent one. Lelisi does an outstanding job of connecting the action to the audience and we can taste Wang's frustration. The only person who is happy to accommodate the Gods during their stay is Shen Te (Robyn Malcolm), a local prostitute and the good soul of the title.

At this point it's worth noting that, while Brecht has set the play in China – he loved Peking Opera and Chinese performance – it's irrelevant where the action of the play occurs, it could be simply anywhere; it's the moral and ethical debate contained within the text that's important and not any sense of cultural legitimacy. In fact aiming for cultural legitimacy could well get in the way of the message and that, in the eyes of Herr Brecht, would never do.

The Gods (Bronwyn Bradley is God #1, Simon Prast is God #2, and Cameron Rhodes is God #3) arrive – quite an entrance – concerned that the people are no longer God-fearing and attempting to find a single person who they can define as virtuous. The Gods are divine – well, their performances are – and it's great to hear such clarity of diction and uniformity of intent. They explain “we like to watch people, that's why we're here.”

By now we're getting the idea that these musicians, and John Gibson's excellent score, are really rather good and both get even better as the evening progresses.

Impressed by Shen Te's kindness in providing them accommodation the Gods give her some cash and she uses it to buy a tobacco shop from the cynical Mrs Shin (Goretti Chadwick) in an attempt to free herself from the grip of the oldest profession. Chadwick is wonderfully antipodean and provides the production with an unending cynicism that Brecht would have loved. The shop is a two ended pink truck that's wheeled on and off, the front of which is the counter and the back the living area.

Immediately after Shen Te purchases the tobacco shop she is invaded by a bunch of bludging relatives who help themselves to whatever they please to such a degree that Shen Te has to invent a cousin – the hard-nosed businessman Shui Ta – to restore some order and regain control. The ensemble impress with ‘A Little Poem about Patience' set to Gibson's brilliant sounds and the true debate is engaged.

It's only with the appearance of Malcolm's alter-ego Shui Ta that we realise just what a fabulous transformational actor Malcolm is. The characters are poles apart and it's hard to believe that they're created by the same actor, often in almost the same breath. This production is so incredibly good – ATC's best for yonks – that to say Malcolm's performance alone is worth the ticket price is to minimise the whole but there, I've said it anyway and I'm happy to stand by it.

Wang the Waterseller is commissioned by the Gods to report back to them on Shen Te's goodness and he does so, thereby providing a texture that proves Brecht isn't just about the theory but was pretty sharp when it came to performance structure as well.

In a park with a bunch of whores, Shen Te meets airman Yang Sun (Edwin Wright), rescues him from his suicidal intention and, by inadvertently falling in love with this ne'er-do-well, sets the rest of the play in motion. There are great lines – “There's sod all work for pilots” and “Do you know anything about love?” – and a beautiful solo song by Malcolm (‘Where are the snows of yesterday') with just a microphone on a stand, some of the most haunting guitar you'll ever hear and the delicate swish of rice on plastic from my left as my son disappears deep into a moment in the play that will stay with both of us for a very long time.

I'm not sure that Herr Brecht would have approved but I found it impossible not to be drawn into the delicacy of Malcom's unequivocal love for Yang Sun despite his being an absolute cad, a bounder and a complete scoundrel. While this may not fit with Brecht's intention in 1940, it certainly works for me in 2014. There are sublimely funny moments and none are better than those surrounding Shu Fu (Byron Coll) as the potential husband. Coll's timing is exquisite and he has the audience in the palm of his hand.

It's a journey and a half through the evening – in excess of 2 hours 45 minutes even with an interval – but the pace never falters and the performances are all fantastic. It's funny, outrageous, unpleasant at times yet very moving and McColl hits all his marks. The debate is clear: is it OK to be a good person who does bad things so she can do even more good or should just being good be enough? Shen Te the idealist is Brecht the Marxist in a nutshell but Shen Te is also Shui Ta, the cold-hearted, self-interested drug lord: indistinguishable from each other in reality but in performance polar opposites. Thus the debate engages with Wang and the Gods as commentary.

There are surprises and shocks and always there's the music. There are punkish bits, hints of Lou Reed and John Cage from ‘Songs for Drella', excellent ensemble and solo singing and endlessly fabulous drumming.

Also, there are the questions never answered: did she love him simply because he was poor? Did she love him because she knew she could help him? What is good? What is evil? Can both live in same skin? Do we ever have one without the other? Why are the good always poor? Why is evil rewarded?

Edwin Wright as Yang Sun is excellent. He's likeable, attractive and seedy. Katlyn Wong and Cameron Rhodes never put a foot wrong and feed the comedy machine mercilessly. So do Goretti Chadwick and Byron Coll, each great ensemble members. Simon Prast is a stand out, but then who would be surprised by that? His Irish priest is brilliant yet he seems to do nothing.

It's Robyn Malcolm's evening nonetheless. She is nothing short of superb. Soft, delicate and loving as Shen Te, hard, angular and tight as Shui Ta, hers is an intricate performance of dexterous subtlety and skill, and while she is ever true to the production and to herself, most of all she is true to Brecht and what he has embedded in the play.

One of the great criticisms of the play is that it's ending doesn't work. Even Brecht himself said so. Yet in the hands of this director, his leading actor and his ensemble it does work and works superbly well.

I'm left with two abiding memories from this production of The Good Soul of Szechuan.

The first relates to its authenticity. McColl and his team seem to have captured Brecht's theories, put them into practice and embedded them in the 21st century. In a way it's no surprise given the politics of today but it takes a visionary to see these connections and McColl is just such a visionary.

The second relates exclusively to the heart. Great actors work from the heart and I'm happy to say that this production is full of love: love of the work, love of the ensemble, love for each other, love of the art form and love of, and for, the audience. It seeps from every pore in this work – and from every performer - and I'm monumentally glad it does. Bravo, bravo, bravo!

On the way home I ask my son (age 11) whether he's enjoyed the production. He has, he tells me, so much so that he's nicked a memento – the plastic bottle with the rice in it that he used as a maraca. “I wanted something personal to remember it by,” he said, “it was so special.” Who could disagree?

Reviewed by Lexie Matheson, 28 Jul 2014
References: (1) Brooker, Peter. 1994. "Key Words in Brecht's Theory and Practice of Theatre". In Thomson and Sacks (1994, 185–200).