It’s tempting for historians and lazy people to conflate Brecht and agitprop, but it isn’t strictly accurate. A portmanteau of agitation and propaganda, agitprop really finds its apotheosis in the communist theatre of China. Brecht is too contradictory and wild for genuine agitprop, subservient to ideology as it is. He leans more toward agitation than propaganda, which makes him consistently relevant and attractive to modern audiences.
So it is with gleeful anticipation that one approaches a production of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan directed by a wunderkind of Chinese theatre in Meng Jinghui. A collaboration between the National Theatre of China and Malthouse Theatre, in a production that will travel to mainland China, this is a show that layers its influences on top of each other with an almost sadistic abandon.
The Gods [Genevieve Morris, Emily Milledge and Genevieve Giuffre] are on the search for a ‘good person’ and, given the veniality of the human race, they’re having a hard time of it. They settle on Shen Te [Moira Finucane], a quintessential prostitute with a heart of gold. As reward for her meagre hospitality, they give her a thousand silver pieces.
Setting up a tobacco shop, Shen Te is quickly overrun with poor and desperate customers who take her generosity for granted, none more so than Yang Sun [Daniel Frederiksen], a lowlife drug addict with whom she tragically falls in love. Finding her God-given attribute of ‘good person’ impossible to reconcile with the grubby corruption of the world, she fractures her personality and creates an alter ego named Shui Ta, a brutal and streetwise businessman.
In the central role of Shen Te/Shui Ta, famed cabaret performer Moira Finucane brings considerable skills into play. Her physical and vocal transformations are compelling, and her late-stage breakdown feels dangerously real. Daniel Frederiksen makes a brilliant Yang Sun, a limb-dragging lowlife from hell who is nonetheless capable of eliciting a kind of horrified pity.
The whole cast manage to bring enough specificity to their roles to stand out, although special mention must go to Aljin Abella and Emily Milledge, who are both credibly hilarious in particularly cartoonish parts. Abella’s aerobics routine is classic, and almost worth the price of the ticket alone.
Jinghui knows his Brecht, and includes a lot of clever references throughout. The production is fully alive to the contemporary resonances, but doesn’t labour the point. The songs are terrific, as is the sound design [by The SWEATS, aka Pete Goodwin]. The stage design [Marg Horwell] is spectacular, a lurid and skuzzy streetscape that seems built for corruption.
There is something refreshingly risky about this production. It isn’t afraid of crudity or sentiment, and often threatens to run right off the rails. Sometimes this results in silliness and didacticism, but it’s also intermittently thrilling and hilarious. The cultural cues are encouragingly prismatic, and it will be fascinating to see how it plays on its tour to China.
Direction: Meng Jinghui Cast: Aljin Abella, Moira Finucane, Daniel Frederiksen, Genevieve Giuffre, Bert LaBonté, Emily Milledge, Genevieve Morris, Josh Price, Richard Pyros Assistant Direction: Felix Ching Ching Ho Set and Costume: Marg Horwell Composition and Sound Design: THE SWEATS Lighting: Richard Vabre Translation: Tom Wright
The Good Person of Szechuan
Merlyn Theatre – The Coopers Malthouse, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank
Performance: Wednesday 2 July 2014 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 20 July 2014
Bookings: (03) 9685 5111 or online at: www.malthousetheatre.com.au
For more information, visit: www.malthousetheatre.com.au for details.
Image: Josh Price, Emily Milledge, Genevieve Giuffre, Aljin Abella, Richard Pyros, Bert LaBonte, Daniel Frederiksen – photo by Pia Johnson
Review: Tim Byrne