The Good Person of Szechwan, New Wimbledon Studio - Review


No one can be good for long if goodness is not in demand.
Bertolt Brecht


In many cultures there are tales of how the Divine have visited mankind in disguise, to see if they are found worthy. With this in mind The Good Person of Szechwan, written by Bertholt Brecht, is a parable that uses the familiar trappings of common folklore as a jumping off point for asking complex moral questions which ultimately have no answer. So how does one tackle such potentially heady material?

In a version adapted by Venetia Twigg and directed by Alice Sillett, female-led Theatrical Niche  have made Szechwan their own. Utilising puppetry, object work, physical theatre and live music, they have honoured the spirit of the original text, while making it accessible to audiences of all ages. All the characters are played by four actors (Lucinda Lloyd, Matthew Springett, Noah Young, Venetia Twigg) demonstrating their skills as theatre-makers to the fullest.

The play begins with Wang the water carrier (Young) excited at the prospect of the gods paying the town a visit. His attempts to find accommodation for them prove fruitless, until he remembers someone who might be able to help. Shen Teh (Lloyd) is at home, waiting for a 'client' to turn up, but she agrees to help Wang and pretend she isn't home when the 'customer' arrives. Shen Teh is eventually rewarded by the gods (portrayed here by the use of puppets) and uses the money they gave to her buy her own tobacco shop. However, this is just the beginning of Shen's troubles as people come out of the woodwork to take advantage of her willingness to help others, whether it's asking Shen to perjure herself, asking for money or inviting themselves around to live at her home. Then the unexpected occurs – Shen falls in love. And the wish to help the special person in her life makes her re-evaluate what she's willing to do for others.

It's interesting  that like Viola in Twelfth Night, Shen adopts a male identity of a fictitious cousin (Shui Ta), partly because the town in the play reinforces traditional patriarchal conventions, with the people only willing to listen to her then on matters of business. From a psychological point of view, it also gives 'herself'/her conscience a get-out clause to say "No" and be 'selfish' for a change – permission to put her own well-being first.

Anybody who has been reading the papers over the past couple of months will know that the present GCSE drama curriculum doesn't require students to see live theatre. Szechwan is proof of its necessity and ticks all the boxes in terms of a) the modern performance of a classic play b) the use of different theatrical disciplines within the performance and c) a sound, thought-provoking message that impacts on everything from personal ethics to assessing how communities and society behaves at a pragmatic level. Certainly worth catching the show before its tour has finished.

© Michael Davis 2016

The Good Person of Szechwan ran at the Illuminate Festival at the New Wimbledon Studio Theatre from 3rd May - 6th May 2016. It will continue its tour on:
Tuesday 10th May – The Highwaymans (Suffolk) 7:30pm
Thursday 12th May – Trinity Theatre (Tunbridge Wells) 8pm
The rest of the Illuminate Festival runs at the NWS until 28th May 2016.


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