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The Good Person of Szechwan at the Lyric Hammersmith

The gods have descended, it is judgement day, and they need to find a good person in Szechwan, which, it turns out, is much easier said than done. In this new adaptation of one of Brecht’s lesser-known plays, capitalism, ethics, and morality are hung out to dry, asking whether we can claim to be any better.

(l-r) Togo Igawa, Louise Mai Newberry, Camille Mallet de Chauny and Suni La in The Good Person of Szechwan - Lyric Hammersmith Theatre
(l-r) Togo Igawa, Louise Mai Newberry, Camille Mallet de Chauny and Suni La in The Good Person of Szechwan – Lyric Hammersmith Theatre. (c) Manuel Harlan.

Judgement day is a rather bureaucratic process for the three gods we meet on an unremarkable day in Szechwan. They task Wang with finding a good person, who says Shen Te (Ami Tredrea) is a good person. After receiving a sizable loan, she buys a cigarette business, which fails, and is lured into a dubious romance, before signing her morals away with an enormous cheque. From there she unravels into an evil, greedy capitalist business owner, killing workers and bribing officials. All this while judgement day approaches. The plot is convoluted, ridiculously so, as is Brecht’s desire. But at its core, it asks the question of how you cling to your morals in a world that pushes you to the very edge of your existence.

The piece is primarily styled as a farce, ridiculous caricatures knock around the stage all, in their various ways, testing the moral boundaries of our ‘good person’. The farce works to the piece’s advantage, and the comedy of it is well executed. The cast all have strong comedic chemistry, setting up a series of ridiculous gags and comedic routines, in a very commedia dell’arte way. Brecht has a very specific approach, it is ridiculous so that we recognise it as a story being used to explore contemporary problems, and this adaptation has absolutely gotten that down.

But there are a couple of problems with this play. Our main character spends most of the play trying to be good, but when given the opportunity of having great power, chooses to become an evil exploitative factory owner. So when judgement day comes around, the fact that she tried to help a few people once doesn’t really do much in comparison to having driven workers into their graves.

The other problem is that it is almost simple. In spite of a delightfully convoluted plot, for the audience, the moral of the story is to be a good person. At times the play illuminates the nuances of ethical consumption under capitalism, but eventually lands on ‘try to be a good person’. And sometimes the writing trips itself up, dropping in lines that sum up the entire play, so that by the interval I already get the point of the play.

This is probably a bit harsh. The piece does have compelling moments where it delves into the moral quandaries of ethics and where our lines in the sand are. It is a very fun show to watch and the comedic abilities of both the writing and the cast are without question. I just wonder if encouraging the audience to be good people is all that Brecht was talking about.

4 stars

Review by Tom Carter

In the hustle and bustle of a modern-day metropolis, Shen Te is doing all she can to get by.

When three gods reward her hospitality with a life-changing sum of money, Shen Te opens a tobacco shop and claims the stability she’s always dreamed of. But the struggle is not over yet. Forced to question the cost of her own survival, she resorts to scheming and deceit to flourish in this capitalist world.

The Good Person of Szechwan
By Bertolt Brecht. Translated by Nina Segal. Directed by Anthony Lau.
15 Apr – 13 May 2023

Lyric Hammersmith Tickets

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