Any honest Brecht performance means a serious workout of mental and physical focus, and this latest production of The Good Person of Szechuan by La Mama does full justice to Brecht’s daunting theatrical philosophies and one of his most popular plays.
The most intriguing thing about Brecht is how his ideas translate into practice, and as part of this year’s VCE Theatre Studies list, the production has adhered closely to Brecht’s intentions, while creating a great example of how well Brecht translates across languages and cultures, both in terms of humour and message. The quips and character jibes remain strong, and the theme – the struggle of being good in an evil world – resonates as loudly now as it must have in 1943.
The challenge of Brecht is dealing with the huge amounts of dialogue in a lengthy and intense script. Director Laurence Strangio has clearly worked hard with the ensemble to pack everything tightly, however it was still a struggle for the audience to pay attention for the full two and a bit hours.
This first show ended up being a preview, due to some difficulties in the lead-up to opening. This, along with the script’s length, explains a couple of the actors’ memory failures and struggles with transitions. However, these small glitches only highlighted the consummate work of HaiHa Le, the good person herself, who never stumbled with her own enormous allocation of dialogue. She strove on throughout, intent and persistent, embodying all the contradictions and confliction of trying to be ‘good’ when being good means being destroyed.
The humour throughout the play is well developed and mostly embraced by the actors playing the three gods who came to Szechuan in their search for a good person. James Deeth, Carmelina Di Guglielmo and Zoe Ellerton-Ashley are amusing caricatures as the three gods, and sources of much humour in their other various roles, such as angry prostitutes, pushy drug dealers or overly masculine rich ladies. Terry Yeboah and Marc Lawrence work hard and mostly successfully in their serious roles as Wang the water seller and Yan Sun the pilot, while relishing the few humorous elements of their more minor characters.
As an ensemble of only six, everyone works smoothly and with great skill in jumping between scenes and characters while remaining consistent and convincing. They did all this without any fourth wall to hide behind, balancing their performance alongside interactions with their delighted audience of high-school students and adults alike.
The large interactive element of the show will guarantee a significantly different experience each night, depending on how each audience responds. The ensemble relies on the front row to help in several scenes, and I really enjoyed how they expected our immediate cooperation and gave us instructions while they were still busily involved in a scene.
The former drama student in me happily ticked the boxes of Epic Theatre elements, while the rest of me enjoyed the talent on display and appreciated the production’s achievement at keeping an intimate and flighty audience thinking hard and (almost) fully engaged for two hours.