I always find Brecht is a theatrical hit-and-miss: if a company gets it wrong, it’s so wrong, but if they get it right…
With their production of The Good Soul of Szechuan at the Bloomsbury Theatre, the University College London Union Drama Society got it right this week. Brecht is an unusual, bold and tough choice, even for professional companies, but the Drama Society which performed a theatrical adaptation of 1984 last year seemed undaunted by the Marxist playwright of Depression years. It did seem as if they needed a bit of time to settle into their parts, even on the last night of performance; the simpering interpretation of Wang the water seller took some getting used to; but, as often with this play, the action and acting picked up with the appearance of Yang Sun, the unemployed pilot, and his pathetic noose.
The company had added some curious touches of their own, with subtle reference to the current economic crisis. The setting was inspired by modern-day China, with characters sporting face masks, and the gods making their first appearance holding aloft their phones for signal; but the costumes were a bizarre mix of the exaggerated modern and the quasi-historical, and the accents were, occasionally, Cockney.
This was a particularly high-tech rendering of Brecht: a projection and a computer screen on stage did part of the narrator’s job, announcing scenes, emphasising certain lines, and displaying the lyrics of the songs. The songs, which took a prominent place in the performance, were interpreted in styles varying from folksy a cappella to techno-rock; they were sung in unassuming, untrained voices, and this was one of the strongest points of the entire production. They were powerful in their modesty, and suited well the Brechtian method of acting and presenting the plot.
The use of choral voices truly made the production come into its own at its close, the power of which moment left you with an impression great enough to make you overlook any quibbles over the rest of the performance. Shen Teh is abandoned alone on the stage, her voice drowned out, as the other players file down into the aisles, praising ‘the good soul of Szechuan’ in a merciless chant.
The Drama Society interpreted Brecht’s 1943 play with a mixture of subtlety and coarseness which testified to an awareness of the bizarre and comical as well as the brutal and tragic elements of Brechtian drama. Their choice of play, and their original presentation of it, show a sensitivity to the enduring relevance of Brecht’s work. And in the overall effect of that consciousness, the cheap comedy of a campy barber cannot make a dent.
It was certainly not a perfect production, but it left a great impression. And who would want Brecht polished anyway?