The Library Theatre Company in Manchester is well known for its intimate and high quality staging of an impressive variety of works and this commitment to great theatre is soon to be rewarded with a likely move to a new and larger venue, thus securing the future of this vibrant company. However, as with all theatre companies there are occasions where a production fails to come together and soar and the current misguided production of The Good Soul of Szechuan unfortunately is not their best.
The story, set in China, is a typical and reasonably complicated Brechtian study on morality and altruism and focuses on prostitute Shen Te whose deep goodness is rewarded by three Gods who are seeking to restore their faith in humanity. Shen Te’s continued generous nature results in her being taken advantage of, leading her to invent a cousin, Shui Ta who is opposite in nature and whose severity and coldness is intended to restore order to Shen Te’s complex world.
However, as the play progresses the distinction between the Shen Te and Shui Ta diminishes and the Gods conclusion that goodness leads to vulnerability is a comment as relevant to modern society as it has been to all previous generations.
The problems with this production lie first and foremost with the translation by David Harrower. This unsubtle and somewhat crude translation, which premiered at the Young Vic in London in 2008, suffers with the loss of the wit and lyricism usually associated with Brecht text.
There seems to be a general struggle amongst the cast to make full sense of the text and this is reflected in the reserved characterisations and wooden acting, especially from Poppy Miller who takes on the dual roles of Shen Te and Shui Ta. At the opposite end of the scale Kieran Hill, as Yang Sun, Shen Te’s suitor, gives an hugely over the top performance which is totally at odds with the rest of the cast.
It’s not all bad news though, as Susan Twist manages to raise a few titters from the audience with her amusing role of Mrs Shin and Cornelius McCarthy as Wang the Water Seller gives a performance of real conviction.
Music written for the 2008 Young Vic production by David Sawer is utilised again in this staging although I really can’t imagine why. It’s uninspired and dull and adds nothing to the overall effect of the play, although it is refreshing to note that it is all performed live by cast members using a piano and two trumpets.
Michael Pavelka’s corrugated iron set doesn’t help in clearing up confusion over the setting of the production and it is extremely noisy when being moved but is nevertheless effective in its simplicity and is complemented nicely by Nick Richings’ lighting design.
Overall, I found the direction by Chris Honer to be clumsy and lacking in focus thus rendering the production as a whole laboured and unbalanced.
My companion for the evening, who is an avid theatregoer, asked me during the interval whether this was a professional production and I have to admit that similar thoughts crossed my mind many times during the course of the very disappointing performance.