The Good Person of Szechwan at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre – review
Anthony Lau's revival runs until 1 April, before transferring to the Lyric Hammersmith from 15 April to 13 May
It's 80 years since Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Szechwan was first staged and much of that time has been spent debating how best to stage it. Nina Segal takes an invigoratingly irreverent, but authentic, swipe at it – sidestepping any seriously solemn didacticism. Incidentally to describe her as "translator" as the programme does makes sense only if you use the word in the Shakespearean sense: "Bottom, thou art translated!". Segal and director Anthony Lau don't stick an ass's head on anyone, but there is a lovable rat.
A "sex worker", as she describes herself, Shen Te, gives hospitality to three gods on a fact-finding mission to discover a good person to save mankind from armageddon. They reward her, she sets up a cigarette store and is constantly plagued by locals who play on her good nature. Eventually, to escape their demands, she dons a moustache as a stern male cousin, Shui Ta, who bullies and browbeats her petitioners to such effect that soon they are working for him in a cigarette factory. But what has happened to Shen Te? Is she still "the good person of Szechwan"?
Brecht was a man of the theatre and a communist, an uneasy mix, and he was concerned that audiences should understand that they were watching something fictional and take the truths from it – and the methods employed by Segal and Lau are a constant delight: the songs, not memorable, but suitable for all sorts of dance routines and with the serious message in the lyrics; the deliberately unstagey ASM who brings on props; the names of scenes projected above stage. Or how about the stage itself? A raised gallery at the back is separated from the main stage by slides on both sides: entries produce all kinds of comic variants. And, when they get on to the tongue-like projection, they can never be sure what creature will emerge from the black and white river that surrounds it.
Above all, though, the grotesques that surround Shen Te are caricatured to great effect, in costume (Georgia Lowe) no less than in performance. Seven actors plead, bully and lie in bizarre costumes, the comedy never-ending, the message of total selfishness, especially in Aidan Cheng's cold-eyed would-be pilot, inescapable. The Three Gods (Nick Blakeley, Callum Coates and Tim Samuels), irresistibly human for all their pretensions, appear throughout – increasingly dishevelled and argumentative – reduced to living in squalor, but still demanding service from Wang the water-seller.
And, in Leo Wan's beautifully judged sad-eyed performance as Wang, we come to the heart of the evening. Is he "the good person of Szechwan"? Or do we think back to Ami Tredrea's Shen Te at the beginning, innocent and fresh, before she donned the moustache? Overall, you can reach your own conclusions, but have plenty of fun doing so.