Written in 1941 by world-renowned playwright Bertolt Brecht and brought to life by the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre, The Good Person of Szechwan incarnates the Brechtian ethos of ‘theatre for social change’. Directed by Yury Butusov, the play centres around prostitute Shen Te, who is respected by the Gods for maintaining goodness and generosity in a world replete with cruelty and chaos. When she is rewarded with a tobacco business opportunity, the image of goodness is dwarfed by the prospect of success - the ultimate security blanket. The Good Person of Szechwan begs the question: can one be good in a world teeming with chaos?
© Alex Yocu
Unable to coexist with the anarchic society of Szechwan, Shen Te must discard morality to survive in a world operating around economical reward. Unwilling to corrupt her own image of goodness, she produces a split persona and makes way for male ‘cousin’ Shui Te: an alter ego to fight her battles by abiding by the town’s money-oriented mechanisms. It is a gendered split: a woman is sold and is only regarded as a business owner when she wears a male suit. She wears ripped fishnets and glossy stilettos, while and he wears a suit and hat reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin. The yin and yang are ultimately one person, and the split highlights the performativity of gender, where we become the perpetrators by conforming to role play on a daily basis.
Upon entering the theatre, set designer Alexander Shishkin situates us in an absurdist universe. Sets are scattered and fragmented, and the image of duality is ubiquitous. Emanating from the sets is the ever-present tension between our human tendency to adhere to a social contract, while simultaneously requiring survival achieved by the pursuance of self-interest. The play states ‘where there is need there is no good; where there is danger there is no bravery’. This invokes Adorno, who believes that we are unable to achieve goodness in a capitalistically regulated world. Dualistic tensions slice the reality of the sets, where the faces projected are often divided by the folded and fractured backdrops. The image of Diane Arbus’ twins loom over enigmatic twins in black sunglasses and dresses, once again reinforcing our binary tendencies.
Characters are constantly entering and exiting the stage, moving seamlessly between animals and inanimate objects, often repositioned to fragment the setting. The chaotic nature of Szechwan is accentuated by the ludicrous actions: a man walking endlessly on a treadmill on the way to nowhere or rain being composed of cigarettes in the midst of life-sized trees, towering over the rest of the world. The constant re-shifting of the stage accentuates the permanence of the altering state of movement; the idea that life is a single song and dance where the only consistency is clockwork. Characters occupy a corporeality that develops this image; dancing and effortlessly delving into gesture, allowing them to operate cyclically with existential indifference.
Alexandra Ursulyak delivers an astounding performance as Shen Te and Shui Ta, passionately exasperated and brimming energy. The final monologue where she pleads in order to express her frustration encompasses the audience’s mutual suffering, sublimating our confused realities. Anastasia Lebedeva’s delicate performance as the Gods and Natalia Reva-Ryadinskaya’s magnetic portrayal of Mrs. Shin are tremendously powerful as they are hyper-aware of themselves, achieving incredible presence through body language. The music enhances each performance, contributing to the creation of Szechwan. In particular, the jazz motif gives rise to the uncanny image of the double, luring the audience into the play’s different layers.
With its social underpinnings and parabolic framework, Butusov’s rendition ofThe Good Person of Szechwan is committed to the audience. The final line, urging us to ‘help’, embodies Brecht’s Epic Theatre: using performance as a vehicle for social change.
Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor
The Good Person of Szechwan
8th-9th February 2019
Barbican Center, Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS