The Good Person of Szechwan – Barbican, London

Writer: Bertolt Brecht

Director: Yury Butusov

Reviewer: Gus Mitchell

The Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre is certainly not short on ambition. In just one week at the Barbican they have been performing three of their most acclaimed productions: Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan, and Mother’s Field, a wordless adaptation of a Russian novella. Sadly, it was only the middle one of these which I managed to catch before they head back to Moscow. It was a stirring three hours, twenty minutes, in Russian with English surtitles, and it made case strongly that if UK theatre wants to see itself becoming more adventurous there need to be more opportunities for companies like this one to show their work in major venues.

The Good Person of Szechwan, one of Brecht’s signature plays, concerns the prostitute Shen-Te, unexpectedly rewarded by the gods for her good nature and kindness in a world seemingly overrun by greed, cruelty and indifference. However, her reward –the running of a tobacco shop – increasingly attracts the unwholesome mass of humanity, stretching her goodness to its limits.

The MPDT company understands and embraces full-bloodedly what one feels to be the huge themes and question at stake in Brecht’s parable play: is it possible to be a good person in a world that is inherentlybad?

At the centre of an astounding cast of actors is Alexandra Ursulyak as Shen-Te and her alter-ego, her hyper-capitalist ‘cousin’, Shui Ta. The sheer range and energy of Ursulyak’s acting makes one glance at this year’s Oscar contenders and roll the eyes. From tender love to wily bravado to complete despair, her performance leaves one exhausted in the best possible way. The company is uniform in their dedication, and all of them stand out in different ways, not one player being incidental or feeling less than crucial. From Anastasia Lebedeva’s delicately haunting presence as the Gods to the disturbing urgency of Alexander Matrosov of the Wong, the play’s quasi-MC, to Alexander Arsentiev’s magnetism and coldness – each of the actors feels both like a creation brought completely to life and observing themselves, which is the essence of what Brecht wanted from his actor.

Alexander Shishkin’s set involves a raked stage, and for the main part the cavernous hollow of the whole Barbican theatre is visible, keeping with the bare-all aesthetic often used for Brecht. Three life-size and beautifully constructed birch trees are the mainstay of the set, and their skeletal presence begins to remind you more of the skeletal trees of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and its own portrait of an empty, loss-filled world. As the production unfolds (and it is long, and there are many, many scenes) the manoeuvring of things like standing microphones, bags of sand, packing cases and factory paraphernalia feels one continuous movement. Alexander Sivaev’s lighting, though never drawing attention, picks out with photo-like precision the makeup-tracks on Ursulyak’s face, the ghostly blonde of Lebedeva’s hair, Arsentiev’s head taking its place in the centre of a hangman’s noose in shadows on the back wall.

This is Brecht with commitment to both the metaphysical and moral importance of Shen-Te’s parable. Rather confusingly they describe the production as ‘a parable for our universe’, rather than trying in more traditional Brechtian style to update the play with modern political relevance. You can see why the sponsor of the MPDT’s week at the Barbican, Roman Abramovich, was so taken with this production in particular. It does not, as Brecht is often thought to do, and does in so many other plays, make the injustices and inequalities of the world seem rooted in particular economic or social facts or factors. Instead, Good Personleans more toward viewing the entire universe as simply not set up for goodness.

However, the MPDT production embraces the play’s undoubtable ambiguity and it enacts a particular vision of Brecht’s story with visceral theatrical force.

Reviewed on the 8 Feb 2019 | Image: Alex Yocu

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