THE GOOD WOMAN OF SETZUAN
Contact Theatre, Manchester/touring
Opened 1 March, 2001

"I notice some of you have been indulging in emotional empathy. Could you cut it out, please this is not a bourgeois entertainment!" As if we hadn't already realised the truth behind this self-parodic remark. By this point in the National Theatre's touring production of The Good Woman Of Setzuan, which I saw at Manchester's Contact Theatre, members of the largely student audience had volunteered (an accolade in itself imagine people volunteering for audience participation!) to act as extras, as timekeepers to ensure that the show ran at the required speed, and even for quick bursts of pedalling on what was supposedly a cycle-powered generator to drive the lighting... literally a Brechtian device if ever I saw one. We had also voted on which punter bore the greatest resemblance to Bertolt himself; the lucky chap was then equipped with a jacket labelled "Mr Brecht", a cigar and a copy of The Messingkauf Dialogues with handy passages marked so that he could answer questions during the interval.

If Tanika Gupta's version of the text is sparky and pulls no punches, Stephen Powell's production takes it into a different league. Recognising that such a mobile production is principally an educational resource, especially when the play is a set curricular text, Powell sets out to explain by example all those Brechtian theories about Verfremdung which on the page seem often contradictory and always arid. This, by glorious contrast, is an enlightening hoot of an evening. We are constantly reminded not to suspend our disbelief, that we are only watching a presentation, by a red bulb hanging low over the stage, lit during the scenes of the play, turned off for the bits where the cast of eight chat with us. It's an astute move which serves both to "alienate" us in the Brechtian sense and to circumvent the Brecht estate's rigorous strictures about deviating too far from the authorised text.

Within the play proper, too, Powell gets his cast to tread the fine line between misplaced naturalism and mere haranguing. In particular Lynn Ferguson as Shen-Te torn by her dilemma of how to do unselfish deeds whilst continuing to live in a selfish world, how to obey the dictates of gods who do little or nothing to help conveys the emotional content of her lines without ever pretending that those feelings are truly hers. Olly Fox's music, played by guitarist Andy Waterson against backing tapes, ranges from slide-guitar blues to Bristolian techno to a closing ironic power ballad led by the gods of the play a rock guitar hero, a soccer star and a supermodel. I remember, as a student, reading the Brecht volume in the For Beginners series which tries to explain theories through self-conscious cartoon techniques. Powell's production is motivated by the same spirit, but streets ahead in terms of success.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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