Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 8 September, 2008

Charm, wonder, beauty... not words often associated with Bertolt Brecht.  More often dour, didactic, dull.  The Young Vic's revival earlier this year of The Good Soul Of Szechuan impressed some but left many doubting whether there was continuing dramatic life to such works after the dismissal of communism as a global ideology.  On that occasion I rallied to the case for the defence, but now the belated British première of his final play is, alas, all of those D-words I mentioned and more.  Edward Kemp's translation and Anthony Clark's production are as lively as they can reasonably be, but really, Hampstead's selling this show on the basis of its humour and vivacity amounts almost to fraud.

In a fictitious China, the emperor struggles in vain to hide his monopolistic abuses from the people by enlisting the “Teliu”s (official, state-sanctioned intellectuals) to come up with a specious excuse for the artificially engineered cotton shortage. The winner will receive the hand in marriage of his daughter Turandot, who as it happens gets turned on by any signs of deep thought more complex than those of a concussed wasp. Meanwhile Gogher Gogh, a mobster on the run from former colleagues, inveigles his way into the palace and takes over the imperial government, with no noticeable change for either better or worse.

Gerard Murphy's Emperor is amusingly ineffectual, but Chipo Chung as Turandot is an airhead whose repertoire of arousal grows quickly stale.  Between the uselessness of the Telius, the imperial pocket-lining and Gogher Gogh's own kleptocracy there seems no coherence to the targets.  Amazingly for Brecht, one gets no sense of the play's actual politics. (The popular revolution is always offstage, never given any characteristics except in Clark's staging by the significant waving about of a Little Red Book.)

Most dispiritingly, even the actors seem insufficiently interested in the words. They pre-empt their cues, and may even fail to remember basics about the play; at one point on press night, Col Farrell (alas, this long-time stalwart comedy character actor can no longer be “Colin” since the advent of the Irish screen star) declared, “The Telius should be driven out of Fr— er, China.” Why, then, should they expect us to pay any attention either?

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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