First staged in Sheffield, this classic play about being good still manages to cover important issues, as one of its lead actors tells us…
THIS is not Bertolt Brecht as you might expect – in fact, it might be so far away from the original ‘The Good Person of Szechwan’, that it might leave you in a slightly conflicted state.
First up, this is great fun – jaunty, comedic, entertaining and mixed with music and some acceptable silliness.
You will have fun and be entertained – the two hours and 20 minutes breeze past.
It veers a little close to panto at times, but manages to stay the right side of that line – though this is a subjective assessment.
For the serious Brechtian, this might be a step too far. Is this being drained of its essential politics, they might ask?
One of its lead actors, Louise Mai Newberry, who has a double role in this production, spoke to www.asianculturevulture.com, before we saw it, and there is still a lot of Brecht and his ideas in there, she reasoned – but blink and you might miss it, in this production, we feel.
Okay, perhaps that’s a little facetious to be utterly fair, but this play which is about survival and poverty and the haves and have nots, has endured, because it is about these very real things that afflict us all, especially in a cost of living crisis.
Newberry, who is both Wife and Mrs Yang in this play, currently showing at The Lyric in Hammersmith, told acv that writer Nina Segal – who is biracial Malaysian and director Anthony Lau, who is of Besea (British East Asian and South East Asian) heritage – have made the play contemporary. It is set in modern city – though not geographically specific.
This has shades of influence of the popular global hit TV series, the South Korean made, ‘Squid Games’ on Netflix and the Oscar-winning film, ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ for which Michelle Yeoh created history by becoming the first (East) Asian to win an Oscar for an actress role.
Newberry told us: “Our production’s very bright and colourful – it’s a collaboration between Nina’s text, Georgia Lowe’s design and Anthony’s direction and you get something that is explosive.
“You never know what’s going to happen.”
It is certainly lively but what about the essential political themes at the heart of the play?
“It’s played with a lot of humour and then to make certain points, there are scenes where everything just quietens and the emotional truth comes out.”
The play goes something like this – the gods, depicted as three wise men (Callum Coates, Tim Samuels, and Nick Blakeley) come down to earth and want to find a good person with which to bestow good fortune and discover Shen Te (Ami Tredrea), a kind-hearted sex worker who is gifted a life changing sum – with which she purchases a cigarette stall as an investment and a more secure way of making a living.
But far from her material problems being solved, they raise other issues and she feels compelled to adopt a different male persona later – Shui Ta (Tredrea) who is tough and uncompromising and primed to make money and little else.
Newberry’s own characters are at opposite ends of the spectrum as The Wife – she and her Husband (Togo Igawa) are homeless and request they stay with Shen Te, who lets them and then finds them hard to shift.
Shui Te, on the other hand, forces the elderly couple to work in a cigarette factory.
Mrs Yang, Newberry’s character is keen that her son Yang Sun (Aidan Cheng), an aspiring pilot get married to Shen Te and then complete his training and earn good money.
Shen Te loves Yang but her depth of emotion is not matched; Yang is quite open about his motives for getting hitched.
“She’s a bit of a gold digger,” explained Newberry, about the mother – and really the same could be said of her son, Yang.
The play is filled with such characters caught in a bind or not – and trying to do their best, with some having few moral scruples about their methods of making a living.
“I think by the end, it is noticeable that it’s hard to be good when you’re poor. It is much easier to be good when you have money,” Newberry pointed out, summarising one of Brecht’s overriding points.
Newberry is delighted to be in a production where the majority of the cast is Besan.
“It is joyfully diverse, it’s quite a big cast, and I think what’s really refreshing about it is that whilst the majority of us have an East Asian or South East Asian heritage, there’s a real mix within that.”
She has had a varied career since leaving Cambridge University, armed with an English degree and initially working in corporate marketing, soon after graduating.
She didn’t feel fulfilled, and the pull of acting continued to exert more than just a fascination.
“I wanted to be an actor from when I was tiny; but then I thought I wasn’t allowed to think about that because I didn’t see anyone like me on the telly,” she laughed. “My Saturday evening job was in a local arts centre and I just loved helping theatre companies unpack their stuff and I just loved being around it all – but even then I didn’t see anybody that looked like me – there weren’t even really many South Asian or black actors.”
She took some time out, trained and now she’s got a long list of theatre credits and has also appeared in several popular TV series and has just done the voiceover for a kids’ Youtube show, ‘Lellobee City Farm’ where she plays Grandma Mei who dispenses wisdom through global folk tales to kids Ella and Rishi who meet her at Lellobee City Farm.
So, is the world (and Britain) now more inclusive towards actors of her heritage and similar.
“It’s much slower to change but young East Asian actors are coming through and that’s a good thing,” she told us.
This is a production commissioned by the English Touring Theatre (ETT) and developed by both Sheffield Theatres and the Lyric Hammersmith. This production was first performed in Sheffield on March 11.
All pictures: Courtesy of The Lyric ©ManuelHarlan
Hear what Newberry told us about the show itself and its diversity in this Youtube short.
‘The Good Person of Szechwan by Bertolt Brecht, adapted by Nina Segal (from April 15) until May 13 at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmit, Lyric Square, King St, London W6 QL.
More info/tickets: https://lyric.co.uk/shows/the-good-person-of-szechwan/
Louise Mai Newberry in Lellobee City Farm
More – https://www.moonbug.com/lellobeecityfarmscom