“The Good Person of Szechwan” at Lyric Hammersmith

Neil Dowden in west London
22 April 2023


First staged 80 years ago, Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan still speaks to us in its critique of how social-political structures encourage greed and reinforce inequality. Nina Segal’s new, free adaptation, which stays faithful to the story, has a modern vibe without updating the play as such because this is a timeless parable.


Callum Coates, Nick Blakeley and Tim Samuels.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan


For some, the name Brecht evokes a heavy-going Marxist polemicist, but of course his plays are full of exuberant theatricality and humour alongside the politics. Rarely, though, has Brecht seemed as accessible and entertaining as in this English Touring Theatre show first seen in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre last month and now playing at the Lyric Hammersmith (hot on the heels of another similar transfer, Accidental Death of an Anarchist).

The show is part-narrated by water-seller Wang, who hastily arranges for three visiting Gods to stay the night with his friend Shen Te, who happens to be a sex worker. The Gods have failed to find shelter elsewhere in a city where mean selfishness seems to rule, with Shen Te the only person offering charitable hospitality. They reward her with money so that she can set up her own business – a tobacco shop – as a test to see if goodness can prevail and restore their faith in humanity, averting a planned apocalypse.

But Shen Te soon finds out that her new-found fortune attracts grasping hangers-on and others who want a slice of her profits, including even a man she saves from suicide, Yang Sun, who marries her (im)purely for her money. In order to survive, she creates the persona of a male cousin, Shui Ta, who ruthlessly keeps people in check while opening a tobacco factory that exploits workers. The Gods – and us, the audience – have to consider who is responsible for this sorry state of affairs and how it can be changed.


The ensemble.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

This version retains Brecht’s essential message about the extreme difficulty of leading a decent life in a cut-throat capitalist system – which promotes the survival of the fittest – which he sees in binary predator/prey terms. But this stark message is conveyed with exhilarating vitality and surreal comedy. The Gods are presented drolly as detached, supercilious figures more interested in their food and accommodation than in ethical issues or the fate of humanity – and at one point turn into backing singers/dancers for one of the karaoke-style songs in the show. The dilemmas that confront Shen Te are made engaging as she struggles to avoid her alter ego Shui Ta taking her over in a world where altruism seems to be regarded as a weakness to be targeted.

There is much innovative stagecraft in Anthony Lau’s high-energy production which is awash with movement and colour. Brechtian scene descriptors are used – though the show is far from alienating. The almost cartoonish approach does occasionally distract from the serious intent of the play – with the chaotic action resembling It’s a Knockout at times – but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Designer Georgia Low’s striking costumes and game-show set are great fun, including “ball pools” which cast members fall into or emerge out of, and two large ramps down which people make a sliding entrance, as well as an amusement-arcade-style glass cabinet stuffed with cigarettes in the centre. Jessica Hung Han Yun’s Day-Glo lighting effects dramatically signal shifts of scene or mood in a show that is constantly on the move – including plastic balls rolling around the stage.

The cast – largely made up of Southeast or East Asian actors for this Chinese story – is excellent. In the central role, Ami Tredrea is a warmly sympathetic “everyperson” just trying to get by, who is forced into a split personality, moving back and forth between the kind, giving Shen Te whose heart is broken and the aggressively entrepreneurial, moustachioed Shui Ta, a businessman with “balls”. Leo Wan reaches out to the audience as the likeably modest, flipper-wearing Wang whose tender feelings for Shen Te go unnoticed and who is perhaps the truly good person of Szechwan. Aidan Cheng plays the venal, treacherous Yang Sun out for what he can get. The three toga-garbed Gods are well differentiated and amusingly performed by Callum Coates, Tim Samuels, and Nick Blakeley – with the latter’s camp benevolence offering some hope for flawed human beings caught up in a rat race.


Ami Tredrea and Jon Chew.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.