Challenging yet visionary, ‘The Good Soul of Szechuan’

Find out whether the UCLU Drama Society has what it takes to tackle Brecht in this review.

Photos provided by the production team

Those two, ominous, little words on the poster: Bertolt Brecht. Brecht! Notoriously challenging yet visionary, this playwright would pose a serious challenge to a professional company and I felt a sense of dread on behalf of the UCLU Drama Society when I found out they were taking on The Good Soul of Szechuan.

This was unwarranted: Christopher Earley’s taut and focused direction has resulted in something that is genuinely tragic. I came out of the Bloomsbury Theatre in silence, preoccupied with the play I had just seen, and this stands testament to the skill and vision of the production team, as well as the mature choice of an excellent play.

Set in China, the production has a surreal and bleak aesthetic that mirrors perfectly the world of extreme poverty that is depicted. The stage is illuminated by industrial lights that clinically light up the actor’s faces in harsh light, and the limited scenery focuses the audience’s attention on the skillful performances on stage.

The score adds significantly to the atmosphere of the production and, for me, was one of the highlights of the play. Sparse and violent, it sounds like Kraftwerk blended with elusive elements of a more Oriental sound.

The deliberately tuneless singing which is present throughout the play added another dimension to the score and was deeply haunting: its minimalism perfectly suited to the style of production.

Photos provided by the production team

Perhaps my favourite aspect of the production was the use of projections. By replacing elaborate scenery with a stark combination of video and text, this heightened the surreal aspects which characterise the play. The words flashed upon curtains, backdrop and computer monitor positioned on stage reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s use of text in The Shining.

Despite the overall tone of the play being pessimistic , it is interspersed with moments of lurid comedy provided by an able and vivacious supporting cast.

Stylised and bold, a combination of slapstick and black humour never jarred and was given a wonderful physicality. The interaction between actors showed high levels of chemistry and fleshed out Brecht’s Chinese slums. To their credit, the world created was wonderfully tangible.

Particularly strong was Vincenzo Monochello’s interpretation of Wang, the water carrier; he gave the character a charming naivety despite the hardships present in his impoverished situation.

Naomi Fawcett was pleasingly vivid as the slovenly Mrs Shin, and the sleazy Shu Fu was given the Carry-On treatment via an exuberant performance by Nick Flooks. However, the use of exaggerated regional accents to denote “common”, immoral characters seems clichéd and slightly lazy. Although this did raise a few laughs, it didn’t seem in keeping with the sophisticated tone of the play as a whole.

Photos provided by the production team

Alice Bristow tackled the challenging dual role of Shen Te/Shui Ta with gusto; some of her scenes were genuinely moving and, as she acts in the role of the heroine, a convincing performance is required to carry the play. Her “transformation” scene, where she got changed on stage, was a brave decision which paid off as it emphasised the vulnerability of Shen Te when contrasted with the confidence of her cousin. Her acting did occasionally tend towards the overly florid or saccharine, especially in the first half, and I did think that this represented an over-reliance on the stereotype of an earnest “good soul”. However, a greater emotional range was displayed in the second half of the play, when Shen Te’s vulnerability matched the tragedy of her situation perfectly.

The Good Soul of Szechuan is a production that marries a strong script with an equally strong creative vision, and is brought to life by a dedicated cast who display real talent to create a soul-destroying world in which the good cannot survive. It is a tragedy without catharsis, and the bleak final scene stands testament to the aptitude and hard work of the Society as it is one of the most affecting things I have seen on stage.

I had a tear in my eye as the cast took their curtain call and would urge readers to buy a ticket for the very limited run of this marvellous play. To see this high-quality interpretation is definitely worth a fiver – please don’t miss out!

The Good Soul of Szechuan is at the Bloomsbury Theatre from 16th-17th November. Entry is £5 for UCL students. Play starts at 7.30pm