By Bertolt Brecht; Directed by Colin McColl
Auckland Theatre Company
Q Theatre, Auckland | July 24-August 17
Robyn Malcolm is divine.
There are actors who blend into a production and become seamlessly a part of it, so much so that the actor almost disappears. There are also actors, especially in lead role, who bend the production around them so that it becomes about them and their performance. Neither the actor, nor the performance, is better than the other.
Then there are actors like Robyn Malcolm, and there are very, very few like Robyn Malcolm. Simply put—and this is a cliché that has been trotted back and forth far enough—Robyn Malcolm IS The Good Soul of Szechuan.
This is not simply saying that she is the titular character, Shen Tei, and also her alter-ego Shui Ta, though she is this, but Robyn Malcolm is this entire production. The rest of the cast, the design, and the audience draw energy, meaning, and depth from her performance and all are wholly better as a result.
It’s a bizarre performance to describe and evaluate, as a lot of it draws from Robyn Malcolm’s place in our culture as much as it does from Robyn Malcolm the actress. There are film and TV stars in New Zealand culture who often don’t cohere or translate when they’re onstage; they seem aloof and unrelatable. It’s nothing to do with the actors or their talent, but TV has an odd way of distancing a performer when you see them in the flesh. It paid dividends with Lucy Lawless in Chicago last year, but Robyn Malcolm is not Lucy Lawless and Brecht is not Chicago.
There is something instantly relatable and approachable in Robyn Malcolm that makes her perfect for the role of Shen Tei, the loveable but misguided prostitute who shelters the Gods when they stay in Szechuan and starts a shop from the money they give her for her generosity. It’s that approachability, when united with Malcolm’s clear command of the craft, that makes this not only a great performance, but a performance for the ages. Brecht is heady, highly didactic, and allegorical material, and without a performer like Malcolm giving it a human element, it can often die on the stage. With someone like Malcolm, it becomes magical and real.
This is not to overshadow the rest of the production, or the rest of the cast, who all play multiple roles to further shed light on the play, with a few taking precedence during the fairly episodic play. Edwin Wright plays the utterly despicable but ultimately pitiful pilot Yang Sun, who wins Shen Tei’s heart and money in a series of scenes that are so specific to these characters but feel utterly universal and personal. Bronywn Bradley, Simon Prast and Cameron Rhodes play the Gods, and sit outside the play in style and tone but are nonetheless hilarious; Bradley also has a delightful role as the pilot’s mother in the second half and expertly plays an imperious Chinese mother by way of Henderson. Goretti Chadwick has small roles, but is an incredible presence on stage and cuts right through some of Brecht’s less than sparkling dialogue with a fiery charisma and unparalleled comic timing.
The design elements of the play are all top-shelf, especially John Gibson’s sound design and music. Easily the best, most electric moment in the play comes in the middle of the second half, an unexpected musical interlude regarding a revelation in Shen Tei’s life. Malcolm nails the opposing elements of fragility and strength in this moment, but when aligned with Gibson’s music, courtesy of two-man band Brett Adams and Stephen Thomas, it’s an utterly transcendent moment. Phillip Dexter’s lighting design is simple but effective, transporting us into the world of both feudal China and modern day K’Rd without seeming jarring, while John Parker’s set design does a firmer job of locating us in both. However, the most striking images in the play come from Elizabeth Whiting’s genius costume design: Shen Tei’s pink trenchcoat, dwarving the dimunuitive actor in it, is an instantly iconic piece of design, as is Shui Ta’s parodic gangster look.
Colin McColl’s direction is solid; these are all exemplary design elements and for the most part they cohere into a solid piece. There’s a bit of a patchwork quality to the production that is jarring at first, and it takes a good 15 minutes for the production to relax into the text and become fully clear, but then an audience gets used to the jarring quality of it. The final beat of the play especially had a confused reaction on opening night; others laughed while I was left utterly shaken to the core by it. There are elements of this that are in the text and the Brechtian style, and some of these Brechtian flourishes seem dated in 2014; mostly the audience interaction and some of the comic elements. These don’t detract from the show a lot, or in the long run, but it’s a prescient reminder that a lot of the techniques that Brecht created and held dear have become commonplace in modern theatre and it’s not particularly revolutionary to see them in productions nowadays.
I do applaud The Auckland Theatre Company for delivering a production that is as balls-out weird as The Good Soul of Szechuan. There are moments throughout that puzzled me, but seemed nonetheless inspired and I was excited to see a spark of inspiration in a show that could have been so rote and safe. What has ended up onstage is not a perfect production, although a week onstage could see the text come through clearer and some of the elements cohere more, but it is an inspired one and a perfect starting point for any theatregoer, young or old, to get into Brecht.
But there’s one reason to go see this production: Robyn Malcolm. The show starts and ends with her and her performance. In her alone, the audience is reminded that humans have the potential for incredible goodness and incredible self-servitude, and often within the same person.
Robyn Malcolm plays the Good Soul of Szechuan but Robyn Malcolm IS The Good Soul of Szechuan. See it, see her.
* * *
By Gary Henderson
Directed by Matt Baker
Basement Theatre, Auckland | July 29-August 9
I read An Unseasonable Fall of Snow in my second year of university. It was in a volume of Gary Henderson plays, along with Skin Tight and Mo and Jess Kill Susie, and I remember being startled by the language and the audacity of the piece; two men in a room for an hour discussing something that happened offstage does not sound inherently theatrical, but it’s couched in a mystery and a revelation that is utterly theatrical.
Theatre of Love’s production of this play is traditional, which is a word that brings its own baggage with it, but in my mind is completely a good thing. An Unseasonable Fall of Snow is not a play that needs bells and whistles, smoke and mirrors, to be an effective piece of theatre. A production need only set the stage for the text to emerge, which should be true of any production really, but is especially true of this play—we need only a solid foundation for both text and performers to play out before us.
The play on around a verbal spar between Arthur (Michael Hurst) and Liam (Ryan Richards); Arthur is interrogating Liam about what happened the previous night, and Liam is a little out of it, and reticent to answer. To reveal anything more would be spoiling the inherent mystery and question of the piece, but both performers raise questions early on with some very careful choices, and what might initially seem like awkward acting reveals itself to be brilliance in light of what comes later in the play.
Hurst is stirring and enervating as Arthur, and the text really relies on him to keep the play moving along in the first half, and even when the second half gives itself up for Arthur’s story and background, Hurst keeps it interesting. Richards is utterly brilliant as Liam: we totally buy into how stunned this character is, and watching Arthur pull the threads out of Liam’s personality is heartbreaking. The final notes of this performance are an utter joy to watch: a man truly coming into his own, and maybe a little bit too late to do so.
Matt Baker’s direction is incredibly effective—it’s a light touch but an incredibly controlled one. The design elements, from Amber Molloy’s subtle but emotionally piercing lighting to Ora Simpson’s constant rumbling sound design, cohere into a solid production. Ben Anderson’s production design is less successful: an ambiguity in location is almost prescribed by the text, but the boxes around the edges of the stage appear to exist for a late payoff that isn’t quite earned. Again, it’s a production that exists to showcase both performers and text, and it does this in spades while also giving the moments that require an extra push to get maximum impact that required push.
There are awkward moments when the text begins to show its age—a long passage about software that runs right up to the line of being dated but stops just before crossing over it is one such example—but these are far and few in between. For the most part, this is a text that has aged particularly well, especially in an era where we are discussing rape culture openly and putting the male psyche under the microscope much more than we might have been in the late nineties, and the revelations of both these characters are stark reminders of the dilemmas that plague men, and especially those around them.
An Unseasonable Fall of Snow is a great play. It’s not being produced 16 years after its initial commission for no reason, and Theatre of Love has delivered a truly worthy production of that play, with two great performances to its credit.