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Posted by : TimothyRamsden on Oct 20, 2013 - 11:21 AM Archive

by Bertolt Brecht translated by Michael Hofmann.

Mercury Theatre Balkerne Gate CO1 1PT To 19 October 2013.
Runs 2hr 30min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 18 October.

Pointed and piercing production.

This was the most intransigent of the four plays by which Bertolt Brecht first became known in English translations. Central character Shen Te switches between her own identity and male alter ego Shui Ta seemingly according to dramatic proscription. And Brecht creates an unfamiliar society for his hard social points.

Several things might help today’s audiences: China’s now seen frequently on TV news, and sexual identity’s a much more discussed theme. But Nikolai Foster’s production remains a triumph in its own right.

Not just for takis’ design, creating a general urban decay alongside Chinese motifs in a two-decker car crash of a place, with crashed car, a pit from which the lights of hell can glow, and a looming overhang creating dark, secret threat – somewhere Shen Te’s tobacco shop seems as temporary a set-up as it proves.

Foster creates the complacency of the three gods who roam the land looking for human virtue; The Threepenny Opera’s famous line that Food Comes First, Morals Follow On slams home here as they complacently ignores human poverty – just one of them gives Shen Te money for their accommodation, almost as an afterthought. After all, virtue that’s rewarded is hardly virtue. So they look for their big society with zero-sum expenditure.

Dominic Gately’s god is desperate to find goodness, Mike Burnside’s a mite more considerate. But this would all be little without a superb performance, technically accomplished and humanly piercing, from Tanya Franks. After a momentary glimpse of her as a seductive door-framed prostitute, Shen Te’s economic desperation becomes clear as Franks provides a low-key style of speech admirably suited to her vulnerable goodness in a grasping society.

The performance also helps Foster’s production shows the necessity for her invention of brutal cousin Shui Ta. Wrapped in male suit and hat, voice deepening, and also losing the variety of tone in Shen Te’s human responses to people, Shui Ta is a rough-toned speaker, not only suppressing Shen Te’s identity but creating an unresponsive roughness calling the bluff of every specious plea. A notable performance in an outstanding show of this autumn’s English theatre season.

3rd God/Grandfather/Policeman/Priest: Mike Burnside.
Wag: Jake Davies.
Shen Te: Tanya Franks.
1st God/Lin To/Waiter: Dominic Gately.
Nephew: Stefan Gumbs.
Husband: Justin Pierre.
Yang Sun: Gary Shelford.
2nd God/Unemployed Man: Mitesh Soni.
Sister-in-Law/Prostitute: Nancy Sullivan.
Mrs Shin/Prostitute: Sue Vincent.
Wife/Mrs Mi Tzu: Lucy Williamson.
Niece: Kassia Wall/Jessica Martin.
Ni Tzu: Joseph Crabb/Caleb Catantan.
Beggar Children: Lauren Bourne, James Gardiner, Alfred Riddell, Elli Buchanan, Rachel Noles, Andrew Carrington-Moule, Georgia Crown/Isabella Owen,
Ciaran McNulty, Leon Garcia, Brooke Vines, Tilly Hawkins, Luna Garcia, Mathilda Owen.

Director: Nikolai Foster.
Designer: takis.
Lighting: James Whiteside.
Sound: Sebastian Frost.
Composer: Grant Olding.
Assistant director: Laurence Cook.
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