thu 20/06/2024

The Good Person of Szechwan, Pushkin Drama Theatre, Barbican review - slick Russian Brecht | reviews, news & interviews

The Good Person of Szechwan, Pushkin Drama Theatre, Barbican review - slick Russian Brecht

The Good Person of Szechwan, Pushkin Drama Theatre, Barbican review - slick Russian Brecht

Musically strong, if persistent, this production has a star protagonist

Alexander Arsentiev as the unemployed airman and Alexandra Ursulyak as Shen Te All images by Alex Yocu

"In our country the capable man needs luck," belts out Shen Te, the Good Person of Szechwan in the most powerful song of Brecht's epic "parable play" of 1941.

"Only if he has powerful backers can he prove his capacity." Never was that more true than in Russia today; note that the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre has been resident at the Barbican for five days "with the generous support of Roman Abramovich". That puts Brecht's lyrically stated take on poverty and destitution into a certain perspective; this is a production of essential spareness but with some lavish visual effects largely alien to Brecht's own Berliner Ensemble.

No doubt about it, though: the central and infinitely various performance of Alexandra Ursulyak (pictured below as Shen Te) pulls into compelling focus Brecht's other pertinent theme, that women are sold and men are the sellers, an inescapable fact that Shen Te puts to remarkable use by creating the role of a hard-nosed male cousin, Shui Ta. Three times "he" comes to the rescue, chipping away a little bit more of the goodness within. It's a theme Brecht also pursued with Kurt Weill in the shape of sisters Anna I and Anna II in their "sung ballet" The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petit Bourgeoisie. But The Good Person of Szechwan is oh-so-much longer. Alexandra Ursulyak as Shen TeThe Pushkin team throws everything at it, sometimes at the expense of narrative clarity; and I wonder if anyone else was uncomfortable with how the slowly emerging truth that water-seller Wang, who opens the show, is also one of the gods – here two, not three, with the second one silent until the end – demands that actor Alexander Matrosov slip from "normal" into a characterisation of a poor man with what I took to be cerebral palsy. Ursulyak’s first appearance is a bit of a trial, too. I can understand that director Yury Butusov wants to kick against the grain of the sweet “tart with a heart”, and this Shen Te looks appropriately down at everything but heel; but that very Russian brand of shoutiness and a lot of clattering about outstay their welcome.

Ursulyak’s cousin-impersonation is strong (pictured below), but it’s from the point at which Shen Te falls for a suicidal airman in a rain-drenched park that our attention is riveted. Her rendition of the central “Song of the Defencelessness of the Good and the Gods” is stunning proof that Ursulyak could hold an evening of Brecht/Weill and Brecht/Eisler. The original composer, Paul Dessau, is used here, and all his songs, performed in the original German, are powerful – above all the magnificient group delivery of “The Song of the Eighth Elephant” – or haunting, especially in the arrangements for a tireless four-piece band at the side of the stage; these musicians should be credited in the programme. alexandra Ursulyak as Shui TaMusical director Igor Gorsky is called upon to do much more, though: essentially to fill the spoken dialogue with eclectic numbers that are more than background – something closer to the "semi-opera" Weill was planning to make of the "play with songs" at the end of his life. The jazz number during which the parasites pile in to the tobacco shop Shen Te has opened with her god-given thousand silver dollars is brilliantly executed – this ensemble can certainly dance – though the presentation can distract from the sense.

Likewise the scene with the two prostitutes jealous of Shen Te’s presumed poaching, played out revue-style by two stylish women at mikes in front of a drop-curtain with Diane Arbus’s famous photo of identical twins looming large. The projections on the back wall, information overload, can't often be made out. There are times when you wish the music would just disappear, either because it’s too sentimental or because silence in the more inward moments would be much more powerful. Scene from The Good Person of SzechwanStill, all the actors deliver well, especially Matrosov (pictured above with flagging "god" Anastasia Lebedeva), Alexander Arsentiev, a powerful presence as the fickle would-be airman, and the contralto-voiced Vera Voronkova as his opportunistic mother. The denouement is strong until Ursulyak has to shout against the music, first in German and then in Russian, in her climactic speech. Again, one feels some of the topicality to the way we live now is lost in an ingenious circus act. But credit to the company for giving us so much of the text as well as the original music for the songs; there aren’t many companies in the UK prepared to give Brecht something of his full measure in the longer plays today.

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