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  • Jack Starr

The Good Person of Szechwan – a Revitalised Take on a Classic at the Crucible

The Good Person of Szechwan, by German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, celebrates its eightieth anniversary this year. In commemoration, Sheffield Theatres, along with the English Touring Theatre and Lyric Hammersmith, have produced a bright and exciting new adaptation of the play.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

One of Brecht’s most popular plays, it centres of the character of Shen Te (Ami Tredrea), a penniless yet generous young prostitute doing all she can to survive in the hustle and bustle of the big city. When three gods arrive, she offers them shelter – and in return, they offer money as a reward. Seeking stability in her life, Shen Te uses the money to open a tobacco shop.

From here, the complications start adding up. The other locals begin to take advantage of her generous spirit, landlords try to scheme her out of her finances, and a potential marriage suitor seems to only be in it for the money. What was supposed to be a way out of poverty has quickly turned into more of a nightmare.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

This is where ‘Shui Ta’ comes in. Fed up with being dismissed as a woman, Shen Te takes on a male disguise, donning male clothes and a moustache, claiming to be Shui Ta, her ‘male cousin’. As this persona takes over, she finds herself getting involved in the scheming and manipulating, propelling herself into financial success by sheer force and threats. Soon, she has grown her business into a whole tobacco factory, and, in the process, has lost her own persona – Shen Te’s altruism has given way to Shui Ta’s exploitation.

And the real catch? It turns out that the three gods who gifted the money are searching the world for a truly ‘good person’ – and if they don’t find one, the apocalypse will come.

This classic tale of survival in the ruthless world of capitalism has been adapted for a modern day setting by writer Nina Segal – there are new songs, modern-day references, and jokes that are translated for a modern audience. It lands very well – it seems the brutal world of business has not changed much since the 1940s, as the themes of greed at the heart of human nature still ring true.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

The set design in the Crucible is also a real highlight. Performed on a thrust stage, the set is bright pink, with two slides on either side, surrounded by a ball-pit, filled with plastic balls that conceal essential props and occasionally even cast members. The back of the stage is adorned with bright neon lights, and at some points, water and plastic balls will drop from the ceiling. It’s built like a television game show – an apt comparison, with the scheming and gaming on display in the play, all in the pursuit of more money.

This adaptation was directed by Anthony Lau (Sheffield Theatres’ Anna Karenina), and the overall tone is bold and quirky. There’s giant frog costumes, oversized props, karaoke song-and-dance numbers with lyrics displayed on a screen. It veers into the absurd in parts, blending silliness with the grounded themes of the Brecht original. The influence of Chinese culture is evident here – it’s a loud and extravagant production, with flashy direction.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Brecht first wrote this play during his exile to the United States, during the Second World War, when he fled the Nazi regime in his native Germany. The play is set in the Chinese city of Szechwan, and features an excellent cast of East Asian actors – but its themes are universal, and bridge across different times and cultures. It explores the human need for endless satisfaction, and how greed can immediately corrupt even the purest souls. Injected with humour and a bit of romantic drama, this production is one of the most enjoyable ways to experience this classic.

In true Brechtian fashion, it often breaks the fourth wall, and addresses the audience directly, to ask them how a ‘good person’ can come to exist and thrive in a world that is simply not good. This adaptation places the narrator role onto Japanese character-actor Togo Igawa, dressed in a rat costume, who occasionally arrives to witness the dramatic developments. He delivers some exceptional monologues to the crowd, imploring the viewer to a find a solution to the dilemmas of the story. Brecht was evidently influenced by Marxist theories of historical materialism, seeking to illustrate to the audience that a resolution is impossible under the current structure of society – here, this illustration is pulled off effortlessly, with the audience left to decide for themselves on a resolution.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

This production of The Good Person of Szechwan has been picked as a ‘Best Theatre’ choice for 2023 by the Guardian, Telegraph and Times and it is easy to see why – it’s a classic reworked into a fun and enjoyable show, while never losing its core message.

The Good Person of Szechuan is at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until 1 April. For more information, see:

It will then play at Lyric Hammersmith 15 April – 13 May. For more information, see:

1 Comment

May 07, 2023

Excellent production!

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