Q Theatre, Rangatira, Auckland

26/07/2014 - 17/08/2014

Production Details


Robyn Malcolm does good – and evil – in next ATC production 

Much-loved New Zealand actress Robyn Malcolm (Agent Anna, Outrageous Fortune) will take on dual male and female roles in Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan

Playing at Auckland’s Q Theatre from July 24 to August 17, Malcolm will demonstrate why she is one of the best in the business as she channels both good and evil, man and woman, in the carnival-esque masterpiece by one of theatre’s most respected and influential playwrights. 

Prostitute Shen Te is a “tart with a heart”; compassionate and generous, even toward people who exploit her virtues. Three gods on a fact-finding mission reward her, the only good person they can find, with the means to start a small business. And that’s when her troubles begin. 

Shen Te soon finds herself overwhelmed by scrounging freeloaders who take advantage of her good nature. To survive, she creates a male alter ego, her vicious and brutal cousin Shui Ta – a ruthless businessman who can make the hard decisions without a conscience. 

But juggling the two identities doesn’t come easily – can her good nature endure the pressures of hardship when self-interest, deceit, corruption and opportunism are more readily rewarded? 

Directed by Auckland Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Colin McColl, Malcolm is joined by a stellar cast including Cameron Rhodes (Agent Anna, Mister Pip, Romeo and Juliet: A Love Song), Andrew Grainger (Once on Chunuk Bair, Chicago, Anne Boleyn), Simon Prast (Anne Boleyn, Go Girls) Byron Coll (Once on Chunuk Bair, Badjelly the Witch), Goretti Chadwick (Auckland Daze, Apron Strings, Sione’s Wedding), Yuri Kinugawa (Memory and Desire, A Thousand Apologies), Edwin Wright (The Glass Menagerie, Top of the Lake ), Bronwyn Bradley (Agent Anna, Assasins, Go Girls), Katlyn Wong (The Wife Who Spoke Japanese in Her Sleep, My Wedding and Other Secrets), Shimpal Lelisi (Sione’s Wedding, Bro’ Town, Shortland St) and Phodiso Dentwe. 

“Some of my most satisfying theatre experiences have been Bertolt Brecht’s works. This reinterpretation will showcase the talents of a vastly multicultural cast of actors, singers and musicians lead by the brilliant Robyn Malcolm in virtuoso lead roles,” McColl says. 

German-born playwright Bertolt Brecht is the father of modern Epic Theatre. His portfolio includes classics such as The Life of Galileo, Mother Courage and her Children, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Threepenny Opera.

In The Good Soul of Szechuan , Brecht has a created a dark and dazzling parable that explores the place of love and goodness in a daunting and complex world. 

Packed with glorious characters, music and song, and showcasing audacious costumes by Elizabeth Whiting (Anne Boleyn, The Glass Menagerie), the Audi Season of The Good Soul of Szechuan promises to be a carnival of theatrical delight. 

Q Theatre
from July 26 to August 17

Shen Te - Robyn Malcolm
Mrs Shin/Ensemble - Goretti Chadwick
Ensemble - Cameron Rhodes
Ensemble - Yuri Kinogawa
Ensemble - Andrew Grainger
Yang Sun/Ensemble - Edwin Wright
Ensemble - Bronwyn Bradley
Ensemble - Katlyn Wong
Ensemble - Simon Prast
Ensemble - Byron Coll
Ensemble - Phodiso Dentwe
Wang the Waterseller – Shimpal Lelisi

Musicians – Brett Adams and Steve Thomas

Direction - Colin McColl
Musical Director/Sound Design - John Gibson
Set Design - John Parker
Costume Design - Elizabeth Whiting
Lighting Design - Phillip Dexter MSc

Brecht-Through Experience

Review by James Wenley 01st Aug 2014

It’s surprising to learn that The Good Soul of Szechuan* marks the first time Auckland Theatre Company have produced a play by Bertolt Brecht. Surprising perhaps because a Brechtian sensibility is very much apparent in Artistic Director Colin McColl’s signature ATC productions – recall how often he strips back the stage of the Maidment such as in Other Desert Cities or Awatea, reflecting the Brechtian impulse to draw attention to the theatrical conceit, to make the familiar strange. I think of his interpretation of August: Osage County, the sloped stage so different from the originating Chicago production that recreated a three-storey house. While Brecth’s plays are rarely revisited here, his influence dominates our modern expectations of theatre. Brecht is everywhere, and nowhere. So how thrilling to have a full blown production of a Brecht play, unseen in these parts since Silo’s The Threepenny Opera in 2008.

A cynical modernist update of a morality play, a trio of Gods arrive in Szechuan looking for someone righteous and good. [More]


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Funny, outrageous, unpleasant at times yet very moving

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 28th Jul 2014

Saturday was a fine old day for political theatre. First there was the ‘March to End the Massacre in Gaza’ which ranged from Aotea Square down Queen Street to the American Consulate in Customs Street. There were banners, there was singing and chanting, there was a lie down in the street to symbolise the number of dead, there were costumes and posters, face painting and quite a lot of fake blood. There was no repeat of the flag burning of the previous week because we were encouraged to be on our best behaviour but, all in all, a point was made simply by the many thousands who turned up. All very Brechtian you might say – politics at its most immediate. 

Next, a change of venue to Q Theatre foyer, a post-protest bite to eat and a cup of tea, along with a chat with a couple of sophisticated ladies of no particular age who were off to the finals of the ‘Lexus Song Contest’. Ironic, we noted, that The Good Soul of Szechuan was sponsored by Audi, indicating, we decided, that the arts must be seen by top of the range vehicle manufacturers as a jolly good way to tickle the fancy of prospective high-end buyers. I found myself quietly pleased by this but I’m not sure whether Herr Brecht would have felt the same.  

Q Theatre has really nailed the hospo side of going to the theatre – the food is great as is the service and the bar well stocked and attractive. All in all, it’s an especially fine way to positively contribute to the complete theatre-going experience. 

Artistic Director McColl, in his pre-show speech to the Audi VIPs, wisely reminded them that, if they weren’t regular theatre-goers, Brecht isn’t everyone’s flute of Moet and not to judge ATC’s usual fare by that night’s performance. He was right to do this as a number slipped quietly into the night at the interval, missing the resolution of this brilliant work. Their loss, in my opinion, as the production is quite simply stunning. 

McColl also said that the arrival of Berthold Brecht on the theatre scene in the early 1920s changed theatre as it had previously been known beyond recognition. He was right about that too. Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg and Shaw had only quite recently introduced the world to naturalism and Wedekind and his mates to expressionism, so it seems, in retrospect, a straightforward enough leap for someone to create what Brecht described as ‘epic theatre’: a forum for political ideas, unemotional debate and dialectical materialism.

The environment he worked in was a Germany post ‘The Great War’ and heading, with barely a blip, for number two. He adopted Marxism as his political philosophy and rationalised his theories in tandem with like-minded theatre chums Vsevolod Meyerhold in Russia, Erwin Piscator, long-time collaborator Helene Weigel and eventually Kurt Weill. The theatre arts weren’t the only ones getting a shake-up either with James Joyce reinventing the novelists craft, Eisenstein deconstructing cinema and Pablo Picasso collaging the visual arts. 

In The Good Soul of Szechuan, Brecht uses all the estrangement or ‘distancing’ techniques for which he is well known. He wrote that he wanted to strip “the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and create a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them” and to remove any sense, on the part of the audience, of an emotional involvement in the action of the play or the lives of his characters, leaving them as essentially ciphers that carry the polemic of the play. These techniques include having the actors directly address the audience, speaking stage directions out loud, communicating via placards and signs, and interrupting the action with songs and poetry that progress the debate but which do not enrich the emotional content of the work.(1)

Having said all that, the theatre is about doing it rather than talking about it and the degree of success of any dramatic principle will always be judged on what happens in the performance space rather than what exists between the covers of a book, no matter how wonderful the words may seem in theory.

It’s also wrong to say that Brecht is ‘old hat’, despite fashions determining that his work is seldom staged in the 21st century. His theories have morphed into other forms and we don’t think twice today when an actor address the audience directly, suddenly bursts into song or sets are electronically turned into billboards with surtitles, as is the case with this production.  

So, just how successful is Artistic Director McColl in breathing life into this old chestnut and how authentic is he able to be in his staging of Brecht’s classic text? 

The Rangatira performing space at Q Theatre is excellent. It’s been designed to be multi-purpose and McColl and his hugely experienced design team have chosen to work with the audience on three sides and on three levels.  Our arrival in the space is greeted with the option of two percussion instruments: one a plastic bottle one-third filled with rice; the other, the same style bottle one-third filled with water. My son chooses the rice and has the best time in the world accompanying some great music throughout the performance on his home-made maraca. 

John Parker’s ‘Occupy Queen Street’ set consists of a grey, urban gothic, corrugated iron backdrop in front of which is a tent city urban slum of dwellings made from plastic sheeting, supermarket trolleys and tepee-like hovels. There’s a ladder up to the left-side balcony where a clothes-line of peachy woman’s-wear hangs audaciously. The floor is water-stained and there is a definite sense of longevity to this down-at-heel community. It’s impressive, more particularly so when populated by the ragtag and bobtail characters who reside there, one of whom (Phodiso Dintwe) decides to educate us on the use of our shakers. It’s fun and we’re lucky to be accompanied in our chanting by the excellent Brett Adams (guitar) and splendid Stephen Thomas (drums). I have no idea what time the performance actually starts because that is wonderfully blurred in a suitably Brechtian way and managed cleverly from the stage.   

We are introduced to the nice folks in the tents by Wang the Waterseller (Shimpal Lelisi) who has heard from a truck driver that some Gods are coming but no-one seems to care. The text is visceral and rough and it’s immediately apparent that the decision to use Scottish playwright David Harrower’s excellent new translation (2008) – enriched by a few unobtrusive Kiwi-isms – is an excellent one. Lelisi does an outstanding job of connecting the action to the audience and we can taste Wang’s frustration. The only person who is happy to accommodate the Gods during their stay is Shen Te (Robyn Malcolm), a local prostitute and the good soul of the title.

At this point it’s worth noting that, while Brecht has set the play in China – he loved Peking Opera and Chinese performance – it’s irrelevant where the action of the play occurs, it could be simply anywhere; it’s the moral and ethical debate contained within the text that’s important and not any sense of cultural legitimacy. In fact aiming for cultural legitimacy could well get in the way of the message and that, in the eyes of Herr Brecht, would never do.  

The Gods (Bronwyn Bradley is God #1, Simon Prast is God #2, and Cameron Rhodes is God #3) arrive – quite an entrance – concerned that the people are no longer God-fearing and attempting to find a single person who they can define as virtuous. The Gods are divine – well, their performances are – and it’s great to hear such clarity of diction and uniformity of intent. They explain “we like to watch people, that’s why we’re here.” 

By now we’re getting the idea that these musicians, and John Gibson’s excellent score, are really rather good and both get even better as the evening progresses.   

Impressed by Shen Te’s kindness in providing them accommodation the Gods give her some cash and she uses it to buy a tobacco shop from the cynical Mrs Shin (Goretti Chadwick) in an attempt to free herself from the grip of the oldest profession. Chadwick is wonderfully antipodean and provides the production with an unending cynicism that Brecht would have loved. The shop is a two ended pink truck that’s wheeled on and off, the front of which is the counter and the back the living area. 

Immediately after Shen Te purchases the tobacco shop she is invaded by a bunch of bludging relatives who help themselves to whatever they please to such a degree that Shen Te has to invent a cousin – the hard-nosed businessman Shui Ta – to restore some order and regain control. The ensemble impress with ‘A Little Poem about Patience’ set to Gibson’s brilliant sounds and the true debate is engaged.

It’s only with the appearance of Malcolm’s alter-ego Shui Ta that we realise just what a fabulous transformational actor Malcolm is. The characters are poles apart and it’s hard to believe that they’re created by the same actor, often in almost the same breath. This production is so incredibly good – ATC’s best for yonks – that to say Malcolm’s performance alone is worth the ticket price is to minimise the whole but there, I’ve said it anyway and I’m happy to stand by it. 

Wang the Waterseller is commissioned by the Gods to report back to them on Shen Te’s goodness and he does so, thereby providing a texture that proves Brecht isn’t just about the theory but was pretty sharp when it came to performance structure as well. 

In a park with a bunch of whores, Shen Te meets airman Yang Sun (Edwin Wright), rescues him from his suicidal intention and, by inadvertently falling in love with this ne’er-do-well, sets the rest of the play in motion. There are great lines – “There’s sod all work for pilots” and “Do you know anything about love?” – and a beautiful solo song by Malcolm (‘Where are the snows of yesterday’) with just a microphone on a stand, some of the most haunting guitar you’ll ever hear and the delicate swish of rice on plastic from my left as my son disappears deep into a moment in the play that will stay with both of us for a very long time. 

I’m not sure that Herr Brecht would have approved but I found it impossible not to be drawn into the delicacy of Malcom’s unequivocal love for Yang Sun despite his being an absolute cad, a bounder and a complete scoundrel. While this may not fit with Brecht’s intention in 1940, it certainly works for me in 2014. 

There are sublimely funny moments and none are better than those surrounding Shu Fu (Byron Coll) as the potential husband. Coll’s timing is exquisite and he has the audience in the palm of his hand. 

It’s a journey and a half through the evening – in excess of 2 hours 45 minutes even with an interval – but the pace never falters and the performances are all fantastic. It’s funny, outrageous, unpleasant at times yet very moving and McColl hits all his marks. The debate is clear: is it OK to be a good person who does bad things so she can do even more good or should just being good be enough? Shen Te the idealist is Brecht the Marxist in a nutshell but Shen Te is also Shui Ta, the cold-hearted, self-interested drug lord: indistinguishable from each other in reality but in performance polar opposites. Thus the debate engages with Wang and the Gods as commentary.

There are surprises and shocks and always there’s the music. There are punkish bits, hints of Lou Reed and John Cage from ‘Songs for Drella’, excellent ensemble and solo singing and endlessly fabulous drumming.  

Also, there are the questions never answered: did she love him simply because he was poor? Did she love him because she knew she could help him? What is good? What is evil? Can both live in same skin? Do we ever have one without the other? Why are the good always poor? Why is evil rewarded? 

Edwin Wright as Yang Sun is excellent. He’s likeable, attractive and seedy. Katlyn Wong and Cameron Rhodes never put a foot wrong and feed the comedy machine mercilessly. So do Goretti Chadwick and Byron Coll, each great ensemble members. Simon Prast is a stand out, but then who would be surprised by that? His Irish priest is brilliant yet he seems to do nothing.  

It’s Robyn Malcolm’s evening nonetheless. She is nothing short of superb. Soft, delicate and loving as Shen Te, hard, angular and tight as Shui Ta, hers is an intricate performance of dexterous subtlety and skill, and while she is ever true to the production and to herself, most of all she is true to Brecht and what he has embedded in the play.

One of the great criticisms of the play is that it’s ending doesn’t work. Even Brecht himself said so. Yet in the hands of this director, his leading actor and his ensemble it does work and works superbly well. 

I’m left with two abiding memories from this production of The Good Soul of Szechuan.

The first relates to its authenticity. McColl and his team seem to have captured Brecht’s theories, put them into practice and embedded them in the 21st century. In a way it’s no surprise given the politics of today but it takes a visionary to see these connections and McColl is just such a visionary. 

The second relates exclusively to the heart. Great actors work from the heart and I’m happy to say that this production is full of love: love of the work, love of the ensemble, love for each other, love of the art form and love of, and for, the audience. It seeps from every pore in this work – and from every performer – and I’m monumentally glad it does. Bravo, bravo, bravo! 

On the way home I ask my son (age 11) whether he’s enjoyed the production. He has, he tells me, so much so that he’s nicked a memento – the plastic bottle with the rice in it that he used as a maraca. “I wanted something personal to remember it by,” he said, “it was so special.” Who could disagree? 

(1) Brooker, Peter. 1994. “Key Words in Brecht’s Theory and Practice of Theatre”. In Thomson and Sacks (1994, 185–200).


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An angel, a drug lord, a star

Review by Paul Simei-Barton 28th Jul 2014

From a position of enormous popularity in the 1970s, Bertolt Brecht’s reputation suffered a precipitous decline as the fall of the Berlin Wall exposed the moral bankruptcy of the worker’s paradise to which he professed his loyalty. 

A widespread revival of fortune seems unlikely but ATC’s vigorous production of one of his major works affirms that Brecht was a writer of enormous vitality and the blinkered ideological commitments cannot obscure his passionate engagement with the extremes of the human condition. 

The Good Soul of Szechuan presents a thoroughly contemporary take on the age-old question of whether there is enough goodness remaining within humanity to justify our continued existence. [More]


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