Because sometimes the stars align
and fate is kind
and good things happen in a small, quiet way
I was in New York for the first preview of The Good Person of Szechwan, the one with Taylor Mac, whom I've hero-worshipped-from-afar since seeing Comparison is Violence or The Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook on my 35th birthday, which made stumbling into the wrong half of my 30s a considerably more gaudy and delightful experience than it had any right to be. I travelled to New York with a suitcase brimming with guilt, and didn't tell anyone I was seeing this X. I'm not even sure I should be writing this, because it feels like so much showing off X (can you tell I'm going through yet another life crisis? Why do I do what I do? What is the point of writing about theatre?) X. A warning: what follows is really gushy. I recommend George Hunka for a similarly enthusiastic but more considered view.
You walk through backstage to get into the auditorium, and how magical that is, because before it even starts you feel as though you're walking through the landscape of the play, an inhabitant within it, especially because the backstage space is scattered with little cardboard houses piled higgledy-piggledy, like in a painting by Klimt. The stage is curtained (stop it, Mark Lawson nemeses) and out front sit three ruffians playing a washboard, a double bass and a silver guitar (although already I have to confess I didn't take notes, so this could have been a banjo or a mandolin: so many details), later joined by a woman in an emerald evening dress. They are the Lisps, and their music is a roughshod-but-glittering skiffle-folk – immediately setting up dichotomies to be explored through the play. On stage there's a steep stepped rake, mirroring the rake of the seating, each ledge with its own trim row of houses, and at the top of the mountain sit the band, as though among the gods, although they're not the gods at all – the Illustrious Ones are played by three wizened women in confirmation dresses, who hobble and creep yet seem as fluttery and fleet as the good fairies in the Disney Sleeping Beauty. Wang, the waterseller, bounds down our side of the mountain to look for them; played by David Turner, he is a cherub with dirt-smudged cheeks and eyes that lie, despite his longing to be good. What Turner conveys brilliantly is the boyishness of Wang's conniving, the innocence beneath his experience of poverty. There is a girlishness, too, about his performance, in the lifts of his heels, the flicks of his ankles, the soft yearning of his voice, that aligns Wang with Shen Tei: the prostitute with the heart of gold, played, oh so perfectly, by Taylor Mac.
No, wait: Taylor Mac didn't seem perfect right away. There was a touch of irony in the performance, a minute distancing of self from character, felt not in the costume – shaved head and gold high heels and a red embroidered floaty gown cut so low that his hairy chest was always exposed: a jarring combination that encouraged you to believe in the character from the inside out, not the outside in – but somewhere in the tone of things. There were moments when he didn't seem to be taking Shen Tei entirely seriously – but then, there were moments early on when the director, Lear deBessonet, didn't seem to be taking the entire play seriously, encouraging her actors towards stiltedness, cartoon excess, the grotesque. About 30 minutes in, however, something in me clicked: this is a play of diametric extremes, and in embracing that deBessonet is better able to illuminate the subtlety, complexity and pain that exists between them.
And that's where Taylor Mac becomes perfect: in the switching back and forth from soft-as-silk Shen Tei, crushed by the demands of the people around her, by her own needs and desires, by the impossibility of always giving to a world that only takes, and Shen Tei's imaginary cousin, Shui Ta, rigid as a pole in a pinstriped suit, arriving on stage with a yelp from the band that sounds like the thwack of a whip and a leap in the air that puts you in mind of Rowan Atkinson playing a kick-boxing Hitler. There's an extraordinary scene – singing the Song of the Defencelessness of the Good and the Gods – where he changes from the costume of her to him before our eyes, and every note and gesture conveys furious disappointment, or perhaps disillusioned fury, that the merciless, ruthless Shui Ta should be necessary. Even more wonderful is the song that closes the first half: it's not in my John Willett translation, and could have been written by the Lisps, so I can't quote the lyrics, but it's a declaration of love (for Yang Sun, deliciously played by Clifton Duncan, as an erotic promise wrapped around an adolescent tantrum) sinuous with soul rhythm, mellifluous with doo-wop harmony sung by the rest of the cast, with not a trace of sentimentality about it.
Playing Shen Tei sentimentally would be so easy. As embodied by Taylor Mac, she is throughout a creature of electric contradiction. After all, Shui Ta is her own invention. On paper, Shen Tei's myriad direct addresses to the audience make her look like a mouthpiece for ideology; in the flesh, Taylor Mac injects her tenderness with desperation – the desperation that makes Shui Ta's embrace of capitalism, and Shen Tei's dissolution of self beneath his ice-pick cruelty, possible. The moment of confessing this split personality to the gods is riveting, because Shen Tei's humanity, with all its flaws, is absolute – and that makes the inhumanity of the gods more glaring and cruel.
So yes, Taylor Mac is exquisite. But really, I found the whole thing exquisite, and not just because being there felt like my own gift from the gods. Once I'd adjusted to the performance style I found the cast uniformly terrific, vulgar, messy and oddly lovable. I shivered at the simple beauty of staging: the three little puppet gods going to sleep in Shen Tei's house; the tiny windows of the houses glowing in the dark; Shen Tei's wedding dress, pastel silk with a bush of frou-frou netting for a bridal veil; the gnarled tree from which Yang Sun tries to hang himself, which Shen Tei – or was it Shui Ta? – wrenches down, an act of destruction signalling the imminent wreck of her own soul. Most of all, I loved that it did that cliched thing: it made this 70-year-old play, by Brecht's own admission (at least, according to this other extremely useful piece by George Hunka) a bit of a shambles, feel like a coherent attack on the world directly outside the theatre, a world as riven by inequality as the one on stage. And because the play felt so vital, the epilogue felt like a gauntlet:
Should men be better? Should the world be changed?
Or just the gods? Or ought there to be none?
We for our part feel well and truly done.
There's only one solution that we know:
That you should now consider as you go
What sort of measures you would recommend
To help good people to a happy end.
Just good people? Of course not. Because if The Good Person of Szechwan teaches us nothing else (and it remains didactic, if winningly, entertainingly so), it's that there are no “good” people or “bad” people, just people who exist within a certain set of circumstances, following its rules, sometimes with a sense of power and self-determination, more often helplessly and without choice. It's not happy endings that are needed, but a comprehensive attack on the rules that make the circumstances. This production, vibrant with wild spirit, glinting with transgression, feels itself like an attack on the rules. That, too, makes it magical.