A few good women

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
The Good Woman of Setzuan. The Orange Tree, Richmond on Thames

Carole Woddis discovers a refreshingly unpompous approach to Brecht

In a sense its just a simple parable about a prostitute who's a good woman but with also the depth and complexity of a parable", says Sam Walters talking of Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan.

Walters is one of life's genuine enthusiasts. For nearly a quarter of a century he's been running the Orange Tree Theatre at Richmond with a zeal and energy that has brought the world's stage to this tiny corner by the Thames.

An irrepressible optimist, the same spirit of adventure clearly inhabits his latest enterprise, his first promenade production in the comparatively new five-year-old, oak-pillared theatre-in-the-round that replaces the old upstairs room in the pub across the way.

To stage one of Brecht's epic plays is one thing. To stage it on the hoof is something else again. "God knows how it will work" he explodes with laughter. "But it will be good fun. We'll include the audience. If we need a shelf the stage manager will just come on, hand it to someone in the audience and take it back when the scene is finished".

This is a refreshingly un-pompous attitude to the dramatist the British love to hate for what they take to be his political propaganda and the tendentious theories. Walters's cast of nine will also share all the parts with the main role, Shen Te the young woman taken from poverty by the gods to see if and how a good woman can survive in this world being shared between four actresses.

"I know role-sharing sounds confusing", he confesses, "but it isn't; it's totally clear", which considering Good Woman also harbours a double-sexed character Shen Te has a male alter ego in the form of her hard-hearted businessman cousin, Shui Ta may seem more than a touch complacent.

Walters though has compelling reasons for making such a claim. His three previous Brecht productions The Caucasian Chalk Circle, an earlier production of The Good Woman in 1981 and Mother Courage all employed this minimalist, role-sharing approach and, against popular convention, all sold out.

Sam believes there is a strong audience for Brecht particularly amongst young people. "Young people feel there's a certain cachet attached to him, I also think he appeals to their idealistic side".

But maybe it is also because of the way Sam does them in this case, a 20 year process of steady evolution that started in 1977. It was a play they had just premiered, Olwen Wymark's Find Me, he recalls, that inspired him.

"I was very struck by the way the parts were shared amongst the actors. I began to think how well it would work for Brecht and the alienation effect he was after, distancing the audience from being too emotionally involved so that you can see the story and the mechanics the way and how more clearly.

Sharing parts was also, he felt, much fairer on his own company. "Brecht, ironically, tended to write stonking great star parts which meant the rest of the cast were all left playing peasant number three or something".

On both ideological and entertainment grounds, therefore, Sam feels Brecht would have approved. "I feel like someone who's found a little key to something and wants to share it. People have this view that Brecht is going to be heavy, that they're going to be lectured to. But he always said his plays should be light. You mustn't obscure the serious point he's making but I think there is a need particularly in this country to counteract preconceptions".

With its new songs and in-the-round, all-round movement, there should be nothing stuffy about this epic. The Orange Tree is also putting on extra matinees, morning introductions to Brecht and whole-day seminars (for both A-level students and adults) as educational back-ups. They've done their homework, so sit back and enjoy.

The Good Woman of Setzuan is at the Orange Tree, Richmond until March 23. Tickets and information: 0181 940 3633

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