Berliner Ensemble‘s production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Sezuan (Der gute Mensch von Sezuan – published in 1941 and first staged in 1943) opens with the character of Wang, who sells water in the impoverished city in the province of Sezuan, and encounters three goddesses in search of a good person. Finding them a place to spend the night proves to be a challenge, and only the sex worker Shen Te takes them in despite her dire poverty, and the goddesses reward her for her kindness with money. She buys a tobacco store but is immediately taken advantage of by all the inhabitants who know that she can’t say no to anyone, and thus she is forced to invent and cross-dress as her mean cousin Shui Ta, who immediately created order, and kicks out all the free-loaders who exploit her generosity. Shen Te then meets Sun, an unemployed pilot, preventing him from committing suicide, and falls in love with him. But he wants to use her money to get back to flying and leave her behind. When she refuses to sell her tabacco shop to give him all her money, he breaks off their wedding. Heart-broken and pregnant, Shen Te again disguises as her cousin and starts a tobacco factory to get herself out of debt and to protect her unborn child. But when Shui Ta is accused of holding Shen Ta captive, she has to reveal her true identity and let the goddesses down with her ploy to survive, demonstrating that in this world it is impossible to both be good and to remain alive.
Directed by Leader Haußmann (famous for films such as Sonnenallee from 1999, and Herr Lehmann from 2003) and with a daring, powerful, and moving performance by Antonia Bill (who has been a member of the ensemble since 2012), the play remains true to Brecht’s alienation effects, as the emotional identification with the characters is constantly interrupted through various techniques, such as jump cuts, props, music, songs, and acting techniques to reveal the illusory nature of the theatre and for the audience to remain detached, critical, and focused on the social, political, and moral issues at hand. The clever set design (by Via Lewandowsky) and costumes (by Janina Brinkmann) provide the story with a modern-urban trailer-trash aesthetic and style that accentuate the impoverished community and its impoverished morals.
Often translated as The Good Woman of Sezuan, Brecht’s play (as many former East German productions) presented a female protagonist to illustrate the contradictions of social experience, the impossibility of ethics and capital.The play was begun in 1938 but not completed until 1941, while Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel were in exile in the United States. It was first performed in 1943 at the Zürich Schauspielhaus in Switzerland, with a musical score and songs by Swiss composer Huldreich Georg Früh.
Returning from exile after the war, Brecht and Weigel established the berliner Ensembe theatre company in January 1949 in East Berlin. The company first worked at Wolfgang Langhoff’s Deutsches Theater, and in 1954 moved to the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, built in 1892, where Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) premiered in 1928. After Brecht’s death in 1956, Weigel continued managing the theatre until her death in 1971. Under the management of Helene Weigel’s successor Ruth Berghaus the company expanded its selection to that of other European playwrights in the 1970s. After German reunification major changes took place at the theatre: in 1992 the Berlin Senate appointed a collective of five stage directors to serve as Intendanten (General Administrators): Peter Zadek, Peter Palitzsch, Heiner Müller, Fritz Marquardt, and Matthias Langhoff. In that same year, the internationally renowned conductor Alexander Frey was appointed Music Director of the Berliner Ensemble. Frey was the first American to hold a position at the Berliner Ensemble, as well as being the theatre’s first non-German Music Director; his historic predecessors in that position include the composers Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, and Paul Dessau.
In 1993, the theatre company was privatized, but continued to receive a subsidy from Berlin Senate, as one of the Staatstheater (which allows them to keep the ticket prices relatively low and make it accessible to a wide audience, and still employ high-caliber actors, directors, musicians, and artists). Young directors including B.K. Tragelehn and Einar Schleef and the stage designer Andreas Reinhardt questioned the traditions of Brechtian theatre and introduced more contemporary theatre styles. Müller’s production of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, with Martin Wuttke in the title role, became one of the most successful in the history of the company. His program Brecht-Müller-Shakespeare remains the guiding direction of the company. Claus Peymann, the provocative and successful manager of the Burgtheater in Vienna, was appointed artistic director in January 2000, after extensive renovations were completed. Peymann assumed his role with a commitment – like Brecht’s – to producing political theatre for the public, but more broadly interpreted.
This season continues until July 18, 2016, and starts again after the summer break in September. The Good Person of Sezuan can be seen at the Berliner Ensemble on June 26st July 12th, 2016.
Photos by Lucie Jansch