Who knew that Brecht wrote pantomime? The German playwright is more famous for his epic themes and seriousness of topic than his ability to entice a titter, yet in Hampstead theatre’s production of Turandot, we have the UK premiere of Brecht’s only comedy.
Set in a China where the emperor’s daughter, the Turandot of the title, is in need of a husband, and the emperor’s money is running short due to the prevalence of cotton, Brecht’s comedy, translated by Edward Kemp, explores themes of power, knowledge, rebellion and socialism while keeping the audience smiling with many a cheap gag.
When Gerard Murphy’s effeminate Emperor totters onto stage dressed in a brightly coloured gown and red hat reminiscent of a Chinese lantern, he puts you a little in the mind of a panto dame. But Twanky he ain’t, and he has a crisis to solve. A bumper harvest has made cotton, owned by the royal family, exceedingly cheap. The only course of action is to create scarcity and drive the price up. But when the peasants can’t afford clothes there is a major uprising and the country’s greatest thinkers are called in to ‘solve’ the problem.
Brecht’s message about the pointlessness of misused intellect, the politics of spin and the nature of socialism sounds out like a fog horn through the mist of comedy names – Ki Leh (think perky pop pixie), Hi Weh – and colourful, larger-than-life characters. As the thinkers consider the missing cotton, an unsavoury outcast, who ties red armbands around his followers, is working his way into power and no-one is trying to stop him. You don’t need to be a great thinker to spot the allusion to the rise of the Nazis.
Chipo Chung’s flighty, ditsy Turandot is the most easily seduced by knowledge, in a boisterously sexual sense. The rest of the ensemble cast works its way through a variety of roles, from Chinese gangsters resembling more mobsters than triads, to robed – and on one occasion disrobed – thinkers.
Garance Marneur’s wooden slatted set swings open and closed to create Chinese laundries, palatial bedrooms and courts, and Mia Soteriou’s songs lend an increasing jauntiness to the proceedings.
Jaunty it may be, and packed with toilet humour, but Brecht’s message is as clear as the answer to the missing cotton.