The Good Person of Szechwan, which Studio 7 premiered last Friday at Hotel Vajra, evokes questions about saving virtue in a cold dog-eat-dog world.
When three gods descend to earth looking for a 'good' person, they meet Shen-Te, a young female prostitute, played flamboyantly by Tsering Lama who has brilliantly coloured this Brechtian treat.
The water seller, Sambhu Lama, is the poetic link who bridges divinity and decadence through humility. As Shen Te shifts her "unethical" profession to a more "respectable" one by opening a tobacco shop from the gift money that the gods gave her, she finds that her virtue collides with the vices of greedy relatives, neighbours and her lover, a pilot without a plane played by Eelum Dixit.
Shen Te decides to take refuge behind a mask and invents a shrewd business savvy male cousin, Shu Ta. With this mask as defence, Shen Te fights those who took advantage of her generosity. Shu Ta takes on the role of a capitalist and whips the parasites displaying a strong ability to deal with the likes of the rich Mrs Mitzu, slickly portrayed by Himali Dixit.
Director Sabine Lehmann who also plays the role of the barber tries not to overdo the symbolism of all this to present day Nepal. (Although right at the end, she gives up trying to be subtle and shouts: "We want a happy ending.") When the powerful have sucked out much of the economic and social wealth of a nation, taken advantage of the generous and liberal functioning of democracy and an authoritarian figure steps in to whip them into shape there is an initial outbreak of discipline and diligence. But why do people need someone else to make them do things they ought to do anyway? Why couldn't they take pride in doing well what they had to do? Why can't they be accountable? Why can't people be inherently good? The metaphors are writ large on the weary faces of the people who gather in Shu Ta's tobacco factory.
As an actor who grew up in the performing space crafted 14 years ago at Studio 7 by Lehmann, I took a different role this year: to sit in the audience. Sabine always used to tell us, "Theatre has to reflect life. We have to reveal people their truth." I wonder how much truth there was to grasp when a senior Nepali Congress member sitting beside me disagreed with Brecht's famous line: "Truth is born of the times, not of authority." I thought of his political role in recent Nepali history and agreed with Brecht.
The fabulous stage design, imaginative props and costumes (only Mangal could think of using a topi for the divine headgear) and smooth transitions between scenes have always been Studio 7's hallmarks. But they lend well to Brecht's 'alienation' effect on stage. As intended, the audience retains critical detachment. Brecht evokes theatre to create a forum for social debate and Sabine has justified this essence, moulding together the global social, political and economic phenomenon to create her own scathing social commentary.