It is hard to imagine that a play set in Imperial China, one that comments on both 1930s Nazism and 1950s Communism in Germany, could also be so amusing. And yet with Brecht’s Turandot, seen here in a new translation by Edward Kemp, that is certainly the case.
Brecht’s play is a commentary on what he dubbed the ‘Teliu’, an intellectual (frequently found in Nazi Germany) who would rather debate and discuss issues than use his powers of reason to address growing threats. By setting the play in China, however, Brecht both maximises upon the non-realist aspects of Chinese theatre, and universalises his core messages.
When the Emperor of China decides to steal and destroy most of the cotton because the plentiful harvest has hit its price, the Telius acquiesce with the regime, and continue to sell their ‘wisdom’ to anyone prepared to pay.
Turandot explores the political spectrum from right to left, with the dictatorial Emperor more interested in serving his own interests than the people’s, and the alliance of the Clothesless and the Clothesmakers (metaphors for Germany’s Communists and Social Democrats) frequently breaking down through mutual distrust.
The political dynamics, the Emperor’s ruthlessness, and the Telius’s eagerness to please him, are revealed when the Emperor organises an ‘Extraordinary Congress of the Telius’, promising to reward with his daughter, Turandot, the Teliu producing the most convincing explanation for where all the cotton has gone.
One Teliu, Ki Leh, argues that there really is no cotton because ‘the Emperor is so benevolent that, were there any, he would have produced it.’ The Emperor, however, has him executed because the lie is so blatant. Then Munka Du undermines the whole purpose of the congress by arguing that the Teliu’s business is not to ask where the cotton is, but simply to exercise the freedom to ask questions. Such ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ pleases the Emperor immensely until Munka Du goofs under pressure and is also executed.
Kemp’s translation brought out the numerous ironies and comic elements inherent in Brecht’s writing, whilst the production explored some interesting concepts with a superb cast. The way that Chipo Chung’s Turandot demonstrated callousness towards human life by treating the Telius as novelties, and being instrumental in their deaths by sexually distracting them before they presented, made her a Helen of Troy. Other notable performances included Gerard Murphy’s wonderfully eccentric Emperor, Michel Mears’s Ki Leh, who epitomised intellectual bumbling, and Miu Soteriou as the Chairman of the Teliu Association, high on his own importance but with a tinge of regret that he had ended up like this.
At points, verse sung to simple Chinese melodies effectively brought out both the pathos and underlying menace in the lines, whilst there were subtle cultural references throughout. It was no accident that the executioner wore a clown-like mask that made him look like a character from a painting by German artist, Max Beckmann.
In the second act China descends into chaos as the gangster, Gogher Gogh, flexes his muscles, before the play ends with a ray of hope as the people all clutch a little red (Maoist) book. It is ironic, therefore, that the type of destruction of historical artefacts that Brecht shows as occurring under Gogher Gogh, actually happened ten years after Brecht’s death under the Communists whom here appear to put a stop to it.
Brecht’s last play deserves to be better known than it is, and any production that can span so many centuries with its cultural allusions – everything from The Iliad to Germany’s New Objectivity art movement – is worthy of the highest respect.