Chances are you haven’t heard of theatre director Meng Jinghui. Australia isn’t his regular stomping ground. But in China he’s something of a superstar, with around 2.7 million followers on the country’s hybrid version of Twitter and Facebook, Weibo. That’s about 12 percent of the Australian population.
Meng, a theatrical firebrand known for provocative and experimental productions, is in Melbourne as part of the Malthouse Theatre’s International Program, which will see the company’s own artistic director, Marion Potts, head to Beijing next year.
The Chinese director is staging a version of Bertolt Brecht’s parable The Good Person of Szechuan, which has been translated and adapted by dramaturge Tom Wright. Meng’s surrealist Szechuan is a dark and drug-addled cesspit, where goodness is scarce and selfishness and exploitation reign, in a heavy Aussie accent.
The one glimmer of decency is Shen Te, a prostitute whose benevolence is abused by the indigents and drug-addicts around her. For self-preservation she develops a male alter ego, Shui Ta.
“Shen Te is incredibly kind, she never said no to anyone and she gets really badly exploited as a result of that,” says Moira Finucane, the actor who plays the dual-role. “So she creates this ‘cousin’ to take care of her interests; to be the assertive, forceful naysayer that she can’t be.”
This adaptation of Szechuan is an “even darker and more violent” version of Brecht’s already bleak tale, says director Meng. He selected the 70-year-old play because its exploration of good and bad, virtue and vice, exploitation and poverty, is still relevant today. He believes an audience in Melbourne or Beijing, or Berlin or Tokyo can appreciate the universal themes explored in Brecht’s moral fable.
That’s not to say that those who have seen The Good Person of Szechuan before will know what they’re in for this time. And while grim in outlook, it’s a performance filled with humour.
“Meng’s vision is really thrilling; it’s like a wild surreal dreamscape,” said Finucane.
The music is completely idiosyncratic, devised and played live by Australian composer, producer and sound designer Pete Goodwin, aka The Sweats. His pulsating soundtrack is exuberant, unexpected and stirring, and adds a truly contemporary feel to the production.
I met 48-year-old director Meng Jinghui at the Malthouse Theatre in Southbank between rehearsals, with his assistant director and translator Felix Ching Chong Ho. Meng’s English is not strong and the cast doesn’t speak Mandarin. But he said the language barrier has not been a problem.
“As long as everyone is clear on the big directions, the big vision,” he says, that is the most important factor. He says the cast became very good at interpreting his requests and suggestions simply by watching him.
“With Meng what I’ve learned to do is listen, in a way, to his tone,” said Finucane. The role of fine-tuner falls to assistant-director and translator Felix.
“For my part, there are a lot of little details,” she says. “If Meng is looking for a very simple emotion, like sadness, when you translate ‘sadness’ to the actors it can mean any kind of sadness. So in order to be even more articulate, there needs to be questions bouncing back and forth.”
That dialogue, almost like a conference, was evident in a rehearsal I saw on the day before opening night in early July. In one scene, several cast members perform an original music number called Song of Smoke, in which Finucane stands at the back of the stage – part of the action but not central to it. After the run-through, Finucane, Meng and Felix convened. Meng gesticulated and Finucane nodded. She asked questions; Felix translated; Meng responded; Felix relayed, and the actress inquired again. There was a subtle but discernible change in Finucane’s air in the next rendition of the scene.
“The way Meng works is, he wants you to make strong offers,” she says. “He’s not just going to tell you what to do. He’s going to ask you get out there and do something really bold.”
The Good Person of Szechuan runs until July 20 at the Malthouse Theatre.
The production will travel to China in October, where it will play at the Shanghai International Arts Festival and the Beijing International Theatre Festival.
Book tickets here.