Jul 24, 2014 Theatre
My first professional acting role was in Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, in Wellington in 1988. I was a 22-year-old actor with unwieldy ambitions, and it taught me the point of theatre. I’d read about Brecht at university. I’d probably written an essay on his theory of verfremdungseffekt — the idea that audiences should not be allowed to wallow in the emotions of the characters because that prevented them from recognising injustice and getting angry about it. I’d probably sat around in cafes nodding, intoning and arguing in the voice of an academic tosser, which I thought I could become.
Then I got to be in a Brecht play and light bulbs went on, shorted and blew up inside my head. I understood, at the first curtain call, why Brecht was a genius. It was all about the audience. I’d not experienced then, and haven’t too many times since, an audience so alive, so nearly out of their seats — not to give us ovations but because they were so stirred up.
Brecht called it “epic theatre”: music hall, episodic, an almost circus-like presentation of the story, with allegory and a cast who could make you laugh and cry but also kept reminding you they were actors playing characters and could at any moment cross the fourth wall and assault the audience.
He abhorred sentimentality. His scripts are full of brutal comedy and action. You get to think about moral and political dilemmas, and yet the plays are also genuinely moving. I think it was the Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca who explained the concept of “duende” in art: “A wind that blows through the arc of intelligence, through the arc of emotion and over the souls of the dead.”
Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan, which I’m rehearsing, is a perfect play for now. We are living at a time where casino capitalism challenges our sense of moral propriety, and I think we all feel it but don’t know what to do about it. This play explores that predicament with charm and wonder. Is it possible to be good in such a world? Or happy? The idea that true goodness can’t work because there’s no bang for the goodness buck is a strong provocation.
I play a woman called Shen Te who pretends to be a man called Shui Ta. It’s simply too much fun not to do. My friend once had a dream she had a penis. She woke up having had this epiphany. “I think I get it!” she said. “Having a penis must be an outstandingly fun state to be in!” So I’m going to enjoy pretending I have a penis for a bit. – Robyn Malcolm
The Good Soul of Szechuan / Auckland Theatre Company at Q Theatre, July 24–August 17. atc.co.nz