Turandot

By John Nathan, September 12, 2008
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Hampstead Theatre, London NW3

I feel a bit mean. The stage design for Amy Rosenthal's recent admirable offering, which featured Cornish cottages that looked like a Madame Tussaud's exhibit, prompted me to knock the Hampstead Theatre for its reliance on kitsch realism. And now that artistic director Anthony Clark has moved as far as possible from that aesthetic with his UK premiere production of Bertolt Brecht's unfinished political farce, here I go again. Only this time, it is the heavy-handed symbolism that grates.

As in the The Good Soul of Szechuan, recently revived at the Young Vic, Brecht turns to China. Instead of the icy princess Turandot of Puccini's opera, Edward Kemp's new translation features an Emperor's daughter who is more minx than man-hater. And here her hand in marriage is all part of a cover-up to disguise the corrupt Emperor's hoarding of cotton to raise its price.

Market forces and their manipulation by the ruling classes will always be a relevant target. But whereas the Young Vic managed to revive Brecht in a way that allowed the author's work to live and breathe in our post-Marxist 21st century, Clark's production never breaks free of the era in which, and for which, Brecht's 1956 play was written.

It is all allegorical, you see. The intellectual classes, who must explain where all the cotton has gone without implicating their leader, are just like the German middle-classes who turned a blind eye to Fascism. And Alex Hassell's gangster Gogher Gogh is just like an ill-educated Hitler who rules with a truncheon-sized chip on his shoulder. You draw the connections, and sometimes you fail to. But it is all delivered by caricatures - not characters - who cannot keep us interested in their fate.

(Tel: 020 7722 9301)

    Last updated: 12:56pm, September 11 2008