Posted on: 23 September 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Laurence Green reviews a rare performance of Brecht's final play.

Mention the name Turandot and you would be forgiven for immediately thinking of the opera which spurned that well known aria Nessun Dorma.

Originally found in the book of traditional Persian stories One Thousand & One Days, the story of Turandot has been told in many different guises, most famously in Puccini’s opera.

What is little known however is that it also formed the basis of Brecht’s last and least performed play.

Now the enterprising Hampstead Theatre is staging the UK premier of Brecht’s version of Turandot but the result is a bitter disappointment.

Set in a pseudo China, an aging ruler’s power is sustained by the Imperial tax on cotton.  After a bumper harvest forces a decline in price, the Emperor decides to hide all the cotton.

As his subjects become restless with the disappearance of their livelihood and the ensuing poverty, the erratic Emperor asks his advisors to come up with a story to conceal the truth.  Those who rise to the challenge will either win the hand of the beautiful, hot-blooded Princess Turandot or be sentenced to death.

Consequently the dashing Gogher Gogh arrives at the palace convinced his intellect can save the dynasty, but he’s not exactly the sharpest tool in the box.

Written just before Brecht’s death, the play was never performed in his lifetime and, whether it is the fault of the work itself or Anthony Clark’s lacklustre production one can see why it is so rarely staged. 

The main problem here is that this comic parable, which was influenced by Brecht’s experience of Germany in the build-up to the Second World War, and was directed at the enfeebled or flailing response by artists and thinkers to the rise of National Socialism, is didactic without being dramatic and lacks conviction.

Gerard Murphy in the lead role of the Emperor is more an overblown pantomime figure than a real flesh and blood human being and the cast comprising British and Chinese actors fail to make the events depicted on stage in any way credible.  Which is a pity because there are some interesting ideas raised in the play.

Plays until 4th October 2008.

Laurence Green

Booking Information

Box office: 020 7722 9301 or: www.hampsteadtheatre.com

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