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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Turandot
Hampstead Theatre Autumn 2008

There are many problems with Edward Kemp's adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's unfinished comedy, and most of them can be laid at Brecht's feet.

He worked on and abandoned this project over a period of years, and at best it's patchy, repeatedly changing its focus, tone and satiric intent. What's more, Brecht was not a natural comedian, and you can see him working ever so hard at being clever - and that, of course, is death to comedy.

The play has its moments, but they are not enough to carry it through a heavy and long-feeling evening.

Brecht's play actually has almost nothing to do with the opera or any other versions of the Turandot story beyond being set in a mythical China of his imagination and having the Emperor and his daughter as characters. Brecht's plot is generated by the attempts of the Emperor and his court to cover up the fact that they manipulated the cotton market for their profit, causing great hardship throughout the country.

You've spotted Brecht the Marxist at work, of course, but here is where the play begins to fall apart. Instead of following the economic story, Brecht immediately gets side-tracked into a satire on ivory tower intellectuals, as the government calls on the country's thinkers to come up with a face-saving explanation for the economic crisis.

And so the long first act is a string of speeches by self-styled experts, each trying to save their skins by providing the Emperor with a cover story. This goes on long after the point has been made, the satire is heavy-handed, the targets are too easy to be worth the trouble, and it all feels like a digression, even though we're not sure what we're digressing from. (There's also a sub-digression about competing trade unions that goes nowhere at all.)

And then in Act Two a character we've barely met comes to the fore as a gangster who solves the Emperor's problem by just killing anybody who asks questions, and in the process rises to political heights, becoming a book-burner and culture-purifier along the way - and Oh!, you say, This has all been a satire on the rise of Hitler!

Well, put aside for a moment the fact that it didn't take a whole lot of courage to create a critical portrait of Hitler in 1953, the satire isn't particularly effective. Aside from the general lack of bite or comedy, the gangster figure lacks any real energy or horror, with none of the monstrous vulgarity of Arturo Ui or sexiness of Macheath.

Anyway, Edward Kemp's version tries to give some life and sting to the play, but can't paper over the cracks as it keeps changing its mind about what its subject is, and his ending is as abrupt and unsatisfying as if Brecht had stopped writing in mid-page.

I have to assume that it was the decision of director Anthony Clark that Gerard Murphy should play the Emperor as a camp old queen, Chipo Chung's Turandot should be an airheaded bimbo and Alex Hassell's Hitler figure should have no energy or sex appeal at all. Ironically, it is the actors playing fairly straight - Michael Mears as the Emperor's machiavellian brother and Julie Jupp as the gangster's mother - who come out best.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Turandot - Hampstead 2008