Brecht known for being 'heavy', but 'carnival-esque masterpiece' comes clothed in levity, says director.
Whatever it is they're doing behind the closed doors of the Auckland Theatre Company's rehearsal room, it sounds like fun: laughing, rumpus and a racket; and then, when the actors emerge for lunch, smiles all round.
None of this skulking in corners waiting to consult director Colin McColl about what it all means; no frantic highlighting of lines on the script with urgent-looking question marks. But then, says McColl, that's the way it should be with German writer Bertolt Brecht's plays.
"People think they'll be heavy and highly intellectual and, sure, Brecht is asking audiences to think about some big questions, but it's presented in such a fun and entertaining way."
The Brecht play in question is The Good Soul of Szechuan, which ATC describes as "a carnival-esque masterpiece that explores the place of love and goodness in our material world". Robyn Malcolm takes the lead roles of prostitute Shen Te, the archetypal "tart with a heart" whose good nature sees her frequently taken advantage of by others.
To survive, Shen Te invents a male alter-ego called Shui Ta and introduces him as her ruthless entrepreneurial cousin. While it's initially relatively straightforward to juggle the opposing egos, Shen Te slowly finds herself assuming more and more of Shui Tai's pitiless persona. The question then becomes: is it possible to be a good soul when hardship, self-interest and corruption make life easier?
Malcolm reckons it's extremely hard to do the right thing all the time.
"I think that given the world we find ourselves in, at the present time the odds are against us. Isn't there a saying, 'you may win at the rat race, but you're still a rat'?
"But that's why I think this play is beautiful, because it deals with massive questions worth asking and discussing and it's exciting to be considering all of this in an election year."
Not one to shy away from politics - Malcolm has voiced adverts for the Green Party and fronted actors' union campaigns - she reckons many of us tend to avoid engaging with politics, possibly fearing it'll be boring and difficult.
"But Brecht does it through allegory and creates an almost fairytale world so it becomes almost like a fairytale for adults," she says.
"There are a number of plays performed these days and you think, 'Gosh, that could work on TV' but you can't put this stuff on TV. It needs to be in a theatre and it's a completely civic and community experience; the relationship the players have with the audience is 50 per cent of the show."
McColl says the biggest challenges have centred around how to create the wildly chaotic but entertaining world of Good Soul.
Brecht introduced many of the techniques and styles modern theatregoers take for granted; these days, no one is shocked when actors move props to change scenes or engage directly with the audience.
But because what used to be avant-garde is now conventional, McColl says it was more difficult to create a sense of unpredictability and excitement. And so the role of design is central to the production's success.
He and the design team have opted for a setting which references China, contemporary Auckland and post-earthquake Christchurch. It gives the piece a metropolitan, shabby chic, eclectic feel.
McColl was adamant the cast should be multicultural, reflecting the changing face of Auckland.
Along with Malcolm, The Good Soul of Szechuan stars Cameron Rhodes, Andrew Grainger, Simon Prast, Byron Coll, Goretti Chadwick, Yuri Kinugawa, Edwin Wright, Bronwyn Bradley, Katlyn Wong, Shimpal Lelisi and Phodiso Dentwe.
"It's magnificent to work with such a large cast because it creates such energy," McColl says.
"There's great playfulness which reflects the play itself because it has a strong and wonderful life force and celebration in the face of adversity.
"They are actors who have the ability to be comic but also to play serious."
What: The Good Soul of Szechuan
Where and when: Q Theatre, July 24-August 17.