Richard Jones’ Young Vic production of The Good Soul of Szechuan gives Brecht’s parable of humanity under the spotlight the hell-for-leather treatment and it proves both hugely entertaining and a stimulating exercise in stylisation.
Written shortly after Mother Courage, the play harks back stylistically to the earlier didactic works. The themes goodness versus commerce, the dilemma of doing good in an inhospitable world are banged home again and again. Brecht’s dramaturgy is pretty foolproof here, almost forbidding us to enter the world of the characters, although the plight of the main protagonist is recognisable enough.
Three gods come to earth in search of one good soul. They encounter Shen Te, a big-hearted prostitute and, in reward for her kindness, give her money with which she buys a tobacco shop. She is then set-upon by hangers-on and parasites who fleece her until, too gentle-natured to look after herself, she has to invent a male relative to protect her interests. Shui Ta, the business-minded cousin, is Shen Te in disguise and his self-interest soon begins to take over.
David Harrower’s new translation is stuffed full of colloquialisms while paying homage to Brecht’s stark rhythms and use of distancing language. He throws in updates, turning Shen Te/Shui Ta’s trade in tobacco into drug-dealing, and adjusts the ending. Originally, through a brief epilogue, Brecht handed the play over to the audience while Harrower and Jones leave us with a chilling gestic moment, encapsulating Shen Te and everyman’s situation.
Jane Horrocks is tremendous in the double lead roles, a waif-like, gentle Shen Te transforming into a sparky, self-assured Shui Ta. I love Jones’ conception of the gods, three brisk besuited business persons, like a troop of UN arms inspectors wheedling out the weapons of mass production. Trapped on earth, increasingly desperate to escape, they wander through the action, in mounting frustration at the state of humankind. Their attire grows shabbier as our world wears them down and the antics of humans soon sets them at each others’ throats.
Adam Gillen plays Wang, the flawed but well-meaning water-seller, as a twitchy simpleton, working hard for the Most Irritating Characterisation of the Year Award but he does drive the action along effectively at key points. Of a strong ensemble making up the remaining population of Szechuan, John Marquez’ East End mail pilot and Liza Sadovy’s sharp Mrs Mitzu and gruff Mrs Yang stand out.
Jones and his designer Miriam Buether have transformed the Young Vic auditorium into a credible cement factory, an industrial environment teaming with faceless workers. Characters pop in and out of cupboards and lockers and a small brightly-coloured compartment, a staple visual for Jones, swings back and forth as the tobacco shop. Everything’s clean, clear and pleasing to the eye.
David Sawer’s spiky and attractive songs recall Brecht’s own collaborators (Dessau was the original composer), with a catchy number called “Pigs Will Fly” sticking in the memory.
Brecht’s play is maybe under-performed because it makes demands on the audience like few others, even among his works. He wanted us to see that basic human values need a different social set-up if they’re to see the light of day. Few people will leave, wanting to overthrow the existing order but Jones and his team give this dusty parable maximum impact by injecting plenty of entertainment without losing sight of the core meaning.